“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.

occupy oakland

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

karen bernal

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


  1. says

    yes, it’s unfortunate that revolutionary thought gets suppressed in favor of auguring for the status quo. ‘You’ go without until you find you can at least get what everyone’s told everyone else gets, ignoring that not only many people didn’t get housing food ‘education’ jobs medical care, but people who had been getting it are having it taken away. This is in reference to Black people, variously enslaved people – poor-ified white people, persecuted brown people – whipped in this society, the capitalist system.
    People believe capitalism’s authors’ lies, that everyone who’s good gets a good life.
    Black people (no way ALL Black people) try to be good so they too can get what we’re all told whilte people had been getting.

  2. Helen H. Gordon says

    Let’s encourage California’s senators and representatives to introduce a bill called “The Iraq War Deficit Reduction Act” with the goal of paying off the deficit caused by the Iraq War. Republicans would have a hard time voting against it, especially if they supported the Bush Administration’s policy of “Spend, borrow, and leave a debt for others to pay”.
    This bill could be paid for by asking for a fair share or perhaps fines from companies like Halliburton who profited from the Iraq War, mercenaries like Blackwater, and others who defrauded the government by overpricing goods or delivering shoddy goods to government agencies.
    Oh, yes, and companies that have defrauded the government as fake suppliers of Medicare equipment should be fined as the criminals they are.
    We might even ask for a fair share from the companies that hoarded money overseas, especially if any of their profits came from US government contracts.
    Helen H. Gordon
    Santa Barbara

    • says

      why “paying off the deficit caused by the Iraq War”? A goal we need could be medical care for all people given to us by us – no charges; no profits for it. Just us give us all the care. Make the doctoring and the equipment and the pharmaceuticals and the alternatives like homeopathy and all, ours. Let us all give it to us all.
      Actually, of course, that’s the furthest extreme of justice. Meanwhile just, medicare for all.
      Paying off the debt is just giving the entities/individuals more money.

  3. Ray Bishop says

    As usual Dick Price has done a great job in reporting on the Progressive Caucus. I was present as a member and I was also present at the last EBoard Meeting when I stood in opposition to the last minute resolution in favor of a primary opposition to the President.
    We need President Obama and we need the Progressive Caucus to bring about the kind of change we want for America and the most realistic way to do it is in the Democratic Party.
    It is not a scare tactic to suggest that we should oppose President Obama. One must be realistic rather than to act like a spoiled kid who did not get his or her way. The President came into office with the greatest economic disaster the Country has faced since the depression. Bush and his Greedy Cronies served only themselves as they raped our Country of its wealth for the Republican Investors. President Obama and our Democratic Leaders have managed to save the Country from certain disaster. We were on our way to positive progressive change when we Democrats let our guard down and allowed the tea party to rise up and elect a majority in the House. That majority has had a single mandate – to take the Presidency. The stated mission is to do whatever necessary to cause the President and our Country to fail so that another dumb dupe for the rich could win the election. This has included voting against anything that would help improve the economy and solve the economic problem.
    The solution is to take action to provide economic equity to the 99% of Americans. This means we must spend for programs that will prime the pump to get the economy moving in the right direction with a stronger force. The pledge by Republicans to vote against any tax increase for the wealthy is political negligence.
    At the general assembly of the EBoard, the Progressive Party was re-certified and Karen Bernal stood in solidarity with fellow Democrats to support the President.
    It is in our unity that we will stop the Republican highjacking of our Country by the Rich Elite Class. The Progressive Party is the inspiration and fire of the Democratic Party. We stand United to work together to support the Occupy Movement, to hold the Senate, to Win the House and Re-Elect the President. The working people and those with intelligence must provide the support needed to bring back America to the People and defeat the Evil and Greedy Elite. Corporate Power is the greatest evil force we face, but by working together we will defeat the Global Power System that has taken control of our planet and who without our Unity will certainly destroy it for Personal Greed. We must weed out those Politicians who are beholden to the Money and Bring In Altruistic Leaders who share our belief for a better World.
    We Stand Together in Solidarity for a United People with a Better Quality of Life.

  4. says

    This is great work Dick and Sharon. Jerry Brown is working for tax increases but as most progressives know, this money will go for more prisons and jails not for education. He promised to do something about changing the harsh determinate sentencing laws that he created which ultimately destroyed our State, but his actions have been the opposite. He is too afraid of offending the prison guards and other law enforcement labor unions because they paid for him to represent their interests. There are many fine progressives who deserve a funded voting group behind them. A door knob could replace Jerry Brown. The campaign is fully in progress here Liberals To Recall Jerry Brown http://www.facebook.com/LiberalsToRecallJerryBrown

  5. Alan8 says

    I support the Occupy Movement. I stopped voting Democratic after they saddled us with NAFTA, and their subsequent actions have confirmed this was the right decision.

    The Democratic Party, like the Republican Party receives THE MAJORITY of its funding from corporate sources. Democrats have supported the insane wars and the THREE NEW NAFTAs (with South Korea, Panama, and Columbia). Democrats helped the Republicans renew the Patriot Act, and voted to approve the fascist justices on the Supreme court.

    The Democratic Party keeps progressives voting for it by threatening them with the Republicans. This SCAM has worked like a charm for thirty years.

    It’s time to break the cycle and reject the corporate parties’ rigged game! The Green Party doesn’t accept corporate money and represents CITIZENS’ interests. 5% of the vote will get the Green Party matching Federal funds.

    Your Green vote sends a message to the corporate-funded Democrats that selling out the people to corporate interests will lose them votes. THIS MESSAGE IS SENT EVEN IF THE GREEN YOU VOTE FOR LOSES!

    It’s about time we made the Democrats start to fear the swing voters ON THE LEFT!


  6. says

    Good article. I do not believe the Democratic Party is the best place for Progressives to be. Keeping the Caucus in limbo or decertifying would be liberating.

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