A Brief History of Occupy San Diego – Part 1

by on November 9, 2011 · 2 comments

in Civil Rights, Economy, History, Organizing, Popular, San Diego

Thousands of San Diegans march in support of Occupy San Diego, Oct. 7, 2011.

The following is a brief history of Occupy San Diego. Part 1.

This general outline – not meant to be all inclusive – is a recording of what has occurred during the Occupy San Diego movement, beginning in late September and continuing to today, the first part of November. It is an outline to help recall what we did during those heady first weeks of planning and carrying out the very first actions. But as our movement involved hundreds and even thousands of individuals and all kinds of different activities, this is not complete.

September 17, 2011 – Occupy Wall Street begins occupation at Zoccotti Park, next to Wall Street.

Mid to Late September 2011 – Facebook, twitter and other social media are used to generate interest in an Occupy Wall Street type action in San Diego.  After some days of discussion, a plan is formulated to hold an Occupy San Diego action that is non-violent, is in solidarity with OWS in New York, and to use the “Egyptian model” of occupying some kind of public / private  space to press for changes in the economic and social systems.

Monday, Sept. 26 – A press release goes out declaring that Occupy Wall Street has reached San Diego and that meetings would begin the next day at a park across from the Convention Center at 6pm.  It states that the movement planned on “occupying an open space in the Gaslamp District indefinitely starting on October 7, 2011 at 4:30 pm.”

Tuesday, Sept 27 – The very first General Assembly (GA) is held at Children’s Museum Park, a small, out-of-the-way park in south downtown San Diego, located next to the train and trolley tracks. Reports of between 60 to 70 people in attendance.

Wed, Sept 28OB Rag attends GA, and notes that there are 60 participants, about half women, and only 8 above the age of 40!

A typical General Assembly session at Children's Park.

Sept 29 – October 4 – Planning sessions are held nightly at Children’s Park. Committees meet at 6pm and the GA begins at 7pm.  Anywhere from 50 to 80 people attend the GA’s but by the end of this period, there are up to 150 people at the meetings. Each night a new moderator guides the GA through the agenda using a full consensus decision-making process.  The experienced organizers patiently counsel neophytes through the often-frustrating process, where non-verbal hand signals are used to convey leanings, agreements and disagreement or points of process.

Orientation sessions – including an explanation of consensus, the hand signals and human megaphone – are given to new people.  There are dozens of new people each night.

Committees that exist at this point include: security, legal, education, music and arts, media, outreach, internal communication, resources, food, and medical. Outreach members plan to make a huge canvas “Monopoly” board. The committees are where the details of creating a type of sustainable community of occupiers are worked out. Plans for a kitchen, a medical station, a library are worked on – and periodically reports are given during the GA’s. There’s already a media table going.

A plan is formulated:  to hold a march and rally on Friday, Oct. 7th and to begin the occupation of some kind of “open space in the Gaslamp District” – so stated the official press release. Everyone knew that the actual target was the Plaza next to City Hall. Back-up plans of alternative sites are also developed, including Tuna Park as one.

General Assembly at Children's Park. Photo by Sam Hodgson, Voice of San Diego.

A “police-liaison” committee is formed and begins negotiations with police over the planned actions.  In early October an agreement – or more likely – an understanding – is tentatively reached with the police by the police liaison committee on behalf of the movement.  It was explained to the police negotiator the general plan of peacefully marching through the Gas Lamp to occupy the Plaza at the Civic Center (also called the Community Concourse or City Hall).  The police understand that OccupySD will be erecting tents at the Plaza.

Sunday, October 2 – Activists organize an informational march around downtown to get the word out about the planned march and occupation scheduled later in the week.

Wed., October 5 – It rains and forces Occupy planners indoors for the evening.  We gathered in a side-room of a studio cafe – not far from Children’s Park – whose owner generously opened his doors for us. Wet, disheveled, and cramped into a small and unfamiliar space, the GA goes on. For many it was one of the most frustrating and trying GA’s ever.

The largest issue on the agenda was that the San Diego Jewish community had sent representatives to the GA. These visitors requested that OccupySD hold off in its plans to occupy the Civic Center Plaza until after the holiday Yomkippur – which had been already scheduled for the same time at the Plaza at that point. The activists were asked to put off everything at the Plaza until 1 pm on Saturday the 8th.  The GA generously and graciously voted to grant the request. The occupation would now actually begin at Children’s Park – but just for one night.

Thurs, October 6 – Last GA before the event; plans are finalized and committee reports are given.  Excitement and tensions mount as finally our preparation for an event that people had been meeting daily for nearly 10 days was about to bear fruit – or so we hoped.

