Slow start

Local activists target politics, corporate power,media and the concept of leadership

Ron Schoenherr holds an Occupy Together poster at the first Occupy Reno gathering.

Ron Schoenherr holds an Occupy Together poster at the first Occupy Reno gathering.


National and local Occupy Together websites:

“I believe our underlying principle should be nonviolence,” one woman told the crowd.

“Hey, you in Starbucks. … Why aren’t you out here with us?” yelled one speaker through a bullhorn at the student union building, which houses one of the chain coffee stands.

These were part of the scene at the University of Nevada, Reno on Oct. 5 at the first meeting of Occupy Reno, a local version of Occupy Wall Street, the series of protests in New York City.

Some communities, such as Baltimore and Portland, Maine, have had multiple Occupy protests. In Asheville, N.C., the first Occupy Asheville meeting became the first march. In Reno, the first planning meeting was held to plan a second planning meeting. And the second meeting ended without a consensus on a place or date for the first protest. That decision was left for a third planning meeting on Oct. 15, which had initially been proposed as the date for that first protest.

Organizer Sean O’Brien said the slow pace is designed to be methodical. “We want to choose the right course of action, and then get everything done so we don’t have problems like they have had in Seattle,” he said, referring to disputes in that city over a park protest site, tents and protest hours. As a result, the Reno group missed the first nationwide protest held on Oct. 6 by Occupy Together, the name that seems to be settling on the movement. Occupy Las Vegas was a part of Oct. 6, with a protest in front of the New York, New York megaresort.

The Reno group’s mantra—“a leaderless movement”—was repeated again and again, a striking similarity to the Tea Party, which has also disdained a formal organizational structure and designation of leaders.

The similarity to the Tea Party did not end there. It extended to issues that overlap between the two movements. There was opposition to corporate influence—“We want to hold corporate America responsible. We want to hold the bankers responsible. … You are losing your home right now because these people are getting rich,” O’Brien said. There was suspicion of the Federal Reserve, whose interest rate policies speaker Art Fernandez criticized in Ron Paul-like terms. There was Tea Party-like hostility to the media—“IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON OR WHAT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT TURN OFF THE NEWS AND TUNE IN TO THE MOVEMENT,” read an Occupy Together flyer posted around campus. There were times when the gathering seemed to be a Tea Party event.

The Reno event occurred on the day that news broke in New York of major labor union support for that series of protests. O’Brien said that the Reno effort had not made contact with local labor unions but will do so.

If so, said Laborers Union Local 169 business manager Richard Daly, they will get a respectful hearing. The issues that the Occupy Together movement has been raising, he said, are ones that unions have traditionally supported.

“If I hear from them I’ll be interested in what they have to say,” Daly said. “Obviously our organization represents workers who need reform of the financial system. … Activism—including the Tea Party—can have an impact.”

If the Oct. 4 meeting at UNR suggested a Tea Party event, a subsequent meeting on Oct. 8 at The Underground bore a resemblance to a Christian sect, with chanting of speakers’ comments by the audience members whose arms were extended in air.

These rituals had no religious significance. The repetition of speakers’ comments was a “people’s microphone” to make sure everyone in the room heard what was said, and the fingers extended in air was a way of showing approval or disapproval—signals drawn from a leaflet describing how the same hand motions were used in the Wall Street protests. (While there was a public address system but the group chose not to use it.)

Activists at the second Occupy Reno meeting extend their hands, fingers up, a sort of substitute for applause.

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By the second meeting, some of the resistance to organization was reduced—there were sign-up sheets for committees on infrastructure, law, technology, outreach and media.

There was little sign of outreach to media—speakers regularly denounced the media. “The media is against our movement,” said Yezenia Poulsen of Winnemucca. The sentiment was apparently returned by the media, which were mostly absent. Although television stations are usually starved for local hard news on weekends, no Reno television station covered the Occupy Reno meeting. Neither KRNV or KTVN reported on the meeting, but did expend air time on stories from out of state. A political chat program that followed KRNV News on Saturday evening also ignored the Occupy story. (KOLO’s newscast was preempted by sports.) The next day’s Reno Gazette-Journal contained no coverage of the meeting.

The sluggish pace of local organizing also could discourage news coverage in the days ahead.

Local founder

O’Brien received a loud ovation at the UNR gathering, recognition of his role in getting the local movement going. He is a 38-year-old Lake Tahoe father and deejay who got excited by what he saw happening in New York and across the country and—believing the media was failing to cover it—set up a Facebook page for locals. It started out getting a few names each day, then grew to about 150 each day. He said though this area may not be a financial center, having an Occupy Together presence still serves a purpose.

“I don’t believe that a large swath of the financial community lives here in Reno … but it [local activism] gives the movement a sense of community.” O’Brien said.

O’Brien said the lack of leaders is good for the rank and file members of the movement—“It gives them a sense of empowerment”—because everyone has a voice. In addition, he said, there is opposition to having leaders “because that’s the way the public views the problem of people sitting up at the top. … They’re tired of bosses, tired of leaders.”

But he said he’s not sure how long the opposition to organization and designated leaders will stand. For that matter, he’s not sure what the movement’s future is.

“Although it is a leaderless movement, we do need volunteers and someone has to be superintendents. … To be honest, I don’t know where our movement is going to go. I don’t have plans for that.”

He said not to read too much into the campus location of the first meeting, that the movement needs to broaden its base of support.

“In the view of the public, it can undermine a movement when it’s just kids,” he said. But both meetings were held in youth-oriented locations, a fact that may have been driven as much by finances as anything else.

O’Brien also said, “My hope is that this is not a political movement.” But that is a contradiction in terms. As soon as he put up his online presence and started talking about corporate influence, it became political. The gathering at UNR was filled with political signs. The purpose of the movement is to raise political issues and influence public policy. It may not be partisan, but it is pure politics.

So far, at least, Occupy Reno seems more oriented to protests than more nuts-and-bolts activities, such as walking precincts.

The second Reno meeting was vandalized minutes before it started. Someone wearing a mask—the scene was caught on camera—spray painted graffiti on the back of the Underground building and then bent the handle on a power switch to cut the electricity off to the meeting.