On the streets with Occupy San Francisco

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The messages sounded yesterday on the streets of San Francisco – delivered in speeches, chants, signs, songs, interviews, and the petition handed to Chase Bank officials by a half-dozen protesters before their arrest – should resonate with most Americans. After all, while rich corporations and individuals have been accruing ever more wealth, the vast majority of us have been falling behind.

“Banks get bailed out, we get sold out,” was one of those chants by the several hundred people who marched through the Financial District – our OccupySF effort building off the two-week Occupy Wall Street events – targeting some of the villains of the economic meltdown: JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citibank, Charles Schwab, the Federal Reserve, and Goldman Sachs.

They may be relatively small and easy to ignore, these “occupations” of Wall Street and San Francisco and other cities that are entering their third week, but they're being driven by a palpable anger and stirring critiques of economic and political systems that exploit the powerless. But as the foreclosures, layoffs, and other hardships continue, this nascent movement could have some staying power.

“I think it's starting to wake people up out of their complacent distraction,” Robin Kralique, a 26-year-old SF resident holding a sign that read “Let's have the GDP measure happiness,” told the Guardian. “We're planting the seeds for a better future, and I'm hoping it wakes some people up.”

Like many of the young protesters gathered outside the corporate office building at 555 California at the start of the march, she was inspired by Occupy Wall Street. They're angry watching their economic opportunities evaporate as more and more of the country's wealth accumulates in fewer and fewer hands.

“There's an insane amount of greed in this country,” 24-year-old Erin Kramer, a dancer and performance artist stuck in a corporate job she needs to get by, told me. Her sign read, “Don't be afraid to say revolution!”

And many weren't, with calls for revolution on the tips of many lips, albeit tempered with healthy doses of realism. “Even if it isn't at critical mass yet, it sets the stage for the next revolution,” Kralique said when I asked her what she hoped this moment would accomplish.

Sup. John Avalos, a progressive mayoral candidate who spoke at the rally, is pushing legislation to create a municipal bank in San Francisco, one that would invest far more money in local projects and small businesses than Bank of America, which manages most of the city's money.

“We have to figure out new ways to use our local dollars to help our economy,” Avalos told us. “The message here is we're pulling our dollars out of these banks unless they help us.”

Before Avalos spoke – asking the boisterous crowd, “Have you ever felt like you've been had?” – activist Bobbi Lopez was on the microphone decrying the “lack of accountability for the people responsible for this decline.”

And then, the march was off – flanked by dozens of San Francisco Police officers on motorcycles, riding bicycles, and in cars – to deliver creative forms of protest around the Financial District, including a funny song and dance routine by Fresh Juice Party in front of the Schwab office, singing, “Land of the free, home of the brave, this is the street our labor paved.”

In fact, that was almost literally true at the San Francisco march, which was shepherded by off-duty city workers from SEIU Local 1021.

“This Wall Street thing is really spreading. The message of a small group of people in New York has really spread...Wall Street is a symbol of all this corruption, cronyism, and greed,” Gabriel Haaland, an organizer with SEIU Local 1021, told me at the start of the march. “It's really resonated with our members...It's been picking up steam as things have been unraveling over the last year.”

An hour or so later, Haaland was one of six people who staged an occupation of the Chase branch at Market and 2nd streets, along with two women in his union who have been unsuccessfully battling bank foreclosures on their homes – Brenda Reed and Tanya Dennis – and three other activists: William Chorneau, Manny S. Tucker, and Claire Haas.

Tipped off by Haaland, I was inside the bank lobby as the march approached and a police officer on a bicycle came inside to warn bank officials, “The protest is headed your way, you may want to secure the premises.”

He and another officer helped prevent protesters from getting inside, but the six protesters had already infiltrated the building. They began chanting and pulled blankets out of a suitcase, laying them out and placing them on the ground.

Reed spoke for the group, demanding to meet with JPMorgan Chase & Co. CEO Jamie Dimond to present a petition calling for a halt to the bank's foreclosures. Through tears, she told the story of her long struggle to protect her home from foreclosure by Chase, which had taken her loan over from another lender.

SFPD Lt. M.E. Mahoney told the group, “You're not going to be able to camp out here and wait for the CEO to come talk to you,” asking store managers whether they wanted to make a citizen's arrest. They did, but Mahoney also told Reed that he would watch as she handed the petition to store managers.

“I'm here today because for two and a half years, I have desperately tried to get Chase to work with me,” Reed told a bank employee as hundreds of protesters outside looked on and chanted their support. “You have put me through hell. You've destroyed my health, you've destroyed my business, and it's not fair what you've done.”

After she was finished, another bank manager (who refused to give his name) told Reed, “Just to let you know, we are compassionate to your cause,” drawing from the protesters the frustrated retort, “No you aren't!” Through the day, protesters noted that the banks have been profitable and don't need to be foreclosing on so many homes, sitting on so much capital, and funneling their profits out of desperate communities and into the accounts of wealthy investors – particularly after being bailed out by taxpayers in 2008.

Outside, the crowd chanted “Go, Brenda, go!” and “Let those people go, arrest the CEO!”

The crowd remained outside for more than an hour as police tried to wait them out, finally arresting the occupiers on trespassing charges and quickly citing and releasing them, apparently in the hope it would clear the people out of congested Market Street. “That was my quickest arrest ever,” Haaland, a veteran of many labor actions and progressive protests over the years, told me afterward.

Reed addressed the crowd on a bullhorn, explaining that she refinanced her home in 2007 with a shady “pretender lender” who misrepresented what her monthly payments would be. They ballooned to a level she was unable to cover and she sought a loan modification from Chase, which had taken over the loan from the now defunct Washington Mutual.

“Chase Bank is trying to steal my home of 38 years,” she told the crowd. “Jamie Dimond, come out from under your rock and let me talk to you.”

She decried how government bailed out the banks and then allowed them to aggressively foreclose on homes whose mortgages they didn't originate, but who acquired the title out of the complex financial derivatives that has sliced and diced mortgages into complex financial instruments.

“It's government-sanctioned fraud,” she said. Despite what she said were Chase's plans to auction her home in Oakland next month, she pledged, “You will not get my home. You will not get what belongs to me.”

But whether that kind of fierce resolve – voiced over and over again, by hundreds of activists fed up with economic injustice – translates into any kind of real change is yet to be determined.