October 7, 2011, downtown San Diego.

Friday, October 7 – Hundreds gather early at Children’s Park, beginning to form up for what turned out to be one of the largest protest marches in recent San Diego history. With banners and signs galore, megaphones echoing slogans, with security team and legal observers abound, the Occupy San Diego procession begins – and it stretches blocks – as it moves slowly toward the Civic Center Plaza.  Chanting “This is what democracy looks like!” and “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!” the march proceeds through the Gas Lamp with a mild interest shown by tourists and passersby but with a more keen interest by the commercial district’s workers, the bartenders, servers, other restaurant and bar employees.  The procession passes in front of the buildings that hold the large banks:  Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Chase.  The crowd begins a chorus of “booos” as it passes by the titans of the faltering economic system.

The marchers turn down “B” Street and the noise, yelling, chanting, and booos reach a crescendo. The noise is at its peak, the excitement and emotion at their zenith.  The crowd at the Plaza – having amassed in hundreds at the entrance to the Plaza – surges into Third Avenue as the procession reaches them coming down “B” from the east.  The intersection of Third and “B” is totally swamped by people.  The crowd breaks and then surges into the Plaza.The mass of humanity moves in slow-motion as a tidal wave across the cavern of cement.

The tail of the march doesn’t know what the head is doing, and vice versa.  The Plaza is crammed with people as a rally of sorts with a few speakers is held near the glass doors of City Hall.   The crowd then moves through them and onto 2nd Avenue and then returns to the Park.   By time the tail of the parade reaches the Park, it’s literally shoulder-to-shoulder as the atmosphere is one of strong solidarity and camaraderie. People hug the friends they haven’t seen in months or in hours. The mainstream media place the march at 1500, but the OB Rag more accurately reported 3,000 to 4,000 were at the Plaza.

Party at the Park after the huge march, Oct. 7, 2011, Children's Park.

A drum circle begins. Other groups hold their own impromptu parties. Other musicians begin to play. A giant harp is set up. For the first time in 11 nights, there is no GA. As the crowds thin out over the afternoon and into the early evening, tents start to go up within the ringed grassy circles at the Park. Tables are also set up with food, water, and other donated supplies.  The giddy exhilaration over the success of the day is plainly palatable, and 65 tents are counted before the long evening is over. Music and partying are constants and continue into the early hours of the morning.

 Saturday, October 8 – With a much smaller march up from Children’s Park to the Plaza, Occupy San Diego returns to City Hall in the early afternoon.  And the famous “tent city” starts to be erected.  A kitchen and free food line is established.  Long tables of donated and cooked foods are staffed by Occupy volunteers. Washing tubs and camp stoves are on display.  Around meal times, people line up – and the food begins.

A medical tent and station is set up, complete with its own cot, with medical supplies stacked in boxes. A “comfort” station goes up next door with blankets and donated clothing.  A library with books and DVD’s is in the middle of the Plaza. Tents swarm over the area. There are 85, then one hundred of them as the week goes on.  A number of people throw down their sleeping bags and find comfortable spots within the confines of the cement.  An arts and crafts tarp station is created, with material for posters and signs.

The first GA at Civic Center Plaza, Oct. 8, 2011.

Saturday, Oct 8 – Tuesday, October 11 – This period is the high point of the OccupySD “Village at the Plaza“.  Things are generally calm – at least on the surface, no disturbances by police and in fact occupiers are working openly with high-ranking officers in efforts to follow their guidelines vis a vis leaving unobstructed walkways, not camping or sleeping in front of doors, and not placing tents in the open quad area of the Plaza.  It is these few days that one can imagine a new world, a new society built on cooperation and consensus, as the village now – besides a kitchen and medical tent, has two libraries, a comfort station, etc. and simply hums along, with office workers gawking about.

Occupiers go about their lives, go on the daily marches – usually at 4pm, committees at 6ish, attend the GA’s at 7pm, some midnight marches around the Gas Lamp,  a few teach-in’s are held, posters and banners are painted and are set up or displayed around the encampment and up at the Third Street entrance, and there’s some partying at night.

Homeless people, some of whom were already in and around the Plaza and City Hall,  begin to see the encampment as a break from their daily lives on the street.

During this period, internal tensions arise over the placement of some of the tents. About half a dozen or more tents had been erected right in front of the broad steps that lead up to the old Security Pacific Building – the most towering structure at the Plaza. Those who owned these tents didn’t like the fact that the police seemed to be dictating the confines of the tent occupation – that they had a “right” to place their tents where they wanted them.  Others felt that these tents were forcing a confrontation with the police – who many believed had been very accommodating up to now.

