The faces and voices of Occupy

Pub date November 22, 2011

Who are the 99 percent — and what are they saying? It’s not what you read in the daily papers

To read some of the accounts in the daily papers in San Francisco, and hear some of the national critics, you’d think the people in the local Occupy movement were mostly filthy, drunk, violent social outcasts just looking for a place to party. Or that they’re mad-eyed anarchists who can’t wait to break windows and throw bottles at the police. Or that they’re a confused and leaderless band that can’t figure out what it wants.

When you actually go and spend time at Occupy SF and Occupy Cal and Occupy Oakland, as our reporters have done, you get a very different picture.

The Occupy movement is diverse, complex and powerful. It’s full of people with different backgrounds and perspectives. And they all agree that economic injustice and inequality are at the root of the major problems facing the United States today.

Here are some of those people, the faces and the voices of Occupy — and a celebration of the lives they’re living and the work they’re doing.


The student

Jessica Martin reflects on the First Amendment

Guardian photo by Rebecca Bowe

Jessica Martin stood and held her sign high on the steps of Sproul Hall, at the University of California at Berkeley, while a jubilant crowd of students jammed to classic dance party tunes and set up tents. They were invigorated by a general assembly that had attracted thousands following a Nov. 15 student strike and Day of Action called as part of the Occupy movement. (Their tents were cleared in a police raid two days later, yet students responded with flair, suspending tents high in the air with balloons.)

Martin’s sign proclaimed, “Remember the First Amendment,” and she’d written the text of the Constitutional right to free speech on the other side.

“My mother stood on the steps [of the Lincoln Memorial] in D.C. with Martin Luther King as part of the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” said the graduating senior, who’s majoring in Japanese and Linguistics. “And now I stand on the steps of Sproul Hall,” — the birthplace of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement — “in front of the Martin Luther King Student Union, to defend my First Amendment rights.”

She expressed solidarity with students who were brutalized by police Nov. 9 following their first attempt to establish an occupation.

“Part of what [police] are here to serve and protect is the First Amendment,” Martin said. But on that day, “They met the First Amendment with violence.” (Rebecca Bowe)


The artist

Ernest Doty responds to police brutality

Guardian photo by Rebecca Bowe

In Oakland, a young veteran named Scott Olsen suffered a fractured skull and brain injuries after being hit with a police projectile at an Oct. 25 Occupy Oakland protest. Ernest Doty was one of several who ran to Olsen’s aid and carried him to safety.

“Immediately after I saw Scott go down … I knew I had to get him, and get him out of there,” Doty recounted. “I whistled at another guy, and we both ran in. The cops were shooting at us with rubber bullets.” As they ran up, he said, a flash grenade blew up next to Olsen’s face, just inches from his head injury.

Doty, 32, recently moved to the Bay Area from Albuquerque, New Mexico. An artist who also does spoken word performances, he’s camped overnight at Occupy Oakland and has incorporated words and images from the Occupy movement into his artwork and poetry.

He’s also been personally impacted by tragedies arising from police interactions: Both his stepbrother and his cousin — a veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder — were shot and killed by police in New Mexico.

Occupy Oakland “has managed to create a community out of chaos,” Doty said. “I think that this movement is going to continue to grow. It’s the 1960s all over again, but it’s broader. It’s going to be a long road. I think encampments, marches, and protests are going to continue into the next year.”(Bowe)

Ernest Doty’s next art show is Dec. 2 from 7 to 11 p.m. at Sticks + Stones Gallery, 815 Broadway, in Oakland.


The peacekeeper

Nate Paluga deals with camp conflict

Guardian photo by Mirissa Neff

Does this man look like he’s an occupier? Depends on your perception of the movement. He’s not homeless — he’s a bike mechanic who lives in Nob Hill and whose girlfriend only tentatively accepts that he’s camping in Justin Herman Plaza. He is young, blunt, and possesses the intense gaze of an activist, belied by a snug red-white-and-blue biker’s cap with “USA” emblazoned on the underbelly of its brim.

