Occupy San Francisco gets down to business

After a brief hibernation, a refocused movement takes aim at corporate America

Published January 21, 2012 2:34AM (EST)

Warren Langley: from stock exchange chief to occupier
Warren Langley: from stock exchange chief to occupier

SAN FRANCISCO--Act II of the Occupy Wall Street movement, San Francisco version, kicked off on a rainy, blustery Friday in the heart of the city’s financial district. Targeting specific corporations like Wells Fargo and Bank of America and emphasizing real, tangible issues like home foreclosures, affordable health care and education as well as broader ones like the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, several hundred protesters – the exact number was impossible to estimate – fanned out across the city, snarling traffic, getting arrested, holding sidewalk teach-ins, and generally serving notice that after its brief winter hibernation, the Occupy movement was back and kicking.

Occupy’s first act, the Tent Phase, ended in early December, when city authorities raided its urban camp at Justin Herman Plaza near the Ferry Building. But even before the tents were removed, it had become clear that the movement needed both to develop new tactics and deepen its strategic vision.

“After the raid, when our attention was no longer focused on [the encampment], people turned back to their neighborhoods and their campuses,” said David Solnit, who is part of a direct action working group associated with Occupy SF. “We started Occupy Bernal Heights [a multi-ethnic, mixed-income neighborhood on the edge of the Mission District], and we had 65 people at the first meeting. We went door to door meeting folks facing foreclosures. We got meetings with mid-level people at Wells Fargo Bank.”

Solnit – who is the brother of San Francisco writer Rebecca Solnit – said that OccupySF Housing, a housing-related spinoff of the movement, had held marches in four neighborhoods and succeeded in saving four homes from foreclosure.

“We’re more diversified now, but more powerful than when all our eggs were in one basket,” Solnit said. “Gene Sharp came up with 198 different methods of nonviolent action. Camping out is one tactic. We still have 197 more tactics to go through, and another 500 to create.”

At 6:20 a.m., in pitch darkness, with a miserable rain pelting down in front of the enormous 52-story monolith of 555 California, it seemed like a good idea for Occupy to come up with a new tactic immediately. The schedule on the Occupy Wall St. West web site  had announced that there would be a wacky 6 a.m. protest against Goldman Sachs, featuring a squid fry (“bring your own frying pan”) and protesters dressed as squids. (The squid theme derived from Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi’s famous description of Goldman Sachs as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity.”) But no one seemed to be giving out fried calamari – not that anyone could have digested it at that ungodly hour -- and there were only four protesters standing near the entrance. They were dwarfed by a phalanx of waiting police and TV journalists.

The last person you would expect to find standing in a bedraggled squid costume in front of a financial district skyscraper at six in the morning would be a 69-year-old retired psychology professor. But the Occupy movement is full of surprises. The human squid, Eleanor Levine, said, “I’m out here to bring attention to the irresponsible financial practices of Goldman Sachs. I also want to bring attention to the concept of corporate personhood [which was behind the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United]. Corporations are not people. This company played a role in bringing not just the country but the world to financial ruin. People have to face up to what Goldman Sachs has done. Their CEO made $28 million.” Asked if the dreadful weather had prevented more people from joining the protest, Levine said calmly, “Yes, the rain put a damper on the turnout, but more will come.” Her pink tentacles waving, she walked cheerfully off.

I approached a mustachioed man in a yellow poncho inscribed with the words “Money 4 Housing and Education, not 4 Banks and Corporations.” Alex Carlson, 34, was a paramedic who said the biggest reason he came out was to protest America’s lack of educational opportunities. “I couldn’t get into school just to get an EMI license. I had to beg a teacher to let me into his class. Nursing was my real goal, but there’s no money for nursing schools. It’s crazy because there’s a nursing shortage and there’s going to be a crisis of care when the bay boomers die off.”

Carlson said he had come out at the crack of dawn in the rain because he felt he had to.

“Like everyone else I’m just trying to carve out a little life for myself, but my knife is getting shorter and shorter," he said. "I’m not a crazy activist person. I have a wife and a young son. Camping out isn’t an option for me. But I was able to come out today, so I did. And I’m proud.”

I walked down a block to a building housing Wells Fargo, where people protesting the bank’s role in the national foreclosure crisis had chained themselves in front of the entrances on all four sides. In one of the entrances, about eight people were squeezed in, their arms inside big yellow PVC pipes that were connected together. A policeman came up and politely informed them they were creating a public health risk and would be arrested if they didn’t leave. Dozens of police waited on the corner.

A woman with a bullhorn shouted slogans. A wildly energetic street band, three saxes, a trumpet, a big bass drum and a snare, played surreally cheerful Kurt Weill-like tunes, their vaguely Weimar sound oddly appropriate.

A fresh-faced young woman with glasses was sitting among the crowd in the entrance, with a sign that said “Give us our homes back.” I asked her why she was there. “My parents had their home in Southern California foreclosed,” she said. Her said her name was Sarah Lombardo and she was 28 years old. “They couldn’t make their payments because of medical costs. My mom had breast cancer and my dad had a stroke. They were told to leave in two weeks and our house was auctioned off. Now they’re living in an apartment, but their credit was destroyed so they had to pay three times the normal deposit.”

