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Occupy Tacoma: Where are they now?

Pugnetti Park might be empty, but the protesters are still reaching out in hope of finding solidarity

DENNIS LUCAS: He's moved from Occupy Tacoma to Occupy the Hood. Photo credit: Patrick Snapp

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The tents were a tactic, a stage - not the movement itself. The message from those still occupying ... well ... that's what we're here to talk about. 

Zuccotti Park and West Coast cousin Pugnetti Park in Tacoma aren't occupied anymore. But while there may have been a bit of a winter activity lag, the people behind Occupy Tacoma aren't going anywhere.

In fact, by all reports, they're trying to go everywhere.

A lot of those still involved are reaching out in hope of finding a more diverse sort of solidarity. Some are just trying to figure out how to hang on, maintain momentum and coalesce around something, anything that will inspire the same kind of momentum and attention generated by the biggest, most politically potent camping trip ever conceived.

Some people went back to fighting the same political battles and occupying the same social space they inhabited before, as one observer put it, "the white American middle class realized that they too were expendable, and decided to camp out in protest."

According to several people interviewed, after the camping part came to an end, the majority of the people occupying Pugnetti Park moved on. But the vacuum created by folks who decided to move on has begun to draw a new group of activists, and build bridges among groups that would otherwise operate in silos.

"The park really helped a lot of people," says Dennis Lucas, who is among those spearheading a movement in Tacoma called Occupy the Hood. (More on that in a moment.) "A lot happened there. We helped a lot of people find jobs and a place to live. The physical occupation was important, but now you see who is really dedicated. People are all getting situated, and now we are coming together again." 

That's where people like Lucas, Sarah Morken and Francesca Carreras-Belez come in. 

Lucas is working with the national coalition Occupy the Hood, which is an "autonomous national grassroots movement comprised of activists, organizers and community members working with like-minded individuals and organizations ... in solidarity with any progressive organization or movement who desires and works towards the liberation, benefit and improvement of the quality of life of disenfranchised People of Color," according to the coalition's website.

Occupy the Hood is one of many spin-off, or perhaps spin-in, movements emerging from the original Occupy movement.

But to call it a spin-off ignores Occupy the Hood's other predecessors in the civil rights and black power movements, the Black Panthers, Arab Spring and others cited by the group founders. The organization recognizes revolutionary examples set by Malcolm X, Ella Baker, Cesar Chavez, Marcus Garvey and others. Those are a few of the folks who were walking the walk long before a new group of people faced with the broadening consequences of income inequality were encouraged to camp the camp in protest.

Truth is, Occupy the Hood has been going on for decades in one form or another. The same could be said for the Occupy Wall Street movement, which borrows tactics, organizational structure, slogans and issues from a long line of predecessors. Put simply, Occupy Wall Street may have changed the conversation about income inequality, or shone a spotlight on it, but it sure didn't start the conversation. Some might even say the movement is late to the game. 

Leaders of Occupy the Hood point out that black unemployment is almost double the national average. Occupy the Hood also notes that wealth gaps between whites and minorities have grown to their widest spans in more than a quarter century. Black and Hispanic populations have suffered disproportionally high rates of unemployment compared to white people during the recession. Income for black, Hispanic and Asian households declined by a substantially larger percentage between 2007 and 2009 than it did for white ones, according to a report from the Economic Policy Institute. Black households experienced an average 7.1 percent drop in income - almost twice the percentage decrease of white households.

Minorities also have been disproportionately affected by the sub-prime mortgage crisis. As rabble-rousers Barbara Ehrenreich and Dedrick Muhammad wrote in The New York Times: "Thanks to a legacy of discrimination in both hiring and lending, they're (ethnic minorities) less likely than whites to be cushioned against the blows by wealthy relatives or well-stocked savings accounts."

Facts like that provide Lucas with motivation to reach out to Tacoma's black community  and encourage people to stand in solidarity with the broader spectrum of movements, while focusing on fighting the disproportionate impacts of income inequality upon minority communities. 

Sarah Morken, another Occupy Tacoma original and long-time member of UFCW Local 21, is focusing her post-Pugnetti efforts in an area where the impacts of income inequality are particularly visible - East Tacoma home foreclosures. East Tacoma has the highest density of home foreclosures in the Pierce County, and is among the highest levels in Washington state and the nation.

Morken is working with a coalition that includes Pierce County Central Labor Council, People for Peace, Justice, and Healing, Socialist Alternative and Occupy Federal Way in an effort to help families facing foreclosure and eviction. Modeled after a program in Minneapolis, the local effort will call on legislators to make evicting people from their homes the lowest priority for law enforcement. It also would help people stay in their homes by mobilizing group members and the media to shame police who show up to enforce the will of banks that want to make people homeless. 

"If you can mobilize a hundred or more people to someone's house when the law enforcement comes to evict people, it makes it very embarrassing," says Morken. "If that happens anytime someone gets evicted, you overwhelm the system."

Francesca Carreras-Belez, meanwhile, is heading to Washington, D.C., to participate in a month-long solidarity forum, where she will work with organizers from all over the country who are developing strategies to move Occupy Wall Street efforts forward. Carreras-Belez is working to reach out to the local Latino community, which has also been disproportionately impacted by the recession.

"I find people who say Occupy is a white, middle-class movement," she says. "For me it's a peoples' movement. We don't have enough of these conversations. We need to know that it's OK to step outside and talk about these issues in unity. I think that everybody finally understands that we all have been systematically excluded in a manner that is both economic and social. Now it's time for everybody to come to the table."

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