By Frank Gormlie
On Oct. 7, 2011 – a long 5 years ago – the Occupy Wallstreet movement burst upon the San Diego scene.
Upwards of 4,000 demonstrators marched through downtown San Diego’s Gaslamp District, rallied at Civic Center Plaza at City Hall – renamed “Freedom Square” for awhile -, and then returned to Children’s Park – all the while protesting the inequalities of the American economy. A tent encampment was set up – which moved the very next day to the plaza at City Hall.
It was on that October 7 that San Diego had very visibly and demonstrably joined the nation-wide movement – then a world-wide movement – against the disparities of the financial system. Local activists had been meeting for a couple of weeks and had planned the large protest.
The numbers of San Diegans who turned out was stunning – and gratifying for those of us who worked on the event. And of course, the Occupy San Diego movement raged in downtown for the next several months, with large police raids, many arrests (few charged) and more huge rallies with union members, bicyclists …
But on Oct. 7, 2011, I was there, see my full account here. Following are a few highlights:
Upon my arrival at the Park yesterday, Friday around 3, before the big march slated to start at 4 p.m., I had a huge problem. I didn’t recognize anyone in the crowd of several hundred already assembled. That was amazing. It took me minutes of walking around to find anyone from the dozens who had spent the last week and a half planning this thing. This is a good problem.
Once the march began an hour later, the scene at the Park had completely changed. It had become a huge mass of excited humanity waiting impatiently to hit the streets to get their messages out. Yet the feeling of camaraderie was everywhere – everybody was friendly to everyone else – even to the cops. And it was a clearly enthusiastic crowd that had no qualms of chanting their heads off, as we hit the middle of the street and wound ourselves through downtown San Diego marching slowly and rhythmically to the drums in our heads.
I stayed at the front of the march, next to the huge banner being carried that shouted out “Banks got bailed out. We got sold out!” Couldn’t ever see the end of the line as we pressed our shoulders from curb to curb.
Onlookers, tourists and the people who work in the Gaslamp bars and restaurants all came out to view our loud passing, our chants bouncing off the walls of the buildings. “Show me what democracy looks like!” shouted a few through megaphones, and the voices of hundreds returned with “This is what democracy looks like!” – and they meant it.
It was an historic moment in San Diego – several thousand of its citizens were marching to say they’ve had enough. Once the march began an hour later, the scene at the Park had completely changed. It had become a huge mass of excited humanity waiting impatiently to hit the streets to get their messages out. Yet the feeling of camaraderie was everywhere – everybody was friendly to everyone else – even to the cops. And it was a clearly enthusiastic crowd that had no qualms of chanting their heads off, as we hit the middle of the street and wound ourselves through downtown San Diego marching slowly and rhythmically to the drums in our heads.
When we passed Wells Fargo and Bank of America the chants turned to boos. Yet, the most glorious moment came just seconds later as the front of the march reached the Civic Center Plaza. Hundreds were already there and they all came out to heartily greet the seething sea of demonstrators. The intersection of 3rd and B lost all identity as the Occupy San Diego movement showed this city how its spark had set off this explosion of anger and frustration with the system.
Once in the Plaza itself, it was simply amazing. Standing on the steps, I watched as the crowd swarmed pass – and they came, and came, and kept on coming. The mass had taken the entire Concourse over. People lined the upper deck, people hung off the fountain. As if in slow motion, thousands crushed through the concrete cauldron of City Hall and pushed on back to the Park. The crowd was so huge that the back couldn’t see or hear what the front was saying or doing. The rally was soon over, people kept moving on.
Back at the Park, it was literally shoulder to shoulder – you could barely move. A drum circle began, groups of people were chanting, people were coming upon friends and there were lots of hugs. Everyone knew things had changed. The air and atmosphere were electric. The intense level of energy and solidarity with one other was something out of the late Sixties and early Seventies, something only found at Grateful Dead concerts or Burning Man desert encampments. But it was here, in Children’s Park, near the trolley and the convention center and the business hub of a major city.
A lengthy food line was soon moving as volunteers were beginning to process all the donated foods, eatables from People’s Food in OB, the UCSD Food Co-op, and other local restaurants. Bins for recyclables appeared. A media tent was already going, with laptops lighting up and a generator buzzing. The medics installed their large tent, preparing for the worst but not having much to do. An orientation circle was also organized and presented new comers with the hows and wherefores of the occupy process.
Yes, you could finally see and feel it: the occupation had begun. The huge crowd stayed for along time as human electricity sparkled into the wee hours of the evening. About a dozen police officers hunkered down at the sidelines, staying in the shadows. Small groups of musicians took over the dirt stage and commanded well-deserved attention. Someone set up a video show on a sheet hung from polls. There would be occasional announcements over a megahorn as late as 11.
And not until the next day was just around the corner did it seem as it if the tent city was on its own. With the lights blazing all night, a woman took over a tall harp and began strumming and singing to a small gathering of a dozen campers.
Sitting outside the tent, it was a surreal scene. You almost felt you were in a campground with a hundred friends, only to look up and see the balcony lights of the condos in a 24 story building just yards away. Trolleys and trains made their presence known and the laughing and clapping continued into the night as the numbers still awake dwindled. I had been making some rounds, visiting other tents, meeting new people, waiting for the excitement to die down.
I finally stumbled into my sleeping bag around 4. The ground was hard but I was too tired to care.
It was the first night of Occupy San Diego and there will be many more. The plan for Saturday is for another march to the Civic Center to take place at 4 p.m., as the encampment of protest moves from out of its grassy comfort zone of a friendly, but out of the way park into the bright lights of City Hall.
There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since, and today, because of that we may overlook the many contributions that the Occupy movement brought to the forefront of San Diegan and American politics.
Our political lexicon has definitely changed. Now we talk about the 99%, the 1%, the 47%. This reflects a national shift in attitude toward Wall Street and the inequalities that exist between the very, very wealthy and most Americans. “Wall Street Bankers” is now, again, a dirty word. Both national candidates for President rail against Wall Street in one form or another.
The Occupy movement brought a rude-awakening to the establishment and confirmed and shined a spotlight on the disparities between the classes – a schism that has grown to the worst it’s been in one hundred years, since the time of the Industrial, Railroad and Oil Barons.
Five years ago, Abel Thomas, one of the original organizers of movement here in San Diego wrote the following on the eve of the October 7 march:
Standing in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street NYC, hundreds of San Diego citizens will peacefully occupy [a site downtown, after rallying at] the Civic Center Plaza in downtown San Diego, starting on Oct. 7, 2011.
This nonviolent occupation is in protest of the global financial corruption currently invading politics, media and corporations, exemplified by the recent financial industry meltdown and subsequent recession. The occupation will continue indefinitely until a list of demands in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street NYC are met.
One of the more lasting attributes of the local Occupy movement has been the continuing work of Women Occupy SanDiego. They describe themselves as “women dedicated to creating an equitable economic system and restoring government for and by the people.”
There was so much … back then. Just for a sampling, do a word search on our searchbar for “Occupy” …