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A night with Occupy SF: the faces behind the occupation

By Alexander Schmaus
The Guardsman
A couple sits among the tents at Justin Herman Plaza on Oct. 22, 2011. The camp has expanded from a couple dozen people sleeping on the sidewalk in sleeping bags to several dozen personal tents to huge areas covered by several tarps.

Occupy San Francisco has expanded from the sidewalk in front of the Federal Reserve to nearby Justin Herman Plaza with more than 300 protesters now living at both camps, despite increasingly pressing threats of nighttime raids by the police department.

The protesters camping out in over 50 tents and make-shift lean-tos are attempting to build solidarity with Occupy Wall Street and its message of opposition to extreme inequality. Parallel occupations are popping up in hundreds of cities and towns all across the country, from Seattle to Chicago to Atlanta.

“Occupy San Francisco is a community, you feel the love as soon as you get here,” explained Sara Husain, 23, who moved to the Bay Area from Ohio six weeks ago.

Husain was not surprised by the rapid emergence of the Occupy movement, “people are fed up, people are losing their homes, everyone feels it, a lot of people are working, but they still find ways to support us.”

One of those supportive working people is Randy Howell, a nurse at the UCSF medical center and member of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United, who worked with his union to set up a free first-aid center at the Occupy San Francisco camp and several other occupations across the country.

Howell told the Guardsman “everyone should have a right to basic health-care and that is what we are providing. We’d like to fight for single-payer health-care, free education for all, a living wage for all, and we want a financial transaction tax passed in congress to make Wall Street and Big Business pay.”

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee says that he supports the new movement.

The Mayor released an October 6 statement that he “understands and sympathizes with the anxiety and frustration felt by so many in our country caused by a lingering recession and joblessness… I support the spirit of the Occupy Wall Street movement that calls for peacefully assembling to protest and bring national attention to disparity issues…”

The arrest and alleged police beating of several Occupy San Francisco supporters during the night of October 16-17 raised doubts for many San Franciscans about how committed the Mayor’s office and the San Francisco Police Department really are to protecting the Occupiers’ right to peaceful assembly.

Sean Semans, a full-time San Francisco State student, was one of many Occupy San Francisco participants who spoke about the arrests during the public comment period of the Wednesday, October 19 meeting of the San Francisco Police Commission.

“I was wearing a backpack and my hands were full with a grocery bag of equipment when I was knocked back ten feet and kicked by an officer. Later in the evening, I was picked up and dragged by a group of officers until a senior officer told them to drop me. After being dropped I was kicked in the face by one officer and promptly kicked in the back of the head by another” stated Semans.

“My body is still sore from when they dragged me on the ground, twisting my arms in ways I’ve never felt twisted before,” said a 19 year-old Occupy San Francisco participant who identified herself only by her first name, Zoe.

She went on to describe how the zip-ties around her wrists were fastened so tightly that a police officer needed three different tools to remove them to allow blood to flow back into her hands and how she overheard one officer ask another why they were arresting her, “someone simply yelled, ‘take her!’”

Early in the morning on Tuesday, October 25th, the Occupy Oakland camp was demolished by police, who used tear gas, rubber bullets and “flash-bang” concussion grenades throughout the day and into the night to disperse several thousand demonstrators.

That same day Occupy San Francisco received a letter from San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr titled “You Are Subject To Arrest,” which alleged that the camp is in violation of numerous clauses of the cities Fire, Health and Park Use codes.

And on Wednesday night, several hundred supporters gathered in Justin Herman Plaza to defend the camp from an expected repeat of the Oakland attack. But after gathering a force of riot cops in the early morning hours, the police department called off the raid.

Remarkably, the encampment has continued to grow despite the police threats, with dozens of new tents pitched in the last week.

Occupy San Francisco supporters seem determined to maintain the encampment and are bracing themselves for further police action in the near future.

Public sympathy for Occupy San Francisco is growing at City College, where students have begun to gather in Ram Plaza every Thursday afternoon at 1:30pm in order to discuss how they might support the movement.

Associated Students Council President Bobby Arenas is a firm supporter of Occupy San Francisco. He had this to say when asked why the movement has struck such a cord,

“American leaders have forgotten they need the public’s support. Everything has a threshold, a breaking point. People are realizing that their backs are against the wall. All of our options have been taken away and the only choice left is to fight. It’s now time to take the power back.”

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