Social Justice Groups Engage Occupy Movement

Social justice organizations in the Bay Area are joining forces with the Occupy movements in Oakland and San Francisco.

Local nonprofits that have been advocating for the eradication of economic inequities in various sectors of society for years are finding that the Occupy movements are presenting a unique opening to engage in dialogue across socioeconomic lines on the widespread wealth disparity in the country.

“Organizations like ours that have been doing base-building work and community organizing work have a lot in common with those protestors,” said María Poblet, executive director of Causa Justa, which works to promote low-income tenants’ rights in Oakland and San Francisco.

“In fact, some of us are those protestors,” she added. “So there’s a great opportunity there to get even more concrete on what we’re asking for and use our collective strength to win some gains for our community, ‘cause we want both to build a long-term movement and transform our society.”

Poblet said that her organization was one of those behind last week’s general strike in Oakland.

The relationship forming between the Occupiers and community groups, however, seems to be symbiotic in nature.

Poblet said members of Occupy Oakland and Occupy San Francisco have been supportive of Causa Justa’s three-year-old campaign against Wells Fargo.

“We found a lot of the protestors have joined us in demanding from Wells Fargo a few key things,” she said. Those key demands on Wells Fargo, she added, include a moratorium on foreclosures, reinvestment in poor communities and an end to predatory lending practices including payday loans.

Community-based organizations are also participating in the Occupy movements by defending the first amendment rights of the movement’s members.

“There was a police raid about two weeks ago and we saw that as a threat to first amendment speech, so we actually came out with a strong statement in support of the encampment,” said Timmy Lu, an operations coordinator for Asian Pacific Environmental Network, a nonprofit in Oakland that advocates for environmental justice in low-income communities.

Lu, who has been involved with the organization’s participation in Occupy Oakland, said that staff from his organization has been going to the streets to support the encampment and the marches.

“We’ve also been involved with working with other community organizations in the Oakland area, particularly with our labor and faith allies as well in trying to create more dialogue between these groups and the Occupy encampment and then also making statements in support of the encampment through city council,” said Lu.

Some organizations like the Chinese Progressive Association that works for low-income immigrants’ rights in San Francisco are reaching out to their own members to raise awareness about the Occupy movement by integrating it in their advocacy work.

“We actually already have ongoing work on the very things that Occupy is touching on. We just finished a six-week phone bank project where we were identifying Chinese immigrant voters who were supportive of a millionaire’s tax, and this is something we’ve planned awhile back to prepare for next year’s elections,” said Shaw San Liu, a lead organizer at the Chinese Progressive Association in San Francisco.

Shaw said her association developed fliers explaining how Chinese immigrants are part of the 99 percent and hosted an event in Portsmouth Square in San Francisco a few weeks ago called “We are the 99 percent — from Wall Street to Chinatown” with street theatre performances and speakers from Occupy San Francisco.

The involvement of civil and economic rights groups transcend solidarity support — certain organizations are providing in-kind donations to the protestors.

“Whenever we have an event and there’s extra food, we’ll take it down to the Occupy Oakland,” said Jakada Imani, executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland. “One of the issues is that they can’t cook out there and there’s also not a lot of food all the time, so we want to make sure that they had food.”

Imani said that staff at the Ella Baker Center has also been taking part in the general assembly in Oakland.

Although various local organizations have been offering support to the members of Occupy encampments and finding support from them, their leaders point out that their organizations are constituents in a larger movement impacting not just the communities they serve, but everyone suffering from fiscal inequalities.

“Movements are bigger than organizations, and they are bigger than individuals,” said Imani.

“So there are organizations participating in Oakland, San Francisco, New York, Atlanta, Colorado, but it’s not about those organizations. You’re not hearing their names. There are labor unions involved in this process and you’re not hearing their names — it’s not local X, Y and Z — because that’s actually not what’s important,” he said. “What’s important is the broader message and the broader work.”