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In Small Town Sebastopol, Occupy Movement Stirs Hope Of Big Changes

Posted: 12/11/11 02:43 PM ET

The uniformed police chief of the small California town of Sebastopol walked toward Occupy Sebastopol's decision-making General Assembly (GA). It was Veteran's Day, and many veterans, some of them homeless, had integrated with Occupy gatherings around the nation. Occupiers in larger cities might have been nervous. But the Chief carried a plate of brownies in his hand.

"These are from the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW)," Chief Jeff Weaver said to the group. Praise followed him as he left.

Occupy Wall Street-events in big cities like New York, Oakland and Los Angeles receive considerable coverage in the mainstream media, especially when police react. Less known is the fact that the 'Occupy' movement has reached into small towns and mid-size cities around the country, engaging people in new conversations and moving into the local political sphere.

In semi-agrarian Sonoma County, just north of San Francisco, Occupy Sebastopol (OS) is creating a beehive of activity from the public square of Sebastopol, an apple-growing, environmentally conscious town that describes itself as "Peacetown, USA."

Best known for its fine wines, Sonoma County has the most lucrative wine industry in the U.S. The first wine billionaire, Jess Jackson, has his wineries and vineyards here, as does the giant Gallo Corporation. Most of the nearly 8,000 locals, however, still tend to think of this region as the nature-based Redwood Empire, in contrast to the commercial wine country of next-door Napa County.

On Dec. 6, Sebastopol's City Council unanimously passed a detailed resolution to support OS, proposed by former mayor and current City Council member Sarah Gurney. Another Councilmember, Kathleen Shaffer, has an occupy sign in her front yard.

The formulation of the resolution concluded half a dozen previous City Council meetings on Occupy. They sometimes went late into the evening with public testimony by dozens of people, all in favor of Occupy, except for one person.

"It seems clear that the community supports this resolution," Mayor Guy Wilson said.

Among its assertions are that "Nearly one in six Americans live in poverty" and that wealth and power are concentrated "in the hands of the top one percent of the American people."

"The Occupy Movement has changed the national dialogue and garnered enormous public support around the nation," the resolution asserts.

The Occupy movement made its first public splash in Sonoma Country on Oct. 15, organized by Occupy Santa Rosa in the county's capital. Some 3000 people gathered in front of City Hall and marched around corporate banks, led by the raucous HubBub Band. It was the sixth largest Occupy gathering yet, according to The New York Times, and thus the most people per capita at an opening Occupy event.

Occupy Sebastopol began its encampment on Nov. 5 and soon filled the town square, in a busy intersection facing a Whole Foods market. They later reached a compromise with city officials and agreed to end its overnight stays in exchange for permission to keep one large tent up in which to display educational materials.

On Dec. 8, 130 people attended a Town Hall meeting on Occupy in Sebastopol's largest downtown church, the United Methodist. Among them were young people who had camped out, farmers, co-housing residents, peace activists, retirees, teachers, a Zen priest, a philanthropist, activists from groups such as the Peace and Justice Center, Grange, and Transition Sebastopol, and members of the nearby Occupy Santa Rosa. The Rev. Judith Stone opened the meeting.

"When 700 people crossing the Brooklyn Bridge were arrested, I was touched by all the young people and how roughly they were treated by the police," she said, and affirmed "the importance of the youth in building a social movement that values radical democracy."

"This is an exciting moment--a pivotal time in history," said former Sebastopol mayor Larry Robinson. "What we do in this moment can determine our future and that of our species. This is a time for everyone's voices to be heard."

The intention of the Town Hall, in the New England tradition, was to widen participation in the local movement. It sought to draw people into the public conversation who had been watching from the sidelines, which it succeeded in doing.

"Listening is most important. The process of change is as significant as the product," Robinson noted. He began the evening by reciting a poem by pacifist William Stafford that concluded, "The darkness around us is deep."

The gathering was co-sponsored by the Leadership Institute for Ecology and the Economy, which for a decade has trained local leaders, many of whom went on to elected positions.

"We support the Occupy movement," its Executive Director, Tanya Narath noted. "We are interested in helping the community find ways to broaden the movement for sustainability."

"Occupy is a new way of being," Institute member Matt Stevens said. "Its consensus means of decision-making changes people. Consensus is fundamentally democratic."

The Town Hall was co-sponsored by the online service Waccobb.net, which has over 10,000 subscribers and posts information on Occupy regularly.

"We need to make systemic changes that are long-lasting," Waccobb founder Barry Chertov asserted.

A professional facilitator, Joseph McIntyre of Aginnovations, guided the evening in an active, graceful format called the World Café. Everyone quickly self-organized themselves into talking circles of four people and responded to the question "What has Occupy stirred up in your life?" This ignited animated conversations.

"Occupy has shown me ways of working with others and letting go of my own opinions," 20-something activist Tim Ryan noted. "I've gotten more skilled at leaving my ego at the door." He later added, "Occupy feels patriotic. Being in a rally was the most American thing that I have ever done."

"Occupy has changed my priorities," another young person, Justin Diehl, said. "I have become a better person. I party and drink less. I want to keep my mind sharp. Occupy has energized and given me purpose. There is so much energy in the air that it is a natural high."

Also acknowledged was the need for OS to be inclusive of minority groups in the area.

"If we want to truly speak for the 99%, we need to diversify ourselves, especially to include more of the Latino community," noted elder David Walls of Moveon.org.

Discussion of "What is next for Occupy in our community?" brought forward ideas for a local, non-corporate food coop, the creation of local bartering systems, and the organization of planning groups for strategic non-violent direct action to put pressure on the existing political system. Others want to found a local Occupy newspaper, along the lines of the Occupied Wall Street Journal, of which Sonoma County native Michael Levitin is an editor.

Former mayor Robinson concluded the evening by reciting another poem, this one from the Irish Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney.

"Once in a lifetime/ the longed for tidal wave/ of justice can rise up/...so hope for a great sea-change/...believe in miracles," Robinson recited.

The next Sebastopol town hall meeting is being planned for early 2012.

Shepherd Bliss teaches college, runs an organic farm and works with various veterans' groups in Sonoma County, CA. This is his first piece for Off the Bus. If you would like to contribute as a citizen journalist to The Huffington Post's coverage of the 2012 elections and American political life, please contact us at www.offthebus.org.