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Occupy Santa Rosa: Time for new strategy?


A few days before the tent city was erected at Santa Rosa City Hall, Arthur Warmoth, a retired Sonoma State University professor, visited the Occupy site to show his support.

The local protest, not yet two weeks old, already had begun to wane and conflicts were erupting with homeless people and troublesome transient youth. What's more, Occupy protesters were gearing to reinvigorate their movement — by pitching tents.

Warmoth, a member of the Sonoma County Human Rights Commission, made a suggestion that would seem contradictory to the driving principle of the Occupy movement: go home at night. He revisited that thought last week at the Occupy site.

"It's more important to have a presence here every day than it is to have people here 24 hours a day," he said. "People are going to have to be here for months in order to keep it in the media."

At a time when cities across the country are dismantling Occupy settlements, some local Occupy supporters, and even active participants, are calling for a new strategy, one that focuses on issues with broad political appeal such as ending income inequality and protesting corporate influence in American politics.

"If each march was a quarter of the size as the first march, but addressed one of the half-dozen key issues that need to be addressed in order to deal with the economy, that could have a powerful educational effect," Warmoth said. "And it could invigorate the sustainability of the movement in the county."

Occupy protesters on Thursday rejected the city's process for issuing permits, claiming Santa Rosa reneged on negotiated terms that would have granted permits to about 100 tents. The city offered to issue permits for about half that amount, which protesters said could lead to evictions.

In a statement, the group claimed that its representatives had spent between 300 to 400 hours negotiating a permit process. For some local Occupy supporters, so many hours spent on the sole issue of camping took away from time that could be spent on organizing a more concrete movement.

"The major questions for a lot of us who have supported the Occupy movement for some time, is where will the movement go," said Stephen Gale, chairman of the Sonoma County Democratic Party.

"One of the difficulties with maintaining an encampment is the fact that it takes time and effort to build what is essentially a city within a city," Gale said. "And as the weather becomes more severe, the time required for those discussions and actions could affect the ability to take direct actions, such as Bank Transfer Day."

Gale said that the local Occupy movement runs the risk of "losing focus on the primary reason why the community came together to begin with."

Dominic Tierney, an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College, said in an email that the Occupy movement's "style of demonstrations is likely to be counterproductive."

"Ben Franklin said fish and visitors go stale after three days, and that is captured in what I think will be declining tolerance for the encampments," he wrote.

Tierney, who is a regular contributor to the Atlantic magazine, said the Occupy movement could face a "winter of discontent" characterized by "declining public approval, Democratic politicians distancing themselves from the movement, a failure to advance progressive goals, and a wasted opportunity."

The Canadian magazine Adbusters, which helped launch the Occupy Wall Street movement, suggested last week that occupiers might "declare &‘victory'<TH>" and essentially wind down for the winter, "while the die-hards hold the camps."

To be sure, many local occupy participants insist that it is the "occupation" of public spaces that has kept the movement in the media and brought unprecedented attention to the global economic crisis.

But others admit that attention spans are wearing thin.

Mayor Ernesto Olivares said he'd like to begin working with the group to find a "peaceful way of stopping the camping" while allowing the protest to continue.

Local Occupy organizer Will Kelly, speaking for himself, said, "I see the mayor's point — that the tents are blurring the message, and they are."