Sonoma County’s Occupy movement in Northern California opened 2012 by two well-attended events—one outside in the streets and another inside. Around 140 people attended a county-wide Town Hall on Occupy at Sebastopol’s United Methodist church on Jan. 9. Over 400 people marched on and peacefully shut down two Wells Fargo Bank branches in Santa Rosa on Jan. 6.
Town Hall participants self-organized into various small groups to discuss “Reporting Out and Plugging In.” They included veteran activists from Occupy Sebastopol, Occupy Santa Rosa, Occupy Petaluma, and from the small towns of Sonoma, Healdsburg, and Guerneville, as well as newcomers to the movement.
“The goal of this evening,” according to co-facilitator Jeff Aitken, “is to help Occupy deepen and broaden.” He explained that the Open Space meeting methodology being employed encourages those present to create their own agenda based on their “passion and responsibility.” Aitken noted that “Open Space raises the energy and the spirit.”
“Seeing people connect is what Occupy is about. It is a movement, a school, a network,” added co-facilitator Ben Browner.
Two-dozen people convened groups based on their Occupy-related interests and then participants selected a group to attend in each of two half-hour sessions. One of the best-attended groups in the first session was on finding and keeping the movement’s focus, convened by Larry Robinson, a former Sebastopol mayor and City Council member.
Two other popular groups in the first session were on home foreclosures and the Move to Amend. It seeks to change the U.S. constitution because “corporations are not people and money is not speech,” according to convener Abraham Entin.
The best-attended workshop during the second session was convened by Rachel Dawson, who said, “Transition Towns and Occupy are two synergistic movements. We need to meet together and collaborate.” Other groups were on public education, big bank divestiture, having an Occupy presence at the annual Harmony Festival, racial diversity, creating an Occupy Learning Center, and organizing the new North Bay Occupied Newspaper.
Among those present were members of groups such as the Leadership Institute for Ecology and the Economy, the historic Grange, and Moveon.org. Individuals included a Sebastopol City Council member and former Sonoma County Supervisor. The age range was from 20 to 92 years old.
“This has been like a great cocktail party where you get to meet lots of people and have the interesting conversations you want to have,” said co-facilitator Beth Meredith of Create the Good Life (www.Create-The-Good-Life.com).
“The habits of how to do democracy and how to tolerate differences are changing,” said organizer Joseph McIntyre of AgInnovations at a debriefing the day after the Town Hall. “We need to get more skillful in how we use facilitation tools.” As the organizers considered how to proceed, he posed various questions, “What is needed next? Some people were there for education. Others are more interested in engagement. Are we going to start organizing ourselves for action?” These are questions being asked by Occupy organizers around and beyond the United States.
“I was delighted to see the high level of energy and enthusiasm. The Occupy movement has tapped a long pent-up desire to take focused, effective action,” added Barry Chertov of the online WaccoBB.net, an online bulletin board that co-sponsors the Town Halls on Occupy. “It’s clear the energy behind the Occupy movement is still strong and manifesting in a rainbow of exciting initiatives, both locally and nationally focused,” he added.
This was the second monthly Town Hall, which are planned for “as long as needed,” according to Robinson. The next one will be Feb. 9, also in the United Methodist Church.
On Jan. 6 Occupy Santa Rosa joined forces with various Latino and immigration rights groups to peacefully shut down two Wells Fargo branches. They targeted the bank–one of the largest in the United States–for various reasons, including investments in two private prison corporations, foreclosure of local homes, and for receiving $25 billion in taxpayer bail-out dollars, while paying CEO John Stumpf $19 million in 2010.
The dramatic day included a colorful arrival of dozens of cyclists on a 13.5-mile “Pedal for Justice” ride. “Occupy Petaluma believes that frustrations with our current system can be channeled in peaceful and creative ways,” said organizer Jessica Strasen. “We seek to inspire others to rediscover the ability to occupy our own lives, and be a part of creating our shared future.”
The rally began in Roseland, a largely Latino neighborhood. It included Aztec dancers in bright-feathered headdresses and theater on a large flatbed tow truck. The Graton Day Labor Center, one of the half-dozen sponsors of the rally, wrote the bi-lingual play.
“The next big event of Occupy Santa Rosa will be in March around education,” explained Frank Anderson, 20, a moderator of the Wells Fargo action. “Our educational system is falling apart and getting worse. The No Child Left Behind Act is for profit and does not help kids. We are speaking with local teachers’ unions to work together to protest school day reductions.”
During December the local Occupy movement did not receive much corporate media attention, especially when compared to its regular front-page autumn coverage. Yet Occupy groups were quite active behind the scenes preparing for an expected spring flowering.
The www.occupysantarosa.org website reveals multiple meetings happening most days. The websites www.occupysebastopol.net and (www.occupypetaluma.com) have been launched. OccupySolutions (www.occsol.org), a small Affinity Group, began a Community Learning Center at the Arlene Francis Center in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square. It will offer a series of free and open to the public classes, trainings, and teach-ins. Other trainings have been occurring at the Peace and Justice Center and in people’s homes.
North Bay Re-Occupied Press was founded after nearly a month of meetings and plans to begin publishing a print and electronic newspaper sometime in the spring. With the daily Press Democrat newspaper’s recent sale by the New York Times to a conservative Florida publishing chain, thus opens a large space for a new publication.
(Shepherd Bliss runs an organic farm, teaches college who can be reached at email@example.com.)