Lombardo said her mom was a purchasing agent and her dad was a factory worker. “I’m the first one in my family to go to college.” She said she came out because she wanted “to put a face to the statistics.” It was a face that looked like it belonged to the girl next door, or to your daughter.

She said that now that she had finished college, it made it possible for her to be arrested. “It’s for a good cause.”

I asked her if she had ever been arrested before. “No.” Was she afraid? “No, I’m not scared.”

Later, behind a cordon of police, I watched as protesters on the north side of the building were arrested, frisked and loaded into a paddy wagon. I rode off on my bike to cover some more actions. When I came back, Lombardo and the rest of the group of people in the doorway had been arrested.

Back up at 555 California, beyond the big turd-in-a-plaza artwork jokingly called the “banker’s heart,” I came upon an older man in a suit, carrying a sign that said “Give Us Our City Back.” I was intrigued: he was definitely not the usual Occupy protester. But when I asked him who he was, he turned out to be even more unusual than I could have expected. He was Warren Langley, the 69-year-old former head of the Pacific Stock Exchange.

What brought a man with his background out to protest?

“I was in the industry. I worked for an option trading firm that was sold to Goldman Sachs. So I played the game on the other side. But I have two grandkids and two daughters, and I became increasingly concerned that their future wouldn’t offer them the same opportunities that I had as a young man. The income inequities in our society are a huge problem.”

Langley said he first heard about the Occupy movement from his pal Ben Cohen, of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. “He was scooping ice cream for them in New York. And he told me, ‘These are the real deal.’ So one day I was eating lunch at the Ferry Building, and I walked across the street to the camp and started talking to these young people. And they were the real deal. They’re folks who lost their jobs, or are just out of school and can’t get a job. I could bring my credibility to the movement, so I decided to get involved.”

Langley decried the deregulation of the financial industry, in particular the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act that eroded the wall between banks and investment houses and gave birth to the wild, insanely profitable speculation

that ultimately dealt the world’s economy a devastating blow. “They bet our money and then we paid off the bookmaker."

I asked Langley what his former colleagues in high finance thought about the Occupy Movement.

“Well, there are some who say, ‘They’re a bunch of whiners and need to get a job.’ But those are the ones who haven’t actually talked to the people in the movement. There are others who are more open-minded. I know one guy, very wealthy, who told me, ‘What’s their plan? I’m ready to give them $250,000 if they have a plan.’ And I told him, ‘It’s not their job to give you a plan. They’re hurting.’ So whether it’s job opportunities, or better health care, or fairer taxes, we need through the political system to come up with a plan. It isn’t their job. He didn’t get it. But his kids, who are also very wealthy, were more sympathetic. It’s a generational thing.”

Langley went on to say that Occupy was sharpening its ideas. “It’s moving to get a more specific message across, from ‘We’re hurting’ to “This is what’s hurting us.’ He said he didn’t see the Occupy movement ever aligning with any political party. “Chuck Schumer does as much damage as John Boehner. In the end, it’s about occupying people’s minds, so people who aren’t down here will see that the system is not fair.

There was also a nurse-led protest across town against the big medical group California Pacific Medical Center, which RN Jane Sandoval said is shifting resources away from poorer patients. Another nurse, Eileen Prendiville, said CMPC is emblematic of America’s broken, for-profit health care system, even though it is nominally a non-profit.

If the new Occupy is meatier and more substantive, it still thrives on spectacle and encounters with authority– and the latter can be a double-edged sword. After one nasty encounter outside 555 California when a young guy who engaged in a scuffle with the cops when they rushed forward was arrested, quite a few people in the crowd began shouting “fuck you, pigs!”, “you slaves!”, “pigs go home!” and “your warrant is to serve your corporate masters” to the police, probably not winning any hearts and minds in the process. No one told them to can the Black Panther rhetoric. At the same time, in one of those weird juxtapositions that Occupy specializes in, across the street stood two gentle souls holding a big black banner that read, “Buddhist Peace and Justice League: May All Beings Be Happy and Secure.”

Based on Friday’s actions – which I only saw part of -- Occupy’s new approach seems to have three components.

First, it has become more of a big-tent movement, welcoming outside groups like labor unions. Second, it is taking deliberate, loud, public aim at specific corporate targets, like Goldman Sachs and Bank of America. Perhaps most important, as David Solnit pointed out, it is reinventing itself as a grass roots organization – reaching out to ordinary people who may not know much about the Occupy movement, but whose lives have been devastated by anonymous corporate decisions.

It’s an ambitious, multi-faceted reset, and there’s no way of knowing how effective it will be. Simply camping out and saying “We are the 99 percent” has the downside of being vague, but for that very reason it has an abstract, jarring purity. More specific, targeted protests are more substantive and show the movement is serious, but also make it more conventional. Still, as long as the movement attracts followers as committed, intelligent and impressive as the people I talked to, it will remain a force to be reckoned with. It seems certain to play a role in the national discourse not just during this election season, but for a long time.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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