Occupy Wall Street West


ON JANUARY 20, more than 1,000 people participated in Occupy San Francisco's call to "Occupy Wall Street West."

Considered to be the heart of the financial system on the West Coast, the call to Occupy San Francisco's financial sector was made to coincide with the second anniversary of the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling that recognized corporations as having all the rights of people.

Dozens of actions were held at various points in the city, an impressive feat that made a precise estimate of the total turnout difficult. But hundreds at least braved the rain and cold for a creative and militant protest that lasted more than 12 hours. The day of action marked a clear step forward for the Occupy movement in San Francisco, demonstrating that organizing has continued and ties to the community have grown stronger.

The day began early with an action at Goldman Sachs led by members of Code Pink. As the morning went on, protests trickled to other bank and financial institutions responsible for the economic crisis and to demonstrate how corporations profit off people.

Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) held actions all day at the Bechtel Corp. to highlight how corporations profit off war. Additionally, members of IVAW performed "Operation First Casualty" at various locations throughout the day to highlight how the 99 percent in Iraq and Afghanistan live on a daily basis.

Early morning demonstrators at the banks chained themselves together with lockboxes at the entrances to Wells Fargo's headquarters, leading to a number of arrests.

Around the corner, at the main branch of Bank of America, activists remained chained together throughout the day, forcing the bank to close and drawing attention to a number of anti-foreclosure campaigns in the Bay View and Excelsior neighborhoods of San Francisco, which are comprised primarily of working-class families and people of color. Josephine Tolbert, Geary Brown, Magdalena Diaz, and La Mesha Irizzary–all members of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE)–have been fighting against their foreclosures for months.

While activists blocked entrances in front of the Wells Fargo and Bank of America, members of Occupy SFSU and the San Francisco Tenants Union hosted a "housewarming," where they placed furniture in front of a CitiBank branch to demonstrate what happens when a family is evicted from their home.

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DOWN THE road, members of Occupy San Francisco shut down the Bank of America branch between Bradley Manning Plaza and 101 Market Street–locations of former Occupy encampments–by opening a food bank called "People's Bank of America." This was not only the central hub for food distribution for the many actions throughout the day, but also a location where people could drop off non-perishable food that was donated to food banks throughout the city.

As morning actions continued, ACCE and Rainforest Action Network (RAN) marched throughout Wall Street West to each Bank of America branch to hold the bank accountable for evictions and foreclosures as well as its funding of projects that are responsible for global warming. The "March of Shame" ended in a rally at the main Bank of America branch where foreclosure and environmental activists supported those blocking the entrance.

Homeowners working with ACCE spoke about their experience with Bank of America and called for negotiations to allow them to stay in their homes. "I'm fighting for other foreclosure fighters that are facing the same crisis," stated Josephine Tolbert. "I am 75-years-old, and I don't know how I'm going to relocate and start my life all over again. We've got to stop Bank of America. We've got power here, but it's going to be a hard fight."

At each of the bank actions, activists demanded a moratorium on all foreclosures and evictions for profit. Though police gathered in the area from time to time, they were followed by swarms of protesters who had been alerted by a text-message system organized by the Occupy SF Communications Working Group.

Residents of the Bernal Heights neighborhood recently formed Occupy Bernal, which has focused on fighting evictions and foreclosures. In the morning, as many as 40 Occupy Bernal supporters picketed at local neighborhood branches of Bank of America and Wells Fargo, with several foreclosure fighters speaking about their battles with Wells Fargo.

At Bank of America, as protesters tried to deliver a letter calling for a stop to foreclosures and evictions for profit, the bank closed its doors. At Wells Fargo, the bank manager came out to talk to the group, went inside, and faxed the letter to corporate headquarters. Protesters vowed to come back until neighborhood residents had received, at the very least, loan modifications.

The highlight of the day for Occupy Bernal activists was learning that the auction of a member's home had been postponed. Maria Davila and her husband Washington are tenants on the 4200 block of Folsom Street, and their landlord, who lives in another state, is facing foreclosure. According to the Ellis Act, the Davilas can be evicted if an owner-occupant comes to own the house.

Occupy Bernal, alongside the Davilas, had decided to disrupt the auction in order to save the home, and had been mobilizing support for the action from Occupy San Francisco, ACCE, and others. When Occupy Bernal activists learned that the auction of the Davilas' home had been postponed, they burst into celebration. A rally on city hall steps that had been called to disrupt the auction instead became a celebration, while speeches by foreclosure fighters reminded everyone that the fight is far from over.

