Monday, October 10, 2011

Arrests finally come in Occupy Sacramento protest

By Cynthia Hubert, Darrell Smith and Cathy Locke

Sacramento Police began arresting a group of about 19 Occupy Sacramento protesters about 12:40 a.m. today. The protesters were either lying or sitting at the entrance to Cesar Chavez Park at Ninth and K streets.

After a series of warnings, police arrested the protesters one by one and were bringing them into nearby patrol wagons.

The grass-roots Occupy movement that began three weeks ago in New York's Financial District spread to the capital city on Thursday, with a noisy downtown protest that drew more than 500 people who raged against large corporations and decried Wall Street power.

Gathering in the morning drizzle, they chanted about democracy, carried signs that read "Save the Middle Class" and vowed to risk arrest by "occupying" Cesar Chavez Plaza in violation of Sacramento's ordinance against camping in undesignated areas.

"This is what democracy looks like!" they shouted in unison as they snaked through the streets of downtown Sacramento, trailed by a small army of police officers.

But beyond the general message, what do the Occupy participants want, and how do they intend to accomplish their goals?

Members of an eclectic group of Sacramento protesters wearing everything from Abercrombie sweat shirts to Harley-Davidson jackets to Teamsters blazers offered few specifics.

Jobs, some said. More environmental protections, said others. Better housing for the homeless. More equitable distribution of wealth. Less corporate control.

A crowd that swelled throughout the blustery morning marched from Cesar Chavez Plaza across from City Hall to the state Capitol and back, past scores of police officers on horseback, bicycle, motorcycle and foot. By early afternoon, a few participants had started pitching tents in anticipation of spending the night – or maybe several nights – in the park as a demonstration of civil disobedience.

Similar protests around the country have led to occupations of intersections and bridges and in some cases mass arrests. Though crowds are often modest, the Occupy movement has drawn attention for its sheer persistence and the simmering, if unfocused, anger it seems to encompass.

As the movement spreads – similar rallies played out Thursday in Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Philadelphia and Anchorage – political observers are trying to sort through its message. Some compare the group's loose structure and broad message to the early tea party movement.

"It's actually fascinating that it took this long for something like this to happen," said Kimberly Nalder, associate professor of government at California State University, Sacramento.

"This year, I have felt really depressed on behalf of my students because of their poor job prospects, and I think there is a real cynicism about the world that is bubbling over," Nalder said. "Young people are hungry for an outlet to vent that frustration, and I think this movement is part of that.

"I think it also taps into a general outrage over the state of the economy."

At the same time, she said, "I am waiting to hear more details about the theme, the message, the goal."

The loosely organized movement eschews executive committees and appointed leaders, and has made few specific demands. Protesters in various cities are encouraged to come up with their own reasons for demonstrating.

"We are leaderless, definitely, because everyone involved has various reasons for being here," said Sean Thompson, 27, a Sacramento City College biochemistry student who helped organize the local protest through a Facebook campaign. "One representative could not really attend to the many different needs."

Thompson was among those planning to spend the night at the park Thursday, in violation of a city ordinance that prohibits camping in undesignated areas. Before doing so, he got advice from several civil rights lawyers on the scene, including Cres Vellucci and Lanette Davies of ACLU Sacramento.

"Be respectful," Davies advised the crowd. "We don't want you to be arrested, but we want you to be able to assert your rights."

Sgt. Andrew Pettit of the Sacramento Police Department said the park closes at 11 p.m., after which protesters would be expected to leave.

"People cannot camp here," he said. "They've been forewarned, and if they are here after 11 we will take enforcement action as warranted," from asking people to leave to hauling them to jail, Pettit said.

The small crowd at the park included 20-somethings and retirees, professionals and street people. Some pushed baby strollers. A few maneuvered wheelchairs.

Many expressed hope that the protests would create a national dialogue about the needs of the nation's poor and middle class during a time of economic slowdown and anxiety.

"I'm one of the 99 percent of the people in America who don't have real power," said Mick Nester, 44, of Auburn, who leaned on a cane at the park plaza. "I'm disabled and I've been waiting on approval for Social Security for three years. That's wrong."

Darrell Parker, 52, a computer software specialist who works for the Medical Board of California, said he is bitter about corporate America's treatment of workers.

"I used to work for HP until they shipped my job overseas," he said, as he helped anchor an Occupy Sacramento poster.

Annie Anderson of Roseville said she planned to camp at the park with two of her four children, despite a risk of being cited or arrested. Despite good educations, she said, she and her husband are struggling to support their family.

"I want people to know that it's not just the fringe element here," Anderson said. "I've been a taxpayer. I'm a mom."

The movement and its diverse members drew White House attention Thursday, when President Barack Obama got a question about Occupy Wall Street at a news conference.

"I think people are frustrated and the protesters are giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works," he said. "The American people understand that not everybody has been following the rules, that Wall Street is an example of that … and that's going to express itself politically in 2012 and beyond."

Nalden, of Sacramento State, said that despite its amorphous initial message, the Occupy movement could evoke real change in time.

If the message becomes sharper and the movement more structured, possibly with the help of labor unions, she said, "this could help force the country's politics to the left" in the same way the tea party united conservatives.

"If they coalesce and deliver a single message, it could actually have some effectiveness," she said.

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