Paluga, a self-proclaimed philosopher, has grabbed upon the concepts of “fairness and equality” as the core values of Occupy. “This movement means something different to different people, but I haven’t found anyone that disagrees with those being some core values,” he said as he showed off the bike he uses to move as much as 100 pounds of food and equipment for the camp.

His core values are his guidelines in his other role at Occupy SF: peacekeeper. Paluga said he and others often intervene in the disagreements that can arise in a group-run housing situation populated by diverse socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds.

He said that with aggressive individuals it’s important to reinforce why they’re all there. “They’re coming from places where there wasn’t a lot of equality and justice and they’re bringing that with them. You gotta step in and tell them it’s gonna be okay.” (Caitlin Donohue)


The nester

Two Horses’ permanent protest

Guardian photo by Mirissa Neff

Two Horses might have the most welcoming tent at Occupy SF. Brightly stocked flowerboxes and a welcome mat are outside; inside, the one-time property manager and current homeless man has arranged an air mattress, carpet, and princess accommodations for his 12-year-old blind white cat Luna. There’s even a four-foot tall kitty tower.

The agile feline moves toward the sound of his hand tapping on the floor. “I like the idea of a 24-hour protest,” said Two Horses. He came to the camp a few weeks ago and was impressed by the quality and availability of food available in the encampment’s kitchen, where he said donations come from all over (“it comes from the 99 percent”) at all hours of the day and night.

“I knew I had to do something, so I started volunteering.” He now works the late shift, a core kitchen staffer.

When Michael Moore came by the plaza, Two Horses was impressed. “It wasn’t so much what he said but how he came shuffling up with no entourage, no security, no assistant with a clipboard.” He would, however, like to see more communication between Occupy camps, maybe a livestream video screen to see other cities.

He seems quite at home in his surroundings. “My goal is to look as permanent as I can,” he said, the corners of his mouth turning up crookedly, happily. (Donohue)


The healers

Med tent volunteers from the nurses’ union do it for the patients

Guardian photo by Mirissa Neff

Melissa Thompson has a kid who’s looking at college options; she hopes her family can figure out a way to afford education in a state where public university tuition continues to rise.

But that’s not the only reason she’s at Occupy SF. On a cloudy Friday morning, Thompson sat outside the encampment’s med tent, where she tended to cuts, changed the dressing on wounds, and provided socks, blankets, and tools for basic hygiene. It’s her trade — she’s a nurse, one of the many California Nurses Association members sick of cuts to the country’s public and private health options who were eager to lend their services to the movement.

She’s also one of the determined crew that enlivens Occupy Walnut Creek. What’s it like out there? “It’s been good,” she assured us, brightly. “We’re on the corner, by the Bank of America? We’ve had great reactions at Walnut Creek.”

Thompson said she got involved because “I love being a nurse, number one.” Corporate greed, she said, has led to cuts in her patients’ insurance, leaving them to make tough decisions between feeding their family and filling the prescription for their post-dialysis medications.

She said he hopes the politicians are listening to Occupy. “I don’t understand what the problem is. They need to open up their eyes and see how they’ve damaged us.” (Donohue)

The fabulous

Li Morales and Molly Goldberg talk about Queer Occupy

Queers have long been resisting the ravages of the one percent on the 99 percent. Resistance has looked like coming together on our own, on our own terms, with our own names, genders, and chosen families. Like the (decolonize) occupations in San Francisco, Oakland, around the country and world, our resistance is made out of a stubborn imagination, and can be messy. We are a menagerie of magnificent beasts, with all of our struggles and limitations firmly at the center of the fabulous and fucked-up world we make for ourselves.

In HAVOQ/ SF Pride at Work, we imagine queerness not as a What, an identity whose boundaries we seek to police, a platform from which to put forth our One Demand. Rather, we imagine it as a How: a way of being with one another. We call it Fabulosity. And Fabulosity means drawing on queer histories of re-imagining family as a way of expanding circles of care and responsibility. Fabulosity is to affirm the self-determination of every queer to do queer just exactly how they do. It affirms that under the banner of the 99 percent, we are all uniquely impacted by the ravages of the 1 percent and we come with a diversity of strategies and tactics to resist and survive.

