OccupySF and its supporters defended Justin Herman Plaza last night (Wed/7) in a strong display of nonviolent action, demonstrating a commitment to the movement. But the unfolding events also showed the group is at a crossroads as it debates its next moves, and whether to continue trying to occupy the plaza after the group's tent city was removed by police and city workers.
About 250 gathered for a rally at 5 pm at 101 Market Street, marching the half a block to Justin Herman Plaza an hour later. Since the plaza was cleared out that morning, it had been guarded on all sides by a line of police. But as they approached, improbably, the police line parted, letting protesters through.
The group began to hold a general assembly meeting, but after 20 minutes police issued an order to disperse. About 50 sat down in a show of civil disobedience while a couple hundred more surrounded the outskirts.
Clashes with police in the past have been characterized by tension and angry cries from protesters. This one was more peaceful. Protesters held their ground and refused to leave, but besides a few incidents in which police detained and shoved protesters, most supporters were restrained and calm.
At 8:50 pm, police suddenly began to clear out. Jubilant protesters rushed into the plaza, having won it once again. However, from the meeting that followed, it seemed clear that many are restless to put their energies into actions other than defending the plaza.
The meeting consisted of several announcements concerning upcoming actions, such as taking part in the local march in support of International Human Rights Day on Saturday and Monday’s West Coast port shutdown. Occupy groups from Anchorage to San Diego have pledged to shut down their cities' ports on Dec. 12.
Representatives from Occupy Community College of San Francisco and Occupy SF State University, both of which have now created tent city occupations of their own, were also present. After announcements, the discussion turned to strategy. Many saw a great opportunity to pitch tents and try to take back Justin Herman Plaza. Numbers had dwindled somewhat, but there were at least 150 protesters still present for that discussion. Others argued that OccupySF had successfully shown they could retake the plaza and that they should try and avoid a police clash that night, and instead sleep at and near 101 Market Street, their other recently reclaimed protest site.
Many insisted that OccupySF would be strategically wise to allow their supporters to reserve their energy for upcoming marches and actions; nightly calls to defend camp, said one protester, were wearing many down. In the end it was clear that “OccupySF is a network of autonomous individuals. Some will stay in Justin Herman, some won’t—but we’re all in solidarity.”
All this discussion took place amid reports that police were massing in the garage underneath the nearby Hyatt Hotel and at the police tactical building on 16th and De Haro streets. Many believed that they were staging to come back and make arrests if protesters attempted to re-erect their tent city. During the meeting, protesters put up five tents, but by 11:20 pm, they had voluntarily taken down their tents.
The OccupySF general assembly consented last week to defend Justin Herman Plaza anytime it is threatened. Yet the events of the past few days, as well as the destruction of large Occupy sites throughout the country in the past weeks, many sense that strategy may now be shifting.
Gordon Mar, director of Bay Area Jobs With Justice and OccupySF supporter who risked arrest last night, told us, “There’s a lot of exciting ideas and debate about new directions, including reoccupying JHP, but also moving forward in different ways. Occupy our homes initiatives have taken off recently, as well as occupations on college campuses, different communities and neighborhoods. It’s a really exciting and hopeful moment.”
Shaw San Liu of the Chinese Progressive Alliance issued a public statement saying, “You can raid a camp, but you can’t raid a movement. The movement cannot be stopped. [The occupation] was just the tip of the iceberg.”