By Shepherd Bliss
Good things can come in small packages. Sebastopol in semi-agrarian Sonoma County, Northern California, has a population under 8000. Occupy Sebastopol (OS) recently has been home to a bee-hive of activity in this town’s square that describes itself as “Peacetown, USA.”
Sonoma County is best known for its fine wines. It has the most lucrative wine industry in the U.S. The first wine billionaire, Jess Jackson, has his wineries and vineyards here, as does the giant Gallo Corporation. Most locals, however, still tend to think of this region as the nature-based Redwood Empire, rather than the commercial Wine Country.
Occupy events in big cities like New York, Oakland, and Portland receive considerable coverage in the corporate media, especially when police react. Yet in small towns and mid-size cities, peaceful occupations occur that engage people in conversations in public spaces and beyond.
On Veteran’s Day, for example, the uniformed police chief Jeff Weaver walked toward OS’s decision-making General Assembly (GA). Occupiers in larger cities might have been nervous. But the Chief carried a plate of brownies and said, “These are from the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW).” Praise followed him as he left. Many vets, some of them homeless, have been on the frontlines of Occupy gatherings around the nation.
Sebastopol’s City Council unanimously passed a detailed resolution with ten whereas clauses on Dec. 6, proposed by former mayor and current City Council member Sarah Gurney to support OS. She noted, “Many cities have passed resolutions to support the Occupy movement.” Mayor Guy Wilson added, “It seems clear that the community supports this resolution.” Councilmember Kathleen Shaffer has an occupy sign in her front yard.
Among the resolution’s assertions are the following: “nearly one in six Americans live in poverty,” wealth and power are concentrated “in the hands of the top one percent of the American people,” and “the Occupy Movement has changed the national dialogue and garnered enormous pubic support around the nation.”
The resolution concluded half a dozen previous City Council meetings on Occupy. They sometimes went late into the evening with public testimony by dozens of people, all in favor of Occupy, except one person.
OS began its encampment in the town square on Nov. 5. It later reached a compromise with city officials and agreed to leave its overnight stays in exchange for a tent to display educational materials.
On Dec. 8 Sebastopol’s largest downtown church, United Methodist, offered a Town Hall meeting on Occupy that was attended by over 100 people. Among them were young people who had camped out, farmers, co-housing residents, peace activists, retirees, teachers, a Zen priest, a philanthropist, activists from groups such as the Peace and Justice Center, Grange, and Transition Sebastopol, and members of the nearby Occupy Santa Rosa
Occupy’s first public splash in Sonoma Country was on Oct. 15, organized by Occupy Santa Rosa in the county’s capital. Some 3000 people gathered in front of City Hall and then marched around corporate banks, led by the raucous HubBub Band. It was the sixth largest Occupy gathering yet, according to the “New York Times,” and thus the most people per capita at an opening Occupy event.
Rev. Judith Stone opened the Dec. 8 Town Hall, “When 700 people crossing the Brooklyn Bridge were arrested, I was touched by all the young people and how roughly they were treated by the police.” She affirmed “the importance of the youth in building a social movement that values radical democracy.” At a planning meeting for the event, Rev. Stone said that she “wanted more and more people to feel in their hearts that they are part of the 99 percent.”
“This is an exciting moment—a pivotal time in history,” said former Sebastopol mayor Larry Robinson. “What we do in this moment can determine our future and that of our species. This is a time for everyone’s voices to be heard,” he added.
The intention of the Town Hall, in the New England tradition, was to widen participation in the local movement. It sought to draw people into the public conversation who had been watching from the sidelines, which it succeeded in doing. “Listening is most important. The process of change is as significant as the product,” Robinson noted. He began the evening by reciting a poem by pacifist William Stafford that concluded, “The darkness around us is deep.”
The gathering was co-sponsored by the Leadership Institute for Ecology and the Economy, which for a decade has trained local leaders, many of whom went on to elected positions. “We support the Occupy movement,” its Executive Director Tanya Narath noted. “We are interested in helping the community find ways to broaden the movement for sustainability.”
“Occupy is a new way of being,” Institute member Matt Stevens added. “Its consensus means of decision-making changes people. Consensus is fundamentally democratic.”
The Town Hall was also co-sponsored by the online service Waccobb.net, which has over 10,000 subscribers and posts information on Occupy regularly. “We need to make systemic changes that are long-lasting,” is founder Barry Chertov asserted.
A professional facilitator, Joseph McIntyre of Aginnovations (www.aginnovations.org), guided the evening in an active, graceful format called the World Café. Everyone quickly self-organized themselves into talking circles of four people and responded to the question “What has Occupy stirred up in your life?” This ignited animated conversations.
“Occupy has shown me ways of working with others and letting go of my own opinions,” 20-something activist Tim Ryan noted. “I’ve gotten more skilled at leaving my ego at the door.” He later added, “Occupy feels patriotic. Being in a rally was the most American thing that I have ever done.”
“Occupy has changed my priorities,” another young person, Justin Diehl, said. “I have become a better person. I party and drink less. I want to keep my mind sharp. Occupy has energized and given me purpose. There is so much energy in the air that it is a natural high.”
“If we want to truly speak for the 99%, we need to diversify ourselves, especially to include more of the Latino community,” noted elder David Walls of Moveon.org.
Among other comments during the report back to the whole group were the following:
* “We can now talk openly without fear.”
* “Occupy is a passion, not just an idea or concept. It is a place where people can stand up and say ‘This is wrong.’”
* “Occupy is a living organism, like the Earth itself, an open system.”
* “Occupy is moral, seeking to implement values such as free speech, liberty, self-reliance, and dignity.”
* “Occupy is a mystery, like a flower unfolding.”
* “We feel better physically—more energized. We’re in touch with our anger.
The word “hope” was the one most often expressed.
People later shifted to other tables to respond to a second question: “What is next for Occupy in our community? Where do we go from here?” Among the responses were the following:
* “It’s all about connecting and interacting with each other. The new relationships that we are building are important. We need to get to know our neighbors better.”
* “We need a local food co-op to replace the corporate Whole Foods.”
* “We need local barter groups to trade things.”
* “We need to organize ourselves into smaller affinity groups for strategic nonviolent direct action.”
* “People have lost their voices. We need to provide a place for people to speak up.”
* “We need to put pressure on the political system.”
In terms of what is next locally, a founding editor from New York of the print and online publication Occupied New York (www.occupiedmedia.us), Michael Levitin, will be speaking in Santa Rosa Dec. 10 to those planning to found a local Occupy publication. The next Town Hall in Sebastopol is being planned for early 2012.
Former mayor Robinson concluded the evening by reciting another poem, this one from Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney from Ireland. It includes the following: “…once in a lifetime/ the longed for tidal wave/ of justice can rise up,/…so hope for a great sea-change/…believe in miracles.”
Occupy is still a baby, having burst into the limelight on Sept. 17 in New York City. This infant is not even three-months-old yet. Patience and nurturing, so that it may grow during the coming year, into toddlerhood, and perhaps beyond, would help it.
(Shepherd Bliss teaches college, has contributed to a couple dozen books, runs an organic farm, and works with various veterans’ groups. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)