In the gray areas lives our emerging autonomy and interdependence — an autonomy not contingent on capitalism’s insistence on utility. We are not useful. We are not legible. And in that lack of utility and that illegibility, we are not controllable. Because we do not have one demand, but rather a cornucopia of desire. We’re making our fabulous fucked-up world for ourselves, with each other. We always have. (Morales and Goldberg)

Li Morales and Molly Goldberg are members of SF Pride at Work/HAVOQ, a San Francisco-based collective of queers organizing for social and economic justice.


The mechanic

reZz keeps Occupy’s tires filled

Photo by David Martinez

On a Sunday afternoon at Occupy SF, Bike Kitchen volunteer reZz exported the education-oriented bike shop’s mission — and its tools — to Justin Herman Plaza. There he stood, fixing alignment on the wheels of passers-by and occupiers — for free. “Occupy Bike Shop,” as he and other volunteers have come to call the service, has been tinkering out in the plaza two to three times a week.

“It’s been lovely,” he said later in a phone interview with the Guardian. “I’ve purposefully been in a place where it’s open to people in the encampment and people who are passing by. People who stop want to see the occupation in it’s most positive light.” reZz wouldn’t consider camping out at Occupy, but that’s not to say that he doesn’t truck with the movement’s message that public space can — and should — be repurposed.

An avid biker himself, he thinks public bike repair is a great re-envisioning tactic. And fixing poor people’s bikes sends its own message. “This year’s junk is an invented need,” he said. “We’re falling into debt because we think we need a new car every year. Part of the idea of fixing people’s bikes and showing them how to do it brings us away from the artificial scarcity whereby the robber barons and capitalists insist we have to struggle against each other instead of working with each other.” (Donohue)

The medic

Miran Istina has cancer — and helps others

Guardian photo by Yael Chanoff

It had grown dark, and the OccupySF camp was restless as many signs pointed to a raid that night at 101 Market Street. But 18-year-old Miran Istina sat calmly on the sidewalk, medical supplies spread over her lap. “As a medic for OccupySF,” said Istina, “It’s my job to have a well-supplied, well-organized medical kit.”

The tall, wide-eyed teenager, who spends some of the time in a wheelchair, is not just a medic at camp. She has done police liaison and media work as well. And she has a remarkable story.

When she was 14, Istina was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia. Her family had purchased her health insurance only three months before, and the cancer was in stage two, indicating that she had been sick for at least one year. So the company denied her treatment, which would include a bone-marrow transplant, radiation therapy and chemotherapy, on the basis of a pre-existing condition.

Her family bought a van, left Sisters, Oregon, and started searching for somebody who would treat her. They traveled around the country three years, desperate for the life-saving treatment but unable to pay for it.

Just after her 17th birthday, Istina left her parents in New York and began hitchhiking back to Oregon. “That was my way of saying, I’m done looking for treatment. I’m going to do what makes my heart happy.”

After a little over a year of traveling and exploring her interests, Istina made her way to San Francisco. She was sleeping in Buena Vista Park when she “heard some protesters walking by, going ‘occupy San Francisco! Occupy San Francisco. I figured they were a bunch of radicals and that a street kid like me really wouldn’t be welcome.'”

A few nights later, she did go check it out, looking for a safe place to sleep. “They explained to me what it’s about, and why we’re here, and my story directly sat inside of that.”

She has been living and organizing with OccupySF ever since. She got involved with the medic team after spending a night in the hospital for kidney failure, then being treated for nine days, free, in the camp’s medical tent. “They realized I had a lot of skill as a medic, and gave me a kit.”

In the midst of recent media attacks on the OccupySF community, Istina is defensive: “Every community has its assholes. Every community has that pit that no one goes into because it’s just yucky. For some people in San Francisco it’s the Haight, for the the Haightians- you know, the Haight people- it’s the financial district. For other people it’ll be somewhere else. But I love the community here. “I’ve been hurt by a lot of people in my life,” said Istina. “But I think I can make that right by holding to this pure-hearted motto of universal and unconditional love, for everyone. No exceptions.” (Yael Chanoff)