The general assembly meetings draw a dozen or so people each Wednesday to the courthouse steps. (Georgia Perry)
‘Just the Spark’
Last fall, Occupy camps ignited like kitchen fires in cities across the country, rousing anarchists, activists and idealistic students, among others, and creating a communal space for many more homeless.
Many who joined in caught a glimpse of a participatory democratic movement taking rather messy shape. “Ultimately, that is what we are trying to build,” says Jed Brandt, an editor and publisher of Occupy-related media in New York. “I think we are far better as a people than our current mechanisms allow us to be.”
Much of the movement’s momentum arose from pushing a simple idea front-and-center: One percent of the country should not live at the expense of the other 99 percent. Grand solutions were never part of any plan.
“People expect to be led,” says Michael Levitin, print editor for Occupy.com. “It’s frustrating. They’re waiting for us to emerge with a blueprint for society. But we’re just the spark.”
In the last few months, the movement appears to have lost steam. In November, 40,000 people responded to Occupy’s call for a general strike in the Bay Area. Only 5,000 responded to the same call May 1.
“We didn’t come roaring back with a new agenda,” Levitin says. He admits that there has been some lost momentum. “We were hit hard by police, and by new laws aimed against us.”
In Santa Cruz, a rotating cast of around 15 still attend general assembly meetings, down from the 50 or so that gathered in the fall. While an activist core continues to animate the group, Occupy Santa Cruz has grown decidedly insular, with little interest in any of the nationally-coordinated Occupy actions taking place this summer. “I know Santa Cruz is active,” Levitin says. “They’re just hard to get a hold of.”
Wearied from repeated police raids at dawn, cold nights in camp, persistent disorganization and criminal charges stemming from the bank takeover, many in the group have turned their attention to more personal and visible injustices closer to home.
But with a reluctance to engage local government and little coordination or strategy, some wonder what sort of impact the Occupy movement will continue to have here and on the national stage. Appealing to public anger over wealth disparities has carried the movement so far. But without a strong blueprint or vision to inspire more people, can the movement continue to capture the sympathies and energy of local communities and become the grassroots democratic movement it hopes to be?
We’re kind of floating right now,” Frey says. “Some are real high on direct action in the community. Others want to focus on big picture reforms. We’re split up a bit. There’s no real focus.”
While feuds and ideological schisms have become entrenched in Occupy Oakland, with advocates of nonviolence literally wrestling window-smashers in the street, Frey still believes the group in Santa Cruz can find more common ground by summer’s end.
But Occupy Santa Cruz seems less interested in having its own existential debate than in sustaining the struggle.
While Occupy groups in other cities have focused on critical issues close to home—public transportation and campaign finance reform in Boston, for example—most of the recent activity in Santa Cruz has revolved around our two most basic needs: food and shelter.