“Occupy” Occupies California’s Democratic Party

occupy burlingame

Panel moderator Aimee Allison with panelists Justin Tartella and Mark Denny (San Francisco), Shake Anderson (Oakland), and Camille Russell (Fresno)

Having captured the public’s rapt attention in just two short months but now facing increasingly well-coordinated and sometimes brutal police crackdowns, the Occupy Movement faces hard questions about its lasting impact. What will Occupy 2.0 look like, many want to know, and how will it get there?

If a meeting this past weekend between representatives from a half dozen Occupy encampments in California and perhaps 200 members of the California Progressive Caucus is any guide, the Occupy Movement has already enlisted several generations of progressive activists who are eager to support, leverage, and amplify the Occupiers’ ground-breaking work.

The meeting was, indeed, a kumbaya moment, one that suggests that the movement has embedded itself deeply into the progressive political psyche.

Recertification Battle

Gathering at the California Democratic Party’s Executive Board meeting this past weekend in Burlingame, the Progressive Caucus was facing the culmination of a months-long battle to retain its place within the state’s Democratic Party.

occupy fresno

Occupy Fresno supporter and life-long teacher Camille Russell.

At issue was the resolution the Caucus had nearly unanimously passed at a similar meeting in July, which called for a primary challenge to President Obama, designed at least in part to provide the liberal pressure he said he wanted and citing a long list of centrist and even conservative positions his Administration has taken as well as its failures to make good on progressive campaign promises.

Not surprisingly, opposition from the CDP was fierce and emotional in some quarters, especially within the Party’s African-American Caucus. At what would normally be a routine annual caucus recertification vote at the July meeting, the Progressive Caucus was removed from the list of other caucuses and its recertification tabled until this weekend’s meeting, four months later. Designed to give tempers a chance to cool and back-channel communications to seek resolution, the tabling nonetheless stripped Progressive Caucus Chair Karen Bernal of her executive committee seat, forced the Caucus officers (of which my wife is one) to find funding for the annual Solidarity Summit themselves, and put what ordinarily is a lively and potentially potent political force largely in limbo.

Occupiers Old and New

occupy sacramento

Occupy Sacramento's Christine Ka.

Wisely, the Caucus’s executive team declined to devote their two-hour meeting Saturday night to rehashing the recertification issue, which had been vivisected rigorously in online forums, radio interviews, and private meetings since July and would nevertheless be decided the following morning.

Instead, they invited eight representatives from Occupy encampments in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Fresno, San Diego, Sacramento, Wall Street, and Oakland, who ranged in age from their early twenties to their sixties, including a lifelong teacher, Camille Russell, and at least two recent military veterans, Danny Garza and Shake Anderson.

Moderating what turned out to be an uplifting panel session was activist and SFGate columnist Aimee Allison, who focused the discussion on how the movement will evolve and what role progressive Democrats might play. Allison made sure each Occupy representative had several chances to lay out the reasons they have devoted their lives to this movement.

“I plan to be there to the end. I’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” said Mark Denny, a graduate student and full-time worker who camps with Occupy San Francisco. “A lot of people in Occupy have given up on the Democratic Party. But when I read the Progressive Caucus resolution, I had hope.”

Progressive Caucus members — many middle-aged and older and veterans of progressive battles going back to Vietnam anti-war protests and the Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, and Gay Rights movements — responded in kind, some applauding after each short Occupier comment and others waving their fingers as Occupiers do at their general assembly meetings in countless cities across the country.

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Occupy Oakland's Shake Anderson and Oya Sherrills

Julie Levine, an Occupy Los Angeles organizer, echoed Denny’s remarks: “I know the Democratic Party is split, but what the Progressive Caucus has done is very brave. We need to stand up to President Obama, standing with Main Street and not Wall Street.”

Hurdles Ahead

In recent weeks, the Occupy Movement has come under what seems to be a coordinated attack in the media and among right-wing talking heads for the kind of people the encampments across the country have attracted.

“Yes, we’ve got homeless people at Occupy LA,” acknowledged Levine, adding that Los Angeles has the largest encampment in the country  especially now that Occupy Wall Street has been shuttered. “We’ve got marijuana smokers. We’ve even got Bloods and Crips.”

“But Occupy didn’t create the 80,000 homeless people in Los Angeles. The 99% didn’t create the mentally ill and drug addicts,” she continued. “No, society — and the one percent — created them. We just take care of them.”

Shake Anderson, a seven-year military veteran who camps at Occupy Oakland with Oya Sherrills — daughter of Watts-based death penalty activist Aqeela Sherrills — told of a young man fresh from prison who he’s taken under his wing at the Oakland camp.

“People don’t commit crime just because they want to, not most of them,” he said. “No, they steal because they don’t have food or they need a place to stay.”

The young man Shake has befriended has food, shelter, and people to socialize with, he said. “And at Occupy Oakland, he has a home.”

What’s Next

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Progressive Caucus Chair Karen Bernal

In a bittersweet morning the next day, news reports told of early-morning raids that closed Occupy Oakland and Occupy San Francisco, at least for the moment, while ghastly video of two UC Davis police officers pepper-spraying the faces of students sitting peacefully in a row washed over the Internet.

But then later, the Party recertified its Progressive Caucus.

“African-American Caucus Chair Darren Parker removed the tabling motion, Alice Huffman from his Caucus spoke in favor of the move, and Karen Bernal reciprocated — all graciously,” reported Progressive Caucus member David Sonnenborn, acknowledging the wisdom of the cooling-off period Party and caucus leaders had fostered. “And the body approved, I think unanimously.”

Asked what the progressive Democrats present could do for the Occupy Movement now that the Caucus was back fully in the Party’s tent, Julie Levine said, “What the Democratic Party can do, especially on the progressive side, is not disown us.”

Added Mark Denny: “This movement has already got legs. It is not going to end. But we need you guys to stand with us.”

From the applause, finger-waving, hugs, back-slaps, and smiles as the panel session concluded, you knew most everyone present would do just that.

dick priceThen, after thanking Aimee Allison and the panelists, Karen Bernal asked that everyone go out and get arrested, as she had done at Occupy Sacramento.

“Here’s my phone number. Call me if you need me to walk you through it. If I’m close enough, I’ll come join you,” she said. “Yes, it’s dirty and smelly in jail, but it’s also the most liberating experience I’ve ever felt.”

At least a few in the room looked like they might actually take her up on the offer.

Dick Price
Editor, LA Progressive

Published by the LA Progressive on November 22, 2011
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About Dick Price

Dick Price is Editor of the LA Progressive. With his wife Sharon, he publishes several other print and online newsletters on political and social justice issues. He has worked in publishing as a writer, editor, and publisher for a quarter century. In earlier releases, he was a cab driver, bartender, construction worker, soldier, and farmhand, and for many years helped operate a nonprofit halfway house for homeless alcoholics and addicts. To contact him, please use the form on the Contact Us page.