PUBLIC ACCESS

The Occupy Sebastopol tent (seen in background) has become a mainstay in the Downtown Plaza in the past year. Dwindling interest and a low rumble of complaints may mark the end of its time in the space.

The time of the Occupy tent may have run its course

All may not be peaceful in Peacetown, USA, where the Occupy Sebastopol tent in the Downtown Plaza stands as a relic of a movement that has lost much of its momentum, and now, what began as a hopeful and transformative social/political movement, has devolved into a local question of the use of public space.

Even supporters acknowledge that interest in the Occupy cause has dwindled.

“It’s leveled off due to a lack of interest. We’ve had discussions about it since the one-year anniversary,” said Sebastopol resident Thomas Morabito, an ardent “Occupy” supporter, who has hung on from the beginning. “We don’t like that fact that there’s not enough people” to man the tent.

Nearby merchants have complained about the unsightly structure and some Sebastopol residents say they now avoid the park.

“We have had comments from local merchants: The area around the tent is not always the cleanest,” Teresa Ramondo, executive director of the Sebastopol Area Chamber of Commerce, said. “A lot of people will not go to the Plaza and a lot of local merchants complain.”

Although the Occupy movement has largely fallen out of the national spotlight, Morabito said that there have been local successes, citing resistance to the proposed CVS/Chase development and its effect on last November’s election.

“We’re coming off a big success and we’re not there (in the Plaza) in defiance,” he said. “We’ve had zero problems and have a good relationship with the police.”

Yet despite ongoing “general assembly” meetings in the Plaza every Sunday at 3 p.m., Morabito is often the only person manning a tent that is becoming not only a perceived eyesore, but a burr under the saddle of some members of the community.

It wasn’t always that way. Occupy Wall Street began in October 2011 and quickly spread across the country. Santa Rosa held the fifth largest Occupy protest per capita in the U.S. and on Nov. 5, 2011 Occupy Sebastopol began on a cold, rainy day.

About 80 people showed up in support of the movement, including several members of the Sebastopol City Council, such as former councilmembers Kathleen Shaffer, Guy Wilson and current Mayor Michael Kyes. Former 7th District Assemblymember Michael Allen even made an appearance.

Occupiers later set up tents in the northeast corner of the Plaza, working in concert with the Sebastopol Farmers Market and other local entities using the space.

“We had 12 tents, but eventually suspended camping for the information tent,” Morabito said. “We went through the process” in order to maintain a presence in the Plaza.

The process included “The Occupy Sebastopol Peacetown Agreement,” which grew out of a general assembly meeting and wended its way through the halls of the city. The Peacetown agreement sought to ease “unnecessary friction with our city government and some members of our community.”

Citing their belief that the community supported the goals of Occupy — “that the political and economic system of our society and government is not acceptable, that the class warfare of economic injustice, environmental degradation and the corruption of our government by the 1 percent needs to end” — members of Occupy Sebastopol “required” that it be permitted to retain a protest presence indefinitely in the form of tables, educational resources and a tent enclosure to protect resources from the elements.

Occupy members also requested a two-day notice should the city decide to evict the tent in order to “file a federal appeal on our first amendment rights.”

On Dec. 6, 2011, Sebastopol City Council unanimously passed — minus Shaffer, who was absent that night — Resolution 5858 in support of the Occupy Movement.

In those halcyon days, local leaders, such as former councilmember and mayor Larry Robinson and Sebastopol United Methodist Pastor Judith Stone, were fully on board, hosting a series of Occupy town hall meetings at the church and packing the Plaza at the general assembly meetings.

Occupy even moved the tent out of the Plaza for the holiday celebrations this year — exposing the dead grass under the tent — in order to show a willingness to continue to work with the community.

But the high-profile support eventually dwindled away and the dead grass has become a bone of contention for some, although Morabito said that Occupy has a contingency for that when the time comes to leave the Plaza.

“We have a contractor who’s volunteered to reseed and rehabilitate the grass if the tent goes away,” he said. “Occupy is not looking for a confrontation with the city and the only negative feedback I get is when someone yells ‘take a bath’ or ‘get a job’’ from a passing car.”

Morabito added that there have been discussions about removing the tent and maybe working with the city to construct a circle of benches for people to meet and for public use.

For now, the city will continue to abide by its agreement with the occupiers, although City Manager and Counsel Larry McLaughlin thinks the end of the occupation may be near.

“We’ve received complaints fairly regularly, especially during the CVS hearings,” he said. “There’s now a concern, even among former supporters, that it’s outlasted its time.”

McLaughlin cited discussions within Occupy Sebastopol as a sign there may be a resolution of the issue soon.

“There are no provisions for termination, but that doesn’t mean (the Occupy presence) will be ongoing,” he said.

Occupy Sebastopol member Tim Ryan had no comment on the possibility of moving the tent, choosing instead to highlight what he sees as the success of the movement.

“Occupy Sebastopol has been very active and effective in the last six months. On our one-year anniversary we had a well-attended and festive celebration raising awareness of the need for community power and participation in local issues,” he wrote in an e-mail. “During the election season we raised awareness about the CVS/Chase project and created the virtual candidates forum. Two weeks ago we organized the largest protest in Sebastopol's recent history in front of CVS. Over 75 people attended.”

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