The general assembly meetings draw a dozen or so people each Wednesday to the courthouse steps. (Georgia Perry)
On a mild day in May, a small group of Occupiers gather on the Santa Cruz County Courthouse lawn. The scene resembles a particularly disheveled church picnic, with oranges, tortilla chips and snow peas laying in torn-open bags on a collapsible table. Folks chat, some frolic. Some chalk a rainbow of defiance and hopscotch onto the sidewalk.
“We can’t do this in the Benchlands anymore,” says Casey Livingood, referring to the area in San Lorenzo Park where he and others set up the initial camp last October. Police in riot gear ousted the camp on the morning of Dec. 8, effectively taking out the local headquarters. “We face a lawsuit for public nuisance if we return.” The recent UCSC graduate gestures toward a line of police officers standing stiffly behind the courthouse building’s glass façade.
Intending to set up tents for an afternoon of protest and play, the two dozen Occupiers were warned by police when they arrived: no structures allowed. Brent Adams, an organizer of the event and one of seven still facing charges stemming from the takeover of a vacant Wells Fargo bank downtown, tests the boundaries of that warning as the day wears on, building increasingly structure-like assemblages of bamboo and tarp. By evening, a handful of tents are scattered across the lawn, and colorful epithets, anarchist A’s and a lone heart have been scrawled up the steps and across the courthouse doors.
“If we’re not doing things like this, we’re attacking each other,” says Adams, a roguish 47-year-old. He comes across as impish and affable in his worn black tailcoat. He mentions a recent blowup at one of the twice-weekly general assembly meetings. “We don’t all necessarily have the same politics. But we do have the same enemies.”
Disagreements arise regularly. “We’re not immune from the psychological problems that affect the rest of our community,” Ed Frey says a few days later at one such assembly meeting. The 72-year-old, with straw hat, grizzled white beard and dark sunglasses, appears disgruntled. “We are strongly affected by the anarchist movement, which focuses on total self-reliance. That separates us from a lot of the 99 percent. Most here don’t want to engage with the government at all. I think we need more dialogue.”
Freedom Bridges, a lively 22-year-old with a slightly upturned nose and a bushel of blonde hair, echoes Frey’s frustration, though she sits on the other side of the ideological divide. “We don’t want to exclude people. But we have to be unafraid of civil disobedience,” she says. “Anarchist principles are what make this unique and allow us to retain control, but they also keep the movement from broadening.”
“I think the general assembly is crumbling a bit,” Bridges continues. “Those meetings have become more and more concerned with the dynamics of the group and less on action and core issues.”
That frustration and fragmenting is not exclusive to Santa Cruz. Across the country, general assemblies have struggled to remain a foundation in an increasingly decentralized movement. But out of that disjunction, community organizations and Occupy splinter groups have begun to thrive.
“That is a grassroots movement in itself,” Adams says. “I’m sad about the health of our general assembly.” He pauses, considering his words. “Empires crumble” is written in blue chalk at his feet. “I think I’m trying to go back to the original model. But all those working groups are accomplishing a lot.”
A sound system carted by bike has arrived, and Adams quickly pulls himself away to join in a game of hopscotch, long black coattails bouncing behind him.