The village at the Plaza.

Monday, October 10 –  This was a “big day” for Occupy San Diego.  A suicide by guy in an unrelated incident during the afternoon shatters Plaza calm; the Occupy encampment gets it first massive attention by the local television media.

An earlier visit by Fire Marshall and Asst Police Chief Long to the tent village; large canister of propane is immediately banned; occupiers are requested to clean up areas and not allow open flames, charcoal, or propane gas stoves; in addition, the tent city is criticized for not having adequate egress and ingress for emergency vehicles.  On some of these issues, Police seem more flexible than the Fire Marshall. Police commander Long indicates that OccupySD must come up with options to tents in very near future.

There is a special meeting of about 20 of the original organizers in an effort to gain control of the encampment – which is perceived as spiraling out of control and heading for a confrontation with police.

Wednesday, October 12 – The tension that has been building between two factions is now out in the open, symbolized by opposing signs displayed during the GA.  One set of signs called cops “pigs”, and called to “Smash the Police State!” Another set of signs stated “I (heart) SDPD”. People on both sides were pissed off. A bunch decided to leave the Plaza and go elsewhere to be safe from a perceived pending police raid.  They had wanted to be heard and seen but were unwilling to be arrested.

A number of tents started come down.  A dozen people or more start packing up. In twos and threes they depart the Plaza. This disagreement over how to relate to the police manifests itself with an entire faction leaving the camp – including many of the original organizers.  They believed that the occupation had been taken over by others who wanted to push the occupation into a confrontation with the police. This is not the demonstration they wanted. They wanted economic and social justice – not a fight with the cops.

The other faction appears more militant. They abhorred the fact that the Occupation was being dictated by authorities and the police. This was an occupation. The entire occupation was a civil disobedient action.  The police protected the 1% and couldn’t be trusted. In order to carry out anything effective you ultimately had to confront the cops as they move against you. Plus some in this camp believed that individuals in the other faction were working too closely with the police.

Those who left that day ended up in different places. Some went to Tuna Park – the grassy area at the harbor next to the Midway aircraft carrier museum; others went went into Balboa Park at Marston’s Point; even others ended up near Park Avenue and Presidents’ Way.

Standing up for the tents and waiting for the police. Oct. 14, 2011, Civic Center Plaza.

Thursday, October 13 – More tents have moved into the Plaza. Those that have left do not seem to be missed. There’s more police presence than usual. And finally, in the afternoon, the police issue an order to take down the tents and remove all personal property immediately.

This order creates a huge stir throughout the encampment.  Tents and stations come down, but over closer to the entrance ot the Plaza a small group of tents remain defiant. Over a dozen of the protesters have decided they will make a stand at the tents and are ready to be arrested. String or tape is strung around the small encampment.  People sit inside, smoking cigarettes – the tension and excitement is very high.  Midnight hits and nothing has happened.

Meanwhile, those who had left the Plaza fearing a police attack had dispersed to at least 3 other close-by locations. But problems with each place caused confusion for a few days. At one spot there had been a threat of violence in an interaction with a homeless person. Down at the harbor at Tuna Park, the police were not allowing any supplies to be dropped off, so that spot was abandoned.  Some supplies and gear are taken over near the World Beat Center on the edge of Balboa Park, near the Navy hospital along Park Blvd.

Friday, October 14 – A large police force arrives and clears the Plaza of tents, just in time for the 8 o’clock morning news. Officers sweep into the area and forcibly remove people who had their arms linked,yank out the tents, and one man is arrested. A few hours later, after some more tents are thrown up, the police come in again, arrest another guy and pepper-spray a whole number of peaceful occupiers.

Police make the first arrest, Oct. 14, 2011.

Tension between police and occupiers continues throughout the day. Finally, during the GA several people are selected to approach police higher-ups to inquire what would satisfy the police enough to leave the occupiers in peace. A couple of discussions are held with commander level officers and after the GA consensus – it is agreed that the demonstrators may keep one symbolic tent up, keep one table, and that people could sleep in the Plaza until 6 in the morning.  When the GA passed this compromise, applause and cheers went up – some sort of victory had been achieved – however short-lived. The occupation would continue – at least for one more night.

 Next up – Part 2 to be continued

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

annagrace November 9, 2011 at 7:44 pm

Frank- thanks for this excellent chronicle of history being made.


Mike Chek November 10, 2011 at 2:40 pm

Social progress is achieved by those who learn from history.


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