Anticapitalist activists convert empty bank and vacant lot into community spaces; police threaten reprisal

December 16, 2011 at 12:37 am (Building Occupations, Land Occupations, Squatting) (, )

Santa Cruz activists convert a vacant lot into a community garden. Credit: Creative Commons/Margaret Killjoy

By leila peachtree, The Precarious

SANTA CRUZ, CA- Santa Cruz raised the bar of what it means to “Occupy Everything” in two separate actions last week. Community members organized to convert two unused spaces into gathering places.

“I think it is important to directly reinsert ourselves as communities who need space to connect and share, to connect with one another outside of commercial space and monetary exchange,” said one protester, who like all who attended this action chose not to their names due to legal concerns.

Santa Cruz maintains strict laws: It is illegal to sit within 14 feet of any building, public bench, public telephone, public trash can, drinking fountain, bus stop, open air dining area, street or intersection or piece of public artwork; to sit on benches for longer than an hour; to blow bubbles; to hacky-sack.

Rejecting these laws and the broader capitalist system, hundreds occupied a vacant bank and turned an empty lot into a community garden.

Nearly 75 hours at 75 River Street

Covering the city, posters called for a Nov. 30 march that would lead to an empty property. “While many people are denied basic needs like shelter and social space, capitalism forces numerous spaces to remain empty and unused,” the poster read.

Around 2 p.m., Nov. 30, people assembled near the Occupy Santa Cruz encampment. Less than an hour later, approximately 75 people marched to the sounds of Lady Gaga and Dead Prez.

At a nearby Chase bank, protestors held a brief picket line before moving toward an empty bank at 75 River Street.

“I think some people thought we were going to picket Wells Fargo, but then we went to this one. A smaller crowd took to the building with a lot of excitement but a lot of them seemed hesitant. Within the hour a lot more people took it seriously,” said one protester.

As soon as the crowd moved into the bank, protestors unfurled two banners from the roof: “Occupy Everything” and “Reclaim Space, Reclaim Our Lives.”

Everyone was “running around like chickens with their heads cut off,” commented one protester, as they painted signs, erected barricades, claimed rooms and passed out candy that still stocked the vending machine.

By the time dozens of police arrived in full riot gear, the crowd had swelled to around 200. As the police tried unsuccessfully to enter the barricades, about 150 people linked arms to block the officers. After 20 minutes the police left with no arrests.

“Once we did that, we felt like we had it. It was this tiny victory that felt enormous,” said one occupant.

Over the next days, occupiers strategized with what to do next. Many wanted to turn the empty bank into a community space, but others found that action incompatible with the way the building was designed.

Dec. 3 occupiers decided to vacate the building. “It was this labyrinth, a cavernous space that wasn’t conducive to creating a community space,” said one participant.

The official reason for leaving was because it appeared that police were targeting individuals not involved in the occupation.

In a press release, Santa Cruz Police Chief Kevin Vogel stated that the actions were, “senseless and childish and diverted our limited resources.” He also stated that the department intends to work with members of the District Attorney’s Office to identify those responsible for the trespass.

Despite the threat of police reprisal, the occupants of 75 River Street left inspired.

“I think that collective confrontation is a liberating thing, the sense of community that comes from reclaiming space is different from anything else,” said one participant.

The former Coast Commercial Bank was purchased three years ago by Wells Fargo and since has been left empty.

A Garden is Built

The same day the bank at 75 River Street was vacated, a new space was being created on an abandoned lot on Pacific Street in downtown.

Gardeners wearing orange vests and carrying sledgehammers arrived Saturday morning to find an empty lot full of cigarette butts, broken glass and concrete slabs.

Others decked in Santa hats and dressed as candy canes gathered on the same corner for the Annual Downtown Santa Cruz Holiday Parade. They asked the gardeners what they were doing. The reply: working on a city beautification project. Passerby vocalized support and even stopped to dig and break apart concrete.

Before the gardeners arrived, “it was horribly ugly looking. It was shocking how ugly it was; they put in a lot of effort and made it really beautiful really quickly. It really speaks to the vibe of Santa Cruz,” said one observer.

Supporters dropped off mulch and horse manure. The growing, evolving crowd cleaned up trash and broke the cement slabs into smaller pieces from which they built raised garden beds and benches.

By the end of Saturday, they had transformed the lot into a community garden replete with four raised beds planted with apricot tree seedlings, succulents and other drought tolerant plants.

“It helped to make that part of town nicer, which is what we need. It was a place for someone to stop in and read a book and relax,” said Arden, who owns a jewelry and art store across the street.

The space was only half finished. Sunday plans to create four more beds were put aside until everyone had a chance to recover.

“There wasn’t really the energy to finish it on Sunday,” one gardener said, “We were exhausted by the past few days. Some people were hanging out but nothing else was done.”

At 2 p.m. Monday, Datum Construction based out of Boise, Idaho, was scheduled to demolish the garden. Word spread and by 1 p.m. nearly 60 people had gathered to protect their new community center.

Protestors’ presence stalled the bulldozers for the day. Early the next morning, fences and police surrounded the garden.

“They planted a garden on private property and we took it out because that property is under construction to be improved anyway,” said Jason Reisinger, the construction manager with Datum Construction. He would not comment on what the planned improvement was.

Santa Cruz has a long history of radical actions. The most recent was a series of student occupations at University of California, Santa Cruz in 2009 to protest tuition hikes.

At that time in 2009 the words “Occupy Everything” were far from the public consciousness. Since the start of the Occupy Wall Street Movement Sept. 17 the words have gained widespread recognition.

“These continuous actions have sparked a certain use of language that began as kind of illegible by the broader population, but now they are part of the common discussion. It shows a movement building upon itself,” said one gardener. “I think that actions like this will serve as a form of experimentation, in terms of continuing to take spaces and hold them for longer, and we can learn to create something more cohesive and long lasting, here and everywhere.”

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