By Katrina Schwartz
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A year ago the Occupy movement grabbed a national spotlight, shifting the political debate to focus on economic inequality. Those expecting the movement to translate into national electoral politics — as the Tea Party movement has done — have been disappointed. Many Bay Area Occupiers say their political awakening has driven them to fight for change in their own communities, instead.
Janice Suess, 19, moved to San Francisco a little over a year ago. Shortly after moving into her apartment, she heard the Blue Angels would be flying, and decided to head out to take some pictures. On her way back, she saw a crowd gathering in front of the San Francisco Federal Reserve. She was curious.
“I thought it was kind of peculiar so I went up and just asked someone what was going on. And they said it was the Occupy Movement and I was like, ‘Whoa, what is this?,’” explained Suess.
It was a chance encounter, but it turned out to be a significant one. “I started talking to more and more people and realized that what they were there for was a lot of what I had been feeling frustrated with since the 2008 financial collapse. But they were actually out there voicing what a lot of people didn’t know how to express, like myself,” she said.
Suess was hooked by the spirit of open dialogue and civility of political conversations in the camp. She also began to see how the financial collapse affected her. “Because it was personal, I felt like I could have a say in making change. Like, here are the specific issues facing you and your community. And that kind of hit home more.”
She joined working groups, started camping out in front of the Federal Reserve and helped organize big marches. Even Suess found this somewhat odd because she identifies as an introvert.
But when the Occupy camps were dismantled, Suess says it was harder to stay involved. A lot of occupiers say that without a central place to meet they’ve found it harder to engage. Janice did what a lot of people in Occupy did. She took that energy and focused it on something that mattered to her, something she felt she could tackle — student rights.
“Being a student, that’s where I spend most of my time — at school — and those are the issues that impact me most and my community the most,” Suess explained.
That is pretty typical of what Occupiers are up to these days. They aren’t active in electoral politics, they’re kind of segmented, often working on local community issues.
For some, like Buck Bagot, that’s the whole point.
“I think that the only way to have Occupy have more power, be able make more of a difference, is to take that political discourse and find concrete expressions of that in our neighborhoods and where we work,” said Bagot.
Bagot is one of the principal organizers of Occupy Bernal, a group trying to stop foreclosures in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood. Bagot also got involved because it was personal.
“I was standing on the street with a friend of mine and she says, ‘You know the house I’m renting is in foreclosure.’ And I said, ‘In Bernal Heights?’ She said ‘Yeah.’ And I looked it up and there are two other houses on this block in foreclosure,’” Buck explained.
So far Occupy Bernal has helped postpone 200 home auctions and worked with 45 people to get affordable loan modifications. Bagot says the group is now considering whether to support specific ballot initiatives and candidates.
But over in Oakland, ground zero for Occupy in the East Bay a year ago, Mike King finds electoral politics a waste of time. He says he can’t get behind any politician because most won’t have a real effect on his life. “I’m more interested in working with people to directly change the way that things look like, on the ground in an immediate sense,” he said.
King has been involved with Occupy Oakland since the beginning. He’s putting his energy into opening a library in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood. He wants to change how people think about political engagement.
“I feel like that was what Occupy Oakland was doing — and still is doing — is kind of redefining what is political through action, through process,” King explained.
Critics have dinged the Occupy Movement for not participating in electoral politics.
U.C. Berkeley political science professor Paul Pierson sees Occupy’s disdain for electoral politics as a weakness.
“I think if you look at successful social movements, whether it be the Tea Party, which I think has had a lot of success, or going back further and thinking about the civil rights movement, these were movements that had particular goals in mind, that had particular targets in mind either that they wanted to provide support for or express opposition to,” Pierson said.
He says that if Occupy doesn’t create political alliances, it can’t move its goals about economic inequality into the mainstream. “I think there has been a kind of diffuseness to Occupy Wall Street that has made it hard for it to go beyond those initial effective steps that it took,” he explained.
Those in the Occupy movement are still defining what it means to be politically engaged. A year ago Janice Suess was a self-proclaimed ‘slack-tivist’. Now she calls herself an activist.
“Taking what you know and going into your community and like empowering people is, I think, is what matters. And I don’t think you have to call it Occupy, you just have to actually make a difference,” said Suess.
Occupy will celebrate its one year anniversary on Monday. People who have been quietly working in their communities will take to the streets. Janice Suess says she’ll be out there, hoping to recapture some of the power and joy of that very public, national moment.