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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on October 25th, 2011, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 12, Issue 34 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 12, Issue 34

There's something happening here

The 'Occupy Everywhere' movement comes to Northern Santa Barbara County

BY JEREMY THOMAS

With one hand holding an American flag, the other holding a sign scrawled in red ink reading “We Are the 99%,” 84-year-old Doris Stephens joined a smattering of protesters at Central Plaza Park in downtown Santa Maria.


Voicing anger:
About 50 protesters showed up in Lompoc’s Sculpture Park on Oct. 15, in a show of solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Organizers said the group will continue to meet every Saturday indefinitely.
PHOTO COURTESY OF ROBERT CUTHBERT

While passing cars—many honking horns in support—rolled down Broadway, the Orcutt resident decried years of government overspending.

“I’m afraid our country is going to end up like Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome,” Stephens said. “They had their high point, and then they fell. It’s been a great run so far, but I don’t feel confident about the future.”

 Stephens’ views were common among the small group gathered at the Occupy Santa Maria meet and greet event on Oct. 19, where protestors young and old and from varied backgrounds discussed where the embryonic movement is headed.

Santa Maria resident Sean Neer maintains the Occupy Santa Maria Facebook page and set up the meeting to give protesters a gathering place to share their ideas. Neer, who recently lost his job, said he was drawn to the movement out of concern over the widening gap between rich and poor.

“It’s out of control, and the system is just going to keep it that way unless we do something about it,” Neer said. “Even just voicing our opinions is making waves and getting enough attention, now that they know people want this change.”

Neer said he—like many who consider themselves part of the “99 percent” at the bottom of the economic ladder—doesn’t see an improvement in his quality of life without a major overhaul of the political process. He said he expects the movement to continue indefinitely, eventually making an impact.

“I don’t think there’s any time period put on it, until the people actually see enough change that their lives change, and they’re not just going paycheck to paycheck, or upside down on their loans,” he said. “Until that time, I think we’re going to see support.”

On Oct. 22, the local group held an official meeting to vote on their positions, principles, and demands. Members said they planned to hold “general assembly” meetings every weekend at different city parks.


Taking it to the streets:
A small, but vocal group of Occupy protesters waved signs at Central Plaza Park in downtown Santa Maria during a meet-and-greet event on Oct. 19. Members expected the group’s numbers to swell to hundreds for their second general assembly meeting on Oct. 22 near City Hall.
PHOTO BY JEREMY THOMAS

Group moderator Edwin Alvarez, a computer technician and student at Allan Hancock College, said he was “tired of the silence,” and joined the group to show solidarity with the leaderless Occupy Wall Street movement.

“This government is supposed to be about equality, but it doesn’t seem equal anymore,” Alvarez said. “The 1 percent who own everything seem to have control of the government. The 99 percent is everybody else, who is paying not only higher taxes and more costs for everything, but also paying with higher unemployment and high costs of education.”

Alvarez said the situation has led to unaffordable medical care, low wages, and few jobs for people in lower economic brackets.

“We can’t allow that apathy to continue,” Alvarez said. “The idea with Occupy Santa Maria is to let loose a little outrage at the system that is favoring the rich and taking it out on the poor.”

Fellow protester Sean Samonas, 27, a retail employee from Santa Maria, said he sympathized with the national Occupy movement and took issue with what he called “derogatory” media coverage of the phenomenon.

“It’s kind of like the Wizard of Oz, where you’re seeing the curtain rippling and you see a guy standing behind it, telling the government what to say and what the national media should do,” Samonas said. “It’s kind of disturbing when you look at it.”

Fearing another Great Depression, Samonas bemoaned bailouts, banks, and Wall Street’s role in the foreclosure crisis. He said he hopes the broader movement succeeds in reforming the banking system and ending the two-party system.

“We’re here for the community, and we’re fighting for everyone—not just the poor,” he said. “We want it to be fair for everyone.”

The Occupy Santa Maria movement started as an online group, and within five days, more than 20 people had signed up. Their first general assembly meeting on Oct. 15 drew about 40 people to the Santa Maria Public Library, and there the group agreed on several aims, including changing the tax code for corporations, and affirmed a commitment to nonviolence.


Signs are everywhere:
An unidentified protester held a sign during an “Occupy Lompoc” event at Sculpture Park on Oct. 15.
PHOTO COURTESY OF ROBERT CUTHBERT

Meanwhile, over at Sculpture Park in Lompoc, about 50 Occupy protesters gathered that day for three hours for a general assembly meeting. A second gathering on Oct. 22 drew more people, and organizers finalized several committees known as “Bottom Liners,” each with specific tasks.

Robert Cuthbert, a member of Occupy Lompoc who handles media outreach, said the group’s concerns parallel the national Occupy model—the economy, bailouts, corporate influence of politicians, and a lack of jobs.

“In 30 to 40 years, they’ll look at these times as a form of corruption,” Cuthbert said. “You have moneyed interests, essentially the corporations, able to drive legislation in their favor. That’s part of the reason why we got into the Wall Street mess.”

Cuthbert said Occupy Lompoc members want the group to be broadly representative, addressing a wide variety of concerns, from health care to veterans’ and environmental issues. As the national movement gains momentum, he said, politicians will be forced to pay attention.

“The best outcome of Occupy is that’s it’s going to get people to feel that they can have a positive effect,” he said. “Direct contact with our elected people just isn’t working right now, so we’re resorting to the streets.”

Occupy Lompoc will continue to meet on Saturdays, on the corner of H Street and Ocean Avenue, from noon to 3 p.m., Cuthbert said. Though there’s thus far no connection between the Santa Maria, Lompoc, and Santa Barbara Occupy chapters, there are plans to eventually combine them into one central march, organizers said.

Occupy Santa Maria member Alvarez said his group is planning to expand into Guadalupe, using every medium of communication to strengthen their numbers. At some point, Alvarez said, “Occupy Everywhere” will ultimately need to coalesce its demands to be successful.

“If we can have a national movement that can agree on very specific things that can be done or changed by the government, and then follow it up with an election campaign to hold them accountable, then I think we’ve had a victory,” he said. “You’re beginning to see a victory already. We went from being silent to being outspoken. That’s the first step.”

Occupy Santa Maria’s Stephens said she hopes the movement eventually results in a restructuring of the political system.

“It puts a lot of pressure on people who need pressure put on them, and I hope it helps save our economy,” Stephens said. “We want more people to join us. We need help.”

Staff Writer Jeremy Thomas can be contacted at jthomas@santamariasun.com.