They gathered Thursday under a stand of redwoods near the steps of the state Capitol, a modest mix of young people and the graying veterans of the progressive and protest movements. They came to Sacramento, in the words of one, to reclaim the public square.
Three years after Occupy Wall Street and the larger Occupy movement sprang into the national consciousness with rallies across the country and calls for economic justice, foot soldiers of the grass-roots movement are arriving in Sacramento for the third annual Occupy National Gathering. Previous gatherings were in Kalamazoo, Mich., and Philadelphia.
“All of our grievances are connected,” said Nikohl Vandel of Palm Springs, who is advocating to close the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in San Luis Obispo County.
Activists from across the country and as far away as Europe and Australia are meeting in the capital city over the next three days – a rally is planned Saturday at Sacramento’s Southside Park – to mobilize, strategize, share ideas and take the temperature of a movement that has seemingly faded from the limelight of its heady early days.
“Being an activist can be a lonely adventure sometimes. This shows you’re not alone,” said Patricia Shore, who traveled from Philadelphia for the gathering. “We’ve got a lot to learn. We were naive before. This is the bedrock of our country, to be able to do this.”
Three years ago, Sacramento’s Cesar Chavez Plaza was but one site of what then was a growing movement. Hundreds of protesters there took to the streets and to bank buildings with a grab bag of causes, but many railed against wealthy individuals and powerful corporations – the “1 percenters” who Occupiers said wielded financial and political might.
Outrage at Wall Street and growing corporate control birthed the movement, but as demonstrations spread to other cities, including Los Angeles, Oakland and Philadelphia, issues and agendas mutated alongside: Joblessness and homelessness, health care and economic insecurity, among others.
When the movement was at full steam, Occupy activists made their biggest splash locally in protests at UC Davis. The campus became a flash point in November 2011 when students were pepper-sprayed by campus police during an Occupy-style protest of rising tuition rates.
“There was a fluorescence there,” said James Van Orden, 52, a longtime activist from Virginia, of the early Occupy movement. “But you get (intimidated), arrested. A lot of us went back to the underground.” Gatherings like Sacramento’s, he said, help to “maintain and protect Occupy.”
Charlotte Glode, 75, of Roseville, was attracted “to this spontaneous movement called Occupy” at its beginning in 2011. On Thursday, she wore a straw fedora dotted with buttons that read “Occupy Wall Street,” and “U.S. Department of Peace,” a happy warrior for the cause.
But she had plenty of time for soul-searching about her movement, how it should change and what it should look like in the future. Many of the faces in the crowd were older. Nearly all were white. The gathering, per custom, was leaderless by design.
“We’re too white,” said Glode. “I want to see Asians, kids, black people. ... We keep calling Occupy dead, but it keeps popping up. But we’re not attracting change-makers. People aren’t curious about what we’re doing. Maybe the problem is that we’re so broad – people don’t know what we stand for.”
One local government scholar was surprised there was a still a movement to protect.
“I thought it had died out,” said California State University, Sacramento, professor Kimberly Nalder, who started the Project for an Informed Electorate on the campus.
Occupy and the issues it raised “resonated with a lot of people who were committed to the movement,” Nalder said. “But the longevity of a movement requires structure. I’m surprised they’re organizing some sort of gathering at all. What’s the old saying? ‘That’s so 2011?’ ”
William Underbaggage, a Lakota Sioux environmental activist, implored the 50 or so gathered Thursday to “start the conversation. We’re the students everyone has waited for – to continue to talk about what Occupy started for. When we stand up and speak, we have to be courageous.”
Katharine Dawn said she is taking that message back to New South Wales, Australia. Dawn, 57, grew up in Washington state, but she has been an educator, care worker and activist in New South Wales for the past 40 years. In September, she is leading a direct democracy event inspired by the Occupy movement stateside.
“A lot of us have given up on talking with corporations and governments,” Dawn said. But, she said, “the people have established a platform of solidarity and the fire’s still burning. It’s burning fierce.”
Call The Bee’s Darrell Smith, (916) 321-1040.