Occupy Spirit — West Coast Style?

By Rachael Peltz (rapeltz@earthlink.net)

Every Monday for quite some time now, on the way home from work I noticed a group congregated in front of the old Oaks theatre in north Berkeley.  The group could vary in size from about 20 up to 100. Most of the people looked over 65. They were carrying different placards including:

“Tax the rich – increase taxes on the wealthy!”

Berkeley, Raise the minimum wage!

Save the food stamp program

The time for apathy is over folks

The rich have loopholes, we have pot holes

The curse of poverty has no justification

Jobs 4 veterans.

We need radical reordering and national priorities

Whenever I had the opportunity to drive by I joined with others who honked their horns as a show of support.


Even after Occupy died down, this group continued to gather each Monday late afternoon. I poked around and was able to join the listserve, which enabled me to receive the steady stream of informative announcements about legislative votes, indignities, editorials, and future organizing efforts.

Each posting was signed by a man named Harry Brill,  a retired sociologist and self taught organizer.

Around the time I became curious about Harry, our section 9 board began exchanging demoralized messages about the end of the Occupy movement, nothing lasting having come of it. It didn’t strike me that way at all.

RP: Thanks for meeting with me Harry. Tell us about your group and how it came to be. It seemed to start right around the beginning of the Occupy Movement.

We began five days before Occupy, September 12, 2011. Our rallies were a way of saying we have larger, deeper concerns that we felt we were making public by making our presence felt . People can assume nothing exists. Occupy caught peoples’ attention – as we did.

RP: What precipitated you starting?

A friend of mine who is an artist was upset about inequality in the US. She asked some of us to gather on Solano – and we continued to gather, and haven’t missed a Monday since.

One way to sustain these activities is to have fun. The idea is to work in the context in which you can create a joy in living. Organizing gives me joy. It isn’t a sacrifice. As you’ve probably heard the political is personal. I try to help people use their abilities and make sure they are involved in the decisions we make as a group.

RP: How do you practically manage? Some have criticized Occupy for being unwieldy and lacking a structure for leadership.

We meet every Monday. Sometimes we rent a hall. Otherwise we meet on the street. I and others talk to every person who attends. We ask about their interests. We introduce ourselves to each other. We have created a community in the street. This September it will be two years, never missing a Monday. We are broadly defined as political. How do you go about it? We educate people and we want to find ways people can feel good about themselves through their participation.

RP: What issues bring people together?

We worked very hard on Proposition 30, which succeeded, for instance, and as a result there hasn’t been a single layoff of one teacher. Proposition 30 was a bailout measure to increase taxes to fund schools without any major layoffs.  It’s very hard to get tax measures through. By the time my wife and I went to sleep the night of the election, we were losing. The next thing I knew my wife woke me up because it was winning. This was a major victory and it involved a huge amount of energy.

There are different ways of thinking about organizing. It’s good to bring in people who haven’t been active and to talk to them about their concerns. The idea is to involve people in ways they feel comfortable. My major goal is meeting others, not just ourselves.

It’s important to have live music in a movement. We have wonderful musicians who play every Monday. People slow down . Then we give people leaflets. It’s both inspirational and strategic.  There is a festive aspect and it’s working.

There are many issues we work on – all focused on inequality.

Take for instance food stamps. 47 million people depend on them, They are mostly low wage workers. We are also concerned about the future of Social Security and medicare.

RP: How do you define your concerns?

I was a professor in sociology at U. Mass – a part-timer. I opposed prorating. I thought, let’s be idealists and push for benefits for part-time workers, anyone half/time or more. We won. We had a vision and we were also being practical.

We live in a culture of low expectations. It’s a mistake. Making high demands is pragmatic. Above all we operate democratically. Even if we lose, we want people to feel more empowered. It took decades to get the 40 hour week.

Good leaders walk along side, not in front or in back.  It’s hard for even good leaders to work democratically.

Recently we went to the Bank of America and they kicked us out. We came back with 100 people to meet with them about foreclosures. They talked with us, and we had a good meeting. They agreed to no sub prime mortgages.

We wanted them to know we were around and watching. They got to like us. Partly because at one point there was a huge picket line. One guy was being very obnoxious. My wife decided to stand between him and the camera guy from the bank. . The manager appreciated that.

Another issue we think about has to do with not lighting a blowtorch if a match will do. Go gentle, more carefully. Don’t “up it” until you need to.

RP: Do you work with unions?

Oh yes. We join picket lines. We want to form a large community of organizers.

RP: Do you have “regulars” who attend the rallies?

Yes, about 30, on the older side, people from around the community. We’re not a formal organization. We’re called the East Bay Tax the Rich group. I’m also a member of the Wellstone Democratic Club.

RP: Let’s talk more about your vision.

When the means justify the ends the aesthetic dimension is important. One of those ends is people feeling fulfilled.   We’re social beings with capacities to give and who earn respect by doing good things.  When I was growing up, my Jewish mother gave me the impression that giving is giving up –that you give out of guilt instead of feeling replenished  and energized. I want to promote learning to give in the best sense, not with a sense of sacrifice. I hope to encourage others to give in the best sense.

RP: How do you determine the issue to publicize from week to week?

The issues are handed to us. For example, the food stamp program was cut. We organize around inequality. We don’t want to get too dispersed. We choose issues and develop strategies. I write the leaflets that offer an educational component. We don’t want to just whine, we want to address the issues.

When the auto-mechanics from Berkeley Honda went on strike six years ago I heard one of them say, “it never occurred to me that a stranger could help us.” We gave people a different point of view of the possibilities. We gave without giving up.

RP:  What are your hopes for the future?

I hope for a society that puts human needs over profit. It’s an old slogan, “People before profits.” It’s important to do what we can to experience the joy of living. There’s nothing narcissistic about that. Judging people for joyful living was a mistake in the left.

A sample post from East Bay Tax the Rich:

“Those of us who have been rallying Mondays are deeply troubled about how much inequality adversely effects our lives and the quality of life of the 99 percent generally. Bill Moyers, who has a wonderful way with words, expresses his concern:

“If you get sick without health coverage, inequality matters.

If you’re the only bread winner, and out of work, inequality matters.

If your local public library closes down and you can’t afford to buy books on your own, inequality matters.

If budget cuts mean your child has to pay to play on the school basketball team, or sing in the chorus, or march in the band, inequality matters.

If you lose your job when you’re about to retire, inequality matters.

And if the financial system collapses and knocks the props from beneath your pension, inequality matters.”

We are building a growing movement to address that dreaded disease, inequality. The more of you who join us, the greater our clout. Please come and bring your friends and neighbors to our Monday 4:30pm rally near the top of Solano.”

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