Occupy San Francisco Is Nothing Like the Old Days
By REYHAN HARMANCI
The first wave of Occupy San Francisco protesters made their way down to the financial district a month ago to take a stand against what they perceived to be a financial system run amok.
Given the city’s reputation for countercultural leadership, it would seem natural that San Francisco, where protests started on Sept. 17, the same day as the flagship Occupy Wall Street in New York, would emerge as a leading voice in this growing movement.
After all, this is the region that gave the world the Summer of Love and the free speech movement, helped ignite the gay rights movement, and contributed mightily to the Vietnam War and gulf war protests.
But even the protesters themselves at Occupy San Francisco, as it is often called, acknowledge the turnout as surprisingly small.
“I think it’s going to need some fine-tuning for San Francisco,” said Daniel Raskin, 68, a retired preschool teacher, speaking from the encampment on Market Street, outside the Federal Reserve building, on Wednesday.
The sidewalk protest has grown from a handful of people to as many as 100 nighttime denizens in recent days, but unlike the protest in New York, where a few thousand are estimated to be participating, Occupy San Francisco has no permanent location — and lacking a camping permit, the group has been forced to move frequently.
Occupy San Francisco, like the other occupation protests around the county, is purposely ad hoc, with volunteer participants creating working groups as they see fit and convening daily to make decisions by consensus at a general assembly. A core group camps at the site at night, with others joining the protest in rallies, marches and other events.
Similar protests, like Occupy Los Angeles and Occupy Boston, regularly draw upward of 200 campers. Famous people from Kanye West to Joseph Stiglitz have made appearances in New York. But besides Naomi Klein, the Canadian economist, who was at Occupy San Francisco on Wednesday, boldface names have been sparse here.
Even local politicians seem to be keeping Occupy San Francisco at arm’s length. Mayor Ed Lee issued a tepid statement of support, but the only frequent visitor has been John Avalos, a supervisor who is running for mayor.
The underwhelming response here has startled many, who point to the area’s storied past.
“You have all manner of social movements here,” said Richard DeLeon, professor emeritus at San Francisco State University and author of “Left Coast City: Progressive Politics in San Francisco 1975-1991.”
Mr. DeLeon ticked off a list that included the 1934 West Coast waterfront strike (a local union protest that sparked national reforms); the Beats of the 1950s (“the foundation for the hippie countercultural movement”); local wars over the Manhattanization of San Francisco, starting in the late ’70s; the antinuclear and antigentrification actions of the ’80s. ’90s and beyond; and the environmental movement. “It’s a caldron,” he said.
So why is Occupy San Francisco, at least so far, not on that list?
Many point to the city’s shifting demographics. The population is older now, and the city is expensive.
Chris Carlsson, a local historian, a biking activist and the editor of the anthology “Ten Years That Shook the City,” said San Francisco had a less radical climate than in the past.
“The obvious main reason is that you can’t afford to live here unless you’re working like a maniac,” Mr. Carlsson said. “Most people who move to change the world are moving to Oakland, or not the Bay Area at all.”
The rise of social media is another new factor in this movement. Occupy San Francisco’s Facebook page has around 7,700 fans, and there are at least three Twitter feeds, with a combined 9,500 or so followers — far greater numbers than the 700 or so who have shown up for the largest marches downtown.
According to Rachel Silver of Movements.org, a New York nonprofit, social media discussion may have partly replaced physical activism. “Some people might say, ‘Oh I’ve educated myself online; I’m watching a livestream — I don’t need to go down there,’ ” she said.
For Cleve Jones, a longtime local activist who supports the protest, Occupy San Francisco’s problem is not a matter of shifting demographics or social media as much as failed outreach. “The folks down there don’t really have the experience and are not really aware of the traditions of protest in this town,” he said, adding that being new to activism was not “necessarily a bad thing,” a view shared by many of the protesters.
There are signs that the current situation may change. Supporters point to Occupy San Francisco’s steady growth; the bank protest on Wednesday, during which 11 people were arrested, brought a reported 30 different groups totaling around 500 people together in solidarity.
Mr. Jones remains hopeful. “This is the first populist uprising since the ’30s,” he said. “I think S.F. should be leading the protest, not lagging behind.”
Steve Fainaru contributed reporting.