For several hours on Jan. 20, Orange County activists besieged the Ronald Reagan Federal Building and Courthouse in an action timed to coincide with similar protests around the nation from Oakland to Atlanta to Washington, D.C. Boldly titled "Occupy the Courts," the protest was supposed to draw thousands. Instead, only 100 or so people showed up, and before darkness fell, it was clear that while Occupy Orange County may not be over just yet, the movement's death throes are becoming hard to miss.
Rather than a boisterous crowd of angry 99-percenters threatening to storm the halls of injustice, passersby were greeted with hackneyed street theater performed several times throughout the day by four activists who wore cardboard boxes painted to resemble high-rise buildings and emblazoned with the names of various multinational corporations including Exxon, Monsanto, GE and Goldman Sachs. The actors awkwardly stepped on one another's lines and did a clumsy Rockettes impression while singing the satirical ditty "Corporations Are People, Too."
The message was earnest, but there was something pathetic in the theatrics, which began as scheduled at 11 a.m. By early afternoon, it was clear the majority of Orange County's self-declared "occupiers" would be no-shows. Nicholas Dorsey, an 18-year-old who has been a part of Occupy Santa Ana since its inception in October 2011, stood alone on the sidewalk while three armed, uniformed lawmen across the street texted on their cell phones. He held out hope the second half of the event would see a boost in attendance.
"It's a little too early to tell at the moment," Dorsey said. "I know a lot of people who aren't up early in the morning or who may be at work. It's too early to call it a failure."
When Occupy Wall Street first sprang up in Zuccotti Park last September, it had not only numbers, but also momentum. People across the country, fed up with corporate and banking malfeasance and a government unwilling to prosecute the offenders, watched uploaded images of unarmed protesters getting pepper sprayed while corralled by bright-orange New York police nets. Folks were pissed. Soon, protesters in Oakland were getting their heads cracked by tear-gas canisters, and little old ladies were being Maced by helpfully fascist cops in Seattle.
Shortly before the occupation of Los Angeles City Hall materialized, D'Marie Mulattieri, an unemployed executive assistant from Irvine, created an Occupy Facebook page for Orange County. A skilled organizer, she was soon coordinating conference calls and holding planning meetings in her home. She assembled a sprawling group of people that volunteered for various committees, ready to stand in solidarity with protesters in New York. After Irvine Occupiers spent two weeks sleeping on the sidewalk in front of City Hall, more than 70 people went before the Irvine City Council and passionately demanded they be allowed to camp on the lawn. The city obliged.
Confounded by the movement's lack of leadership and partisan alliances, the media continued to ask, "What is Occupy's message?" Whether we got it or not, though, we were paying attention. And with throngs of activists setting up shop in public squares, parks and city halls, groups of officials—including mayors, city councils and the Department of Homeland Security—were paying attention, too. But though every effort was made to keep the movement pure of outside organizations that would pollute the message with sectarian partisanship, Occupy couldn't delay the inevitable.
About four hours into the Jan. 20 protest at the Reagan courthouse, a small group of elderly men and women sat hunched along a water fountain's edge, blinking in the afternoon sun as they listening to a pitch from someone with Healthy California urging folks to call Senator Lou Correa in support of state Senate Bill 810. This speech was preceded by an exhaustive lecture on campaign-finance law and the shadiness of Super PACs, which allow massive anonymous campaign donations to politicians. The answer? Vote for Assembly Bill 1148.
Speakers such as Green Party member Jane Rands urged the thin crowd to "occupy" the voting booth in November and received scattered applause; the scene had the mirthless aesthetic of a football game at which the cheerleaders are unaware the contest has been lost. What was clear, if only to all but the few direct participants, was that an experiment in Orange County's activist history had just been reduced to another impotent rally to be filed under soft news by the local affiliates, whose cameras rolled nearby.
Mulattieri says the movement has simply entered a new phase. After Irvine dismantled its camp on Jan.11, she distanced herself from Occupy Orange County, which now resides at a small encampment near the Brea Dam in Fullerton, adjacent to a 50 mph speed zone on Harbor Boulevard, obscured from traffic by an array of tall trees. "Occupy Wall Street is moving toward a Martin Luther King, Jr.-style protest," she says. "They're basically giving up on the occupations."
Others, such as 32-year-old activist and human-rights documentarian Synthian Sharp, argue the tents are as vital now as ever. "It was only through the methodology of the tents that we were able to garner national media attention," he says.
Whoever is right about the movement's future, it's clear things are in transition, and whatever emerges—weekly marches, think tanks or general assemblies—it won't be an occupation. The end of that phase occurred in late November, after weeks of raids and mass arrests across the country. Then, in the local occupations in the pre-dawn hours of Dec. 12, when as many as 300 activists attempted to shut down the Port of Long Beach following the raid on Occupy Los Angeles.
The goal was to create a community picket line and hinder traffic in and out of the busy SSA Terminal, partly owned by Goldman Sachs. As protesters faced off with riot gear-clad police officers, shadowed by Coast Guard and Harbor Patrol boats, little vehicle traffic came into or left the dock gate. For a moment, it looked like success was Occupy's.
But as cops slowly inched people back to where they started, one man looked across the docks, dejected.
"My friend, we went down the wrong road," he said as he pointed to a truck rolling across a bridge in the distance. "That's where we were supposed to be."
As the sun set on the Reagan Courthouse on Jan. 20, a small group of die-hards huddled near the building's entrance. As one strummed an acoustic guitar, hollow lyrics rang out for almost nobody to hear: "We will occupy the streets, we'll occupy the courts, we'll occupy the office of you—till you do the bidding of the many, not the few."
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Standing nearby, Santa Ana occupier Edith Gonzalez, a twentysomething activist who was arrested in the Los Angeles raid, resisted questions about the dismal showing and did her best to put a positive spin on the day. "I honestly thought it was going to be bigger," she said. "It's not happening here, but shit is going down in Oakland and San Francisco. . . . It doesn't surprise me—it's fucking Orange County."
She paused for a second, then added, "It's our location. But you can't not do something because of where you're at. You've got to try. And we're going to keep on trying."
This article appeared in print as "Courting Disaster: Occupy Orange County failed to take the Reagan Courthouse last week. So what's next?"