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IN THE afternoon, a sizable and diverse march, organized by a few groups including Just Cause and Service Employees International Union-United Service Workers West (SEIU-USSW), and augmented by a contingent from Occupy Oakland marched to Fannie Mae, Wells Fargo and Immigration Customs Enforcement, chanting "We are the 99 percent! Somos el noventa y nueve!"

Marchers exposed the fact that Wells Fargo invests in immigrant detention facilities, further terrorizing immigrant communities that are already hard hit by the housing crisis. Additionally, the march highlighted the role of the federal government and its economic and immigration policies in tearing families apart.

Later in the afternoon, protesters circled a high-rise office building that houses the offices of Fortress Investments, which is responsible for a controversial redevelopment project at the Parkmerced housing complex. Activists from the Tenants' Union, Eviction Defense Collaborative and Housing Rights Committee of Occupy SF spoke about the plans to demolish 1,500 rent-controlled units and replace them with nearly 9,000 new units with a rent-control status that would no longer be protected by law, but instead through a contested agreement between developers and the city.

The demonstration also took up the cause of a number of labor struggles. Members of UNITE-HERE Local 2 who work at the Hyatt at Union Square have been on the picket lines, demanding that the company sign a contract that defends working conditions of hotel employees. Dozens of union activists, including members of United Educators of San Francisco, showed up to support the picket line on the day of action.

The numbers on the picket swelled even more when a contingent from Occupy Oakland came to support the workers. After a speakout at the State Building, students converged on the spirited picket line, bringing the numbers to almost 200 people.

Fred Higashihara, a worker from Local 2, explained that the workers were protesting because "Hyatt has the highest injury rate in the industry, maids have to clean 30 rooms a day." He added, "The Occupy movement can help labor. We will be stronger if we work together."

Occupy activists also picketed a Ralph Lauren store in support of port truck drivers. Ralph Lauren is one of the biggest customers of Toll Group, an Australia-based logistics company that is responsible for sweatshop working conditions for its port truck drivers and fired a group of truckers at the Long Beach port for attempting to organize with the Teamsters. Around two dozen activists attended, handing out fliers and chanting, "What's disgusting? Union busting!"

Matt Bello, a member of the Occupy SF Labor Solidarity Working Group and a teacher in San Francisco explained, "We are here to show support for port truck drivers' right to form a union. By working with Toll Group, Ralph Lauren is responsible for sweatshop working conditions at ports on the West Coast."

Activists also organized a last-minute action in support of the International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU), which has been waging a protracted struggle against international conglomerate EGT in Longview, Wash. Protesters demanded to speak with the manager at the San Francisco office of Oilseed International, a subsidiary of Itochu, one of the owners of EGT. When the manager refused and promptly called security and the police, activists chanted, "United we stand, divided we fall, an injury to one is an injury to all" and "We are the 99 percent!" before being escorted out. They vowed to return.

In the afternoon, some 50 students from San Francisco State University and City College of San Francisco, teachers from the American Federation of Teachers Local 2121, and community members entered the State Building on Golden Gate Avenue. The crowd left after about 45 minutes, proclaiming that they would be back to see Gov. Jerry Brown at the Capitol on March 5, the day of a statewide convergence to occupy the building in defense of education and social services.

The final scheduled event of the day was a unity march, rally and celebration in front of the main Bank of America branch that had been locked down all day. Activists packed the 400 block of Montgomery Street with one of the most diverse crowds that Occupy SF has mobilized to date.

As the rally ended, a few activists announced that a building had been occupied and that reinforcements were needed to defend it. A large portion of the crowd followed them on a winding march through driving rain to the Cathedral Hotel on Geary and Van Ness.

The vacant building has been the site of previous labor disputes, and current owner Sutter Health is already under fire from organized labor for plans to use non-union labor in a future facility at the site. After a standoff between police and activists in the street, a number of occupiers were able to enter the building. Reportedly, a dozen protesters were pepper sprayed, but no one was arrested after police entered the building and the remaining occupiers agreed to leave.

The success of Occupy Wall Street West shows the potential and resilience of the Occupy movement in the face of austerity and repression. The day of action demonstrated that Occupiers can link arms with community and labor organizations in the fight for the interests of the 99 percent.

Julien Ball, Melissa Cornelius, Robin Horne, Diana Macasa and Dan Riazanov contributed to this article.  

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