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On a Friday night in downtown Santa Ana, while hipsters start a weekend of debauchery, a group of about 25 Occupy Santa Ana activists huddles under the Marine A-4 Skyhawk jet mounted at the county Civic Center just a couple of blocks north. The air is dank and chilly following afternoon showers; attendees shift constantly, trying to keep warm.
They've gathered to discuss an upcoming appearance before Santa Ana's City Council; they'll make a case for pitching tents on the Civic Center's Walk of Honor, a concrete-and-brick promenade on which the homeless have encamped for years. They spend nearly two hours trying to hammer out the verbiage to be used in front of the council. Some question whether the word "tents" or "camping" should be voiced specifically. Some fear the direct reference to tents will stoke council fears, remembering that in 1993, Santa Ana enacted a ban on camping within the center (which is technically county property) and the city in an attempt to crack down on the homeless.
Sam Aresheh, a 23-year-old Cal State Fullerton student, was one of four people arrested at an Oct. 22 protest after the group set up tents on the Walk of Honor in an act of civil disobedience. He finds fears of couching requests for the council humorous. "They're the sugar-coater masters," he says. "For them to want us to be direct . . . They always talk about the gentrification of Santa Ana as 'revitalization.'" He suggests asking the council for anything the group can use to safely and peacefully assemble.
But the meeting is interrupted when one late protester announces local homeless people are talking about two chopped-up bodies found just blocks away. A collective gasp tears through the circle. The revelation serves as a grim reminder of the urban world the group exposes itself to during its nightly protests—a world away from the master-planned splendor of Irvine, where the movement is thriving. (The tip later turns out to be erroneous.)
The core of Occupy Santa Ana is half the size and generally younger in age than the members of its sister group, Occupy Irvine, currently stationed in front of Irvine City Hall. There, weekends see upward of 100 people participating in marches and rallies. Other examples of the movement's growth include close to 30 tents; gasoline generators to power lights, microphones and amplifiers; and general assemblies live-streamed every night on the web. The kitchen area is housed in a Coleman Hampton nine-person tent outfitted with tables and shelves groaning with water jugs, Clif Bars, bread, peanut butter, packaged soup and assorted snacks. City approval of the tent city has seen fire and health inspectors visiting to ensure the operation is run with safety in mind.
Occupy Irvine logistics facilitator D'Marie Mulattieri saw this offshoot grow after she started a Facebook page. The unemployed executive assistant sports raven-black hair and a broad smile and can be seen running around the camp every night, navigating the spaces between tents in red wedge shoes on her way to general assemblies, talking to reporters or helping out various committees. When Occupy Irvine was first making the transition from the pages of Facebook to boots on the ground, she was among those in favor of occupying Irvine as a symbol of corporatism. Others supported a big showing in Santa Ana, the county seat. But Mulattieri's side won, with the Irvine "occupation" beginning on Oct. 15. The city gave its blessing to the occupiers on Oct. 25: "I don't understand a lot of what your message is," said Republican councilman Jeffrey Lalloway. "But by all means, if you want to sleep on our lawn, sleep on our lawn."
"We are right in the hotbed of Irvine," says Mulattieri in her Boston accent. "We're the only suburban Occupy in the country, so we have a completely different flavor."
Though people involved in the movement at both sites admit tension has resulted from this division, Aresheh and others deny there has been any prolonged bad blood between the two, as evidenced at the Santa Ana City Council meeting on Nov. 7, when members of the Irvine movement spoke in support of Santa Ana.
"There's a reason Occupy is going on in Irvine," says Aresheh. "It's because the 1 percent is living there," using the movement's shorthand term for the very wealthiest Americans. "But we feel the importance is there also to Occupy the county seat because [government] is answering to corporations rather than answering to the aspirations of the people."
Though Santa Ana brings in a fraction of the resources in Irvine, activists in Santa Ana demonstrate continued resilience. Since late October, group members have spent nights in the Civic Center, despite the city's ban on camping, forgoing tents so as to avoid incurring the ire of police. Members slumber in sleeping bags while propped against concrete planters. All funds used by members for food, water and other supplies come mostly from their own pockets.
"That's the difference between us and Irvine," says 27-year-old Joese Hernandez. "People [there] have a lot more to give."
Financial concerns aside, Occupy Santa Ana now contends with the fact the council denied the group's request for a long-term occupation at the recent meeting. Citing legal concerns of equal application of the law, the council said the city would be opening itself to civil-rights lawsuits if it were to grant special permission for the Occupiers. "As much as I wish I could join you," said councilmember David Benavides, "is it prudent for me to put the city in a position where it could be sued?"