Occupy Berkeley movement lacks numbers, leadership

Derek Remsburg/Staff
Occupy Berkeley protesters talk outside of the Bank of America on Shattuck Avenue during their general assembly meeting Tuesday evening.

In a space crammed with tables of food and plastic utensils, blankets and a haphazard arrangement of colorful cardboard signs, members of Occupy Berkeley are camping out — and have been for almost a week.

In front of the Bank of America building in Downtown Berkeley, protesters are joining the larger Occupy Wall Street movement that began last month, demonstrating against what they believe to be social injustice and corporate corruption in the nation.

The largely anonymous protest, which began on Oct. 8 instead of Oct. 15, as originally planned, promotes itself as a democratic, leaderless and “non-violent movement that seeks to represent the 99 percent.” But that call for 99 percent has not been answered — since Saturday, the protest in Berkeley has drawn a number of people wavering between 30 and 200.

Barry Shapiro, a Piedmont resident, called the lack of leadership a “genius new development in the process of people power” but also expressed his disappointment that the movement was not as strong as it should be.

“I’m delighted that these people are out here on the streets,” he said. “But there should be more people, better focus, more imaginative action.”

The protest, which has no permanent leaders but instead shifts leadership to different members of the group each day, hopes to see 5,000 people surround the Bank of America and occupy the space outside for several months, according to Occupy Berkeley’s website. As of Tuesday, only 10 to 15 protesters were camping outside the bank, and 40 to 50 people attended the general assembly meeting that night.

John Holzinger, a UC Berkeley student involved in the movement, said he expects support to pick up after Saturday, the originally advertised date for the protest’s start.

“The momentum right now is to gather people so that they become more aware of the political system and how we need to intervene,” Holzinger said. “The occupation is really for presence, to continuously remind people that some are fighting here for a cause.”

Supporters have mixed feelings about the lack of a leader.

“It has its pluses and minuses,” said Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington. “It’s nice to be egalitarian, but it can also slow down communication. It’s fair but sometimes delays getting a response.”

According to Daniel Ballance, a Berkeley resident who has been homeless for 10 years, this protest is small in comparison to others in the past, and its success will depend on how dedicated every person is. He noted that employees of the bank have mostly been ignoring the demonstration.

At Shattuck Avenue and Center Street, Occupy Berkeley holds daily meetings at 6 p.m. that last several hours because of the democratic process of discussion.

“You have to sit down and hash out all arguments,” Holzinger said. “(At the first meeting,) it took us two hours to decide when and where we were going to start, and it got very tiring. But when it came down to it, it was a group decision, and we all believed in it.”

Tuesday’s general assembly meeting included discussion of daytime security, the drafting of a declaration of purpose and a protest rally planned for Oct. 15 that the group hopes will garner support.

According to organizers and members of the group, the main goal of the protest is to “wake people up” and show them the reality of the country’s political and economic status. Protesters plan to continue camping out in front of the bank for months if necessary.

“To me, the whole thing is about saying that they’re a presence,” said Berkeley resident Juli Dickey. “The purpose is not necessarily to gain anything in particular. It’s to show that they exist and that they’re trying to make a point.”