Occupy movement turns to extending appeal to broad segments of U.S. population

Posted: November 2, 2011

Oakland Tribune

By Scott Johnson Oakland Tribune

November 2, 2011

OAKLAND — Daniel Wilkerson has a hard time relating to most of what he hears coming from the protesters at Occupy Oakland. He has no use for communism, and he thinks capitalism works perfectly well when done right.

The problem, says Wilkerson, a 42-year old unemployed software engineer and self-described conservative, is that the system has run amok.

Holding a sign that read, “A Conservative Against Corporate Personhood,” Wilkerson said he joined the protest to find some common ground with the overwhelmingly liberal crowd. “We need to look for what’s in common, not how we can fight each other,” he said. “Many people think that corporate personhood is utterly athwart from personal freedom, and that society should be organized from the bottom up.”

If Wilkerson’s presence at Wednesday’s strike is anything to go by, the vein of discontent with America’s corporate and governing infrastructure is spreading across economic, political, racial and class lines. What’s less clear is how rapidly or efficiently that process is happening, or what it could mean for the long-term goals of the Occupy movement. For even as thousands of people from all walks of life on Wednesday converged on Oakland, protesters continued to grapple with how to include the broadest number of people while keeping focus on the economic issues that lie at the origin of the movement.

“The Occupy movement is already having a huge effect nationwide. It is changing the discussion for the first time in decades,” said Robert Reich, former secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton and a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley. As Reich made his way up Broadway in the midst of a huge crowd, he said, “This movement is hitting a responsive chord across the country because so many people feel the dice are loaded. The game is rigged. Oakland is a pivotal point. Oakland is an innovator with regard to economic and social change. Oakland is extraordinarily diverse in every meaning of the term.”

Many politicians have embraced the movement and predicted its continued growth to ever larger segments of society.

“As the movement grows, we are likely to see more actions aimed at underscoring the inequalities faced by the 99 percent, and we should support actions with these aims in mind,” said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland. “I continue to stand with the peaceful protesters in this struggle for economic justice and equality.”

But some longtime Oakland activists have expressed dismay that their problems are only now getting attention. “It’s the Columbine phenomenon,” said Cesar Cruz, who runs a program called Homies Empowerment. “When it happens to white people, it becomes news.”

Cruz says the issues at the core of the Occupy movement — inequality, joblessness, poverty and disenfranchisement — have been plaguing his community for years. “This has been happening to people in my neighborhood all the time,” he said. “I’m glad to see people rising up, but I’m sympathetic to people working in the community who get beat up all the time.”

Other community workers have said the Occupy movement has started to seep into the places where the economic hardships have been felt most acutely.

Diane Holden runs anger management classes at a public clinic called Healthy Oakland that caters to a largely poor and minority population. For the last week, she has been inundated with work.

“People I talk to are very upset,” she said. “Last week in my group they talked about bailouts of the car industry and how they flew there in private jets and stuff, and how Obama was elected and didn’t help black people.”

Oakland’s diversity has both fueled the movement and led to questions about the views of minority groups. “What you see here is just the tip of the iceberg,” said David Goodlett, 50, a teacher who came out to support the strike Wednesday.

Goodlett, who is black, said many other African-Americans he knows have only recently begun to back the movement publicly, though they have quietly lent their support since the beginning. “People should be thankful that people of color didn’t come out right away,” he said. “Otherwise, the movement would have been dealt with in a much more severe manner.”

Either way, the chaotic nature of the protests and the strike, alternately peaceful and violent, has drawn many thousands in — but it also has pushed others away, to the dismay of many protesters. “There are always going to be people that try and turn it into something else,” said Diana Danielle, 39, a registered nurse from Antioch. “I just hope it stays peaceful.”

Even as hundreds of protesters Wednesday marched peacefully through Oakland, a handful of black-clad anarchists broke windows at banks, trashed a Whole Foods store and engaged in vandalism throughout the downtown area.

The participation of several unions in the movement also promises to broaden the movement’s base and extend its influence. “It’s common in Europe to see a general strike,” said Enrico Deaglio, 64, an Italian journalist and writer who marched with the protesters. “But it’s something new here, and to me the most important thing is the involvement of the unions.”

Deaglio was shocked at the language of the protest movement, which he said was unlike anything he had heard here before. “I didn’t think Americans had the vocabulary of rich and poor, of class war, the language of the unions,” he said. “That’s a big change.”

John Torres, director of programs at Youth Alive, a nonprofit that works on violence prevention in volatile parts of East Oakland, brought two dozen students to the protest Wednesday after they expressed interest in the movement. “The students asked us about it,” he said. “They were curious about it, and now it’s up to us adults to find a way to make it connect to their lives.”

Said Danielle, the Antioch nurse: “The 1 percent can’t hide anymore. The veil is lifted and now everybody is seeing the ugly truth.”