By: Katrina Schwartz
Monday marks the anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, the movement that grabbed a national spotlight, shifting the political debate to focus on economic inequality. After the camps were dismantled and the trash cleared away, many people lost track of Occupy. Occupiers from around California say their political awakening has driven them to fight for change in their own communities.
Oakland took center stage in the state's Occupy movement last year. Large protests, a brutal police response and the shutdown of a major port drew worldwide attention. Things are quieter now, but activists are still working.
Mike King has been involved with Occupy Oakland since the beginning. He's putting his energy into opening a library in the Fruitvale neighborhood.
"I'm more interested in working with people to directly change the way that things look like, on the ground in an immediate sense," he explains.
King finds politics to be a waste of time. He says he can't get behind any politician because most won't have a real effect on his life. Instead he wants to change how people think about political engagement.
"I feel like that was what Occupy Oakland was doing, and still is doing," King says. "Is kind of redefining what is political through action, through process."
King says Occupy helped form powerful networks that still exist. They're just waiting for a spark to re-ignite the movement.
Critics have dinged Occupy for not participating in traditional politics. U.C. Berkeley political science professor Paul Pierson sees Occupy's disdain for electoral politics as a weakness.
"I think if you look at successful social movements, whether it be the Tea Party, which I think has had a lot of success, or going back further and thinking about the Civil Rights Movement, these were movements that had particular goals in mind, that had particular targets in mind either that they wanted to provide support for or express opposition to," says Pierson.
He says if Occupy doesn't create political alliances, it can't move its goals about economic inequality into the mainstream.
"I think there has been a kind of diffuseness to Occupy Wall Street that has made it hard for it to go beyond those initial effective steps that it took," Pierson says.
Across the Bay in San Francisco, evicted Occupiers spread out into their communities last year when the city closed their camp in the financial district.
Janice Suess had just moved into her apartment during the early days of Occupy. The city college film student went out to take some pictures one day. She saw a crowd gathering in front of the Federal Reserve building. It was a chance encounter, but a significant one.
"I started talking to more and more people and realized that what they were there for was a lot of what I had been feeling frustrated with since the 2008 financial collapse," says Suess. "But they were actually out there, like, voicing what a lot of people didn't know how to express, like myself."
Suess says she was hooked.
"Because it was personal, I felt like I could have a say in making change. Like, here are the specific issues, like facing you and your community. And that kind of hit home more," she explains.
Suess joined working groups, started camping out in front of the Federal Reserve and helped organize big marches. Even Suess found this kind of odd because up until then she says she'd been an introvert.
"I can't really describe it. It's kind of like an on-off switch," she says.
But when the Occupy camps were dismantled Suess says it was harder to stay involved. A lot of occupiers say that. Without a central place to meet they've found it harder to engage. Suess did what a lot of people in Occupy did. She took that energy and focused it on something close to her heart. She started a statewide student union to help fight for student rights.
"Being a student, that's where I spend most of my time, at school and those are the issues that impact me most and my community the most," says Suess.
And that's pretty typical of what Occupiers are up to in San Francisco these days. They're kind of segmented, working on local community issues. But many credit Occupy with their political awakening.
Meanwhile in Los Angeles, activists are still drawing large numbers to their protests.
"We are going to phase two of the Occupy Movement and that is that we can strategically plan for actions and bring attention to matters that are dear to us," says Carolos Marroquin, a principal organizer of Occupy Fights Foreclosures.
Occupy Fights Foreclosures have kept the housing crisis in the spotlight by occupying homes to prevent evictions. And this week, they took over the lobby of Fannie Mae's Pasadena headquarters as part of a national day of action.
Marroquin has been a mailman for 27 years, but started fighting foreclosures when he lost his own home a few years ago.
"My home was stolen from me with over $300,000 of equity. The bank that took my home, I didn't even have a mortgage with them," he exclaims.
Marroquin knew the situation was bad, but no one was paying attention to his message until he got involved with Occupy LA.
"What it has done, it has opened the doors for the message to continue to be heard. We have access to the media now. We can speak directly to politicians as a group of individuals rather than me just me going over there trying to be heard," Marroquin says. Now this is a movement and numbers have power."
He says neither major political party has dealt with the foreclosure crisis well and that Occupy has to keep politicians accountable. Occupy Fights Foreclosures has had some success. They pressured Bank of America to buy back a home it sold to investor and return it to the homeowner. Marroquin and his volunteers don't get paid, but he says seeing families stay in their homes is satisfaction enough.