By Richard Stone
Spending time at the Occupy Fresno encampment in Courthouse Park in mid-November, a visitor might have been surprised at how serene and congenial the atmosphere was. It felt more like a campout than a protest gathering—a weenie roast and a round of songs would have fit right in.
Amid the group of card players and food caretakers, I located my prospective subject, Vanessa Aranda, with one ear glued to her cellphone. Her call completed, we repaired to the front seat of my car to converse. Even as we talked, preparations were starting for transporting carloads of gear to someone’s nearby driveway.
“The sheriffs are making us completely clear out each night,” Vanessa explained. “We haul it back in the morning.” The willingness of Sheriff Margaret Mims to pay a half-dozen law enforcement officers to watch over this totally unthreatening scene and make the protesters’ lives as difficult as possible is ludicrous—except if the threat is the ideas this hardy band of dissenters represent.
Vanessa was, until recent events, a typical 20-year-old student at Fresno City College, mildly politicized by teachers and by following Web sites and blogs like Tumbler and Alternet. “I was getting more and more upset by the things directly affecting me—the availability of classes, for instance, and the cost of my education and not having healthcare.
“Than I started reading and listening to news from abroad, like the BBC and The Guardian, and I realized I was being kept in the dark by the U.S. media. By the time OWS [Occupy Wall Street] started, I was already pretty frustrated.”
Vanessa’s “great leap forward” began with her affirmative response to e-mail from Peace Fresno urging her to join the four hours (over two days) of demonstrations planned as Fresno’s support for a concurrent march in Washington against the wars, later broadened to include support of OWS. During those days, Vanessa found herself signing up on a variety of volunteer lists, but she was surprised to get a call from someone inviting her to the downtown occupation and its first GA [General Assembly]. “You seem to want to be involved,” the caller said. “I guess I do,” she answered—and fatefully attended.
Since then, “Occupy” has become Vanessa’s preoccupation. She’s in the park except when urgent business calls her elsewhere, has been arrested and is fully committed to her small group of comrades and their “impossible” mission to change how business is done in this city and in the country.
“It’s a little scary,” she says of her total involvement. “There are these nagging doubts that nothing will change. But then I think, even if we disband without anything tangible accomplished, maybe we can wake some people up, maybe what we’re doing will be remembered.”
I ask how her participation has changed her. “First,” she says, ‘I’ve become much more tolerant of stress. Also, I’m more cautious about people’s intentions and very mistrustful of authority. I’d already learned that politicians lie, but it’s been discouraging to find that law enforcement just tells us stuff to entrap us, or they make promises they don’t honor. When it’s just us and them, a few can act human. But if their commander or the press come by, they’re back to being tough guys.
“And don’t get me started on the media. Only one station has reported even approximately accurately.” Vanessa is disturbed that the media portray the Occupiers as “a bunch of young lefties looking for violence and to get arrested. Our group is nonpartisan, even a few Republicans, and less than half of us are under 30.”
And, as I reported at the outset, the feeling at the encampment is of good spirits and cooperation—until the authorities bear down on them.
Vanessa says another change in herself is the ability to speak publicly. “I used to be terrified of it. When I signed up for public relations, I imagined writing stuff or contacting the media. But one day early on, there was no one to talk to a reporter, so I said, ‘I guess it’s me.’ Now it’s easy.”
She also says she feels freer to stand up for the rights of herself and her cohorts. “Our lawyers have really helped us understand what we are entitled to, even when we’ve been arrested.”
Vanessa also says that the way the GA meetings are run—in turn and by consensus rather than by direct argumentation and win-lose majority rule—has been an education in itself. “We’re learning to be respectful of others’ opinions and to look for creative solutions to disagreement. It takes some time, but we do get things done.”
Vanessa says she’s come to see that, while Occupy Fresno may not change the whole world, they can change their own world through specific actions, just as it’s changed her personally. “Our presence here in the park involves people who drive or walk by. And our presence at the [Fresno Unified School District (FUSD)] Board meetings [where they raise issues about spending priorities and waste and large administrative salaries] can affect a lot of kids if our demands are noticed and get traction. At the very least, [FUSD Superintendent Michael] Hanson knows he’s being watched.”
She also speaks about a project to analyze and publicize how Fresno’s very own “1%” gets and spends their money, and she’s pleased with the success of the Bank Transfer project.
Vanessa speaks with obvious affection for her “Occupy Family” and the people who support them (including organized support from groups like Peace Fresno, Food Not Bombs, SEIU, the ACLU and from professionals like lawyers, teachers and healthcare workers who have come down to assist). But what of her “old” life and her family?
“My family,” Vanessa says, “was initially skeptical about my devoting my time this way. Now, I think, they feel some pride in me, but they’re fearful for my safety and would prefer me out of harm’s way.”
And school? “Because of the expense and limited class options, I was only taking one class this fall. It wasn’t hard to leave that for this—and I feel my education down here has been the more valuable. It’s changed how I think about my future anyway.”
Thinking of my own political naiveté at the age of 20, I find it a sign of hope to see Vanessa and her associates thinking so clearly and acting with so much determination. Vive le evolution!
Richard Stone is on the boards of the Fresno Center for Nonviolence and the Community Alliance and is a member of Citizens for Civility and Accountability in Media (CCAM). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Name: Vanessa Aranda
Favorite parts of town: The Tower and Downtown
Inspirations: Vine Deloria, Jr., Noam Chomsky, Mike Becker
Unexpected pleasures: Crocheting (“love it!”), science (“love it!”), music in foreign languages
Contact info: occupyfresno.com
Author’s note: This is the last of a series that has gone on for about seven years. It’s been a great pleasure to get to know so many fine people better and learn their “backstories.” But it feels time for a change. Look for my new series to start up in 2012.