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Occupy the Wine Country: Movement Broadens, Embraces Latino Struggle

Posted: 01/11/12 06:14 PM ET

Like the grapevines collecting energy for a spring bloom, Occupy groups in Northern California are preparing this winter to extend their reach into the Latino, business and other local communities.

Sonoma County Occupy opened 2012 with two well-attended events -- one in the streets and another inside. Around 140 people attended a county-wide Town Hall on Occupy at Sebastopol's United Methodist church on Jan. 8. Two days earlier, over 400 protestors temporarily shut down two Wells Fargo Bank branches in Santa Rosa.

On Jan. 6 Occupy Santa Rosa joined forces with various Latino and immigration rights groups to march on the local branches of Wells Fargo. They targeted the bank because of its investments in two private prison corporations, foreclosure of local homes, and for receiving $25 billion in taxpayer bail-out dollars, while paying CEO John Stumpf $19 million in 2010. Seven protestors were arrested but have since been cited and released.

The dramatic day included the colorful arrival of dozens of cyclists on a 13.5-mile "Pedal for Justice" ride.

"Occupy Petaluma believes that frustrations with our current system can be channeled in peaceful and creative ways," said organizer Jessica Strasen. "We seek to inspire others to rediscover the ability to occupy our own lives, and be a part of creating our shared future."

The rally began in Roseland, a largely Latino neighborhood. It included Aztec dancers in bright-feathered headdresses and a theater performance on a large flatbed tow truck. The Graton Day Labor Center, one of the half dozen sponsors of the rally, wrote the bi-lingual play.

"The next big event of Occupy Santa Rosa will be in March around education," said Frank Anderson, 20, a moderator of the Wells Fargo action. "Our educational system is falling apart and getting worse. The No Child Left Behind Act is for profit and does not help kids. We are speaking with local teachers' unions to work together to protest school day reductions."

On Jan. 8, Town Hall participants included veteran activists from Occupy Sebastopol, Occupy Santa Rosa, Occupy Petaluma, and from the surrounding towns of Sonoma, Healdsburg and Guerneville, as well as newcomers to the movement.

"The goal of this evening," said co-facilitator Jeff Aitken, "is to help Occupy deepen and broaden."

He explained that the Open Space meeting method being employed encourages those present to create their own agenda based on where their "passion and responsibility" is.

Organizer Ben Browner added, "Seeing people connect is what Occupy is about. It is a movement, a school, a network."

At the meeting, some two dozen people convened smaller groups based on their Occupy-related interests. One of the best-attended groups was about finding and keeping the movement's focus, convened by Larry Robinson, a former Sebastopol mayor and City Council member.

Other popular groups were on the foreclosure of homes, a focus of Occupy Petaluma, and the Move to Amend, which seeks to change the U.S. constitution because "corporations are not people and money is not speech," according to convener Abraham Entin.

There were also groups on public education, big bank divestiture, having an Occupy presence at the annual Harmony Festival, racial diversity, creating an Occupy Learning Center, and organizing the new North Bay Occupied newspaper.

North Bay Re-Occupied Press was founded after nearly a month of meetings and plans, with the goal of publishing a print and electronic newspaper sometime in the spring. Some planners say that the recent New York Times sale of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat to a conservative Florida publishing chain may open a space for a new grass roots publication.

During December the local Occupy movement did not receive much corporate media attention, compared to its regular front-page autumn coverage. Yet Occupy groups were quite active behind the scenes preparing for an expected spring flowering.

A look at the www.occupysantarosa.org website reveals multiple meetings happening almost every day. The websites www.occupysebastopol.net and www.occupypetaluma.com have been launched. OccupySolutions, a small affinity group, began a Community Learning Center at the Arlene Francis Center in Santa Rosa's Railroad Square. It will offer a series of free and open to the public classes, trainings, and teach-ins. Other trainings have been occurring regularly at the Peace and Justice Center and in people's homes.

At the January 8 Town Hall meeting were members of groups such as the Leadership Institute for Ecology and the Economy, the historic Grange, and Moveon.org. Sebastopol City Council member Kathleen Schaffer attended, as did former Sonoma County Supervisor Ernie Carpenter. The age range was from 20 to 92 years old.

"This has been like a really great cocktail party where you get to meet lots of people and have the interesting conversations you want to have," said co-facilitator Beth Meredith of Create the Good Life.

"The habits of how to do democracy and how to tolerate differences are changing," said organizer Joseph McIntyre of AgInnovations at a debriefing the next day. "Some people were there for education. Others are more interested in engagement. What is needed next? Are we going to start organizing ourselves for action?"

"I was delighted to see the high level of energy and enthusiasm. The Occupy movement has tapped a long pent-up desire to take focused, effective action," said Barry Chertov of WaccoBB.net, an online bulletin board that co-sponsors the Town Halls. "It's clear the energy behind the Occupy movement is still strong and manifesting in a rainbow of exciting initiatives, both locally and nationally focused."

Monthly Town Hall meetings are planned for Feb. 9 and "as long as needed," according to Robinson, in the United Methodist Church of Sebastopol.

Just as Sonoma County is a leader in wine production throughout the nation, this semi-rural California region is proactive with regards to questions being asked by Occupy organizers around and beyond the United States.

Shepherd Bliss teaches college, runs an organic farm, and works with various veterans' groups in Sonoma County, CA. If you are interested in con tributing as a citizen journalist to The Huffington Post's coverage of American political life, please contact us at www.offthebus.org.