Occupy Bellingham's next chapter: Once highly visible, group quietly focuses on issues

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 3, 2013 

BELLINGHAM - Occupy Bellingham has moved indoors for the most part, holding meetings that fit around one table instead of requiring an entire park.

Many members have left since Occupy Bellingham was evicted from Maritime Heritage Park on Dec. 28, 2011. Some left out of frustration. Others found work. Still others were forced out. The dozen or so activists still going to general assembly meetings on Friday nights remain committed to fighting the corporate takeover of public institutions.

Those who are left say Occupy was the movement they had been waiting for all their lives.

Debbie Cantrell had tried to start a Bellingham chapter of the political action group MoveOn. People were either too apathetic or too busy with other causes, she said.

Then Occupy Wall Street surfaced, on Sept. 17, 2011. People fed up with growing corporate power, economic disparity and the influence of money in politics had taken to the streets in New York.

Less than a month later, Occupy Bellingham got started.

"When Occupy showed up, I thought, 'Wow, this is the movement we've been waiting for,'" Cantrell said. Its simple maxim, she said, was "follow the money."

"When you look at issues in that way it just starts to make sense, and it pretty much explains all of our problems," Cantrell said.

LOCAL HISTORY

Occupy Bellingham held its first meeting on Oct. 4, 2011, at Boundary Bay Brewery. About 20 people showed up. Three days later, they held their first rally, with about 400 street marchers.

On Oct. 28, 2011, Occupy Bellingham pitched camp. At its peak, more than 20 people were spending nights at Maritime Heritage Park, said James Bauckman, one of Occupy Bellingham's founders.

The park population swelled to as many as 1,000 during the daily general assemblies, Bauckman said.

But as the park occupation wore on, enthusiasm waned. By the time fall had progressed so that the 5:30 p.m. meetings were held in the dark, there were 10 to 20 "hard core" members left, Bauckman said.

If there was a population at the camp that was growing, it was the homeless, he said. The routine became less about community involvement and more about generators, food, and dealing with thieves, drunks and drugs.

"Our political goodwill was lost," Bauckman said. "The kind of people who showed up deterred the regular middle-class folks who wanted to come."

Early attempts to keep the park grass intact gave way to relentless foot traffic and the wet weather. Nearby businesses were complaining that the camp was drawing vagrants.

ENTER THE MAYOR

Dan Pike, who was ending his term as mayor when Occupy Bellingham came on the scene, sympathized with group members. He could speak their language.

"The government allowed too generous of packages for folks being bailed out at the high end," Pike said in an interview last week. "They got golden parachutes while a lot of people around the country are losing their homes and their jobs."

Even so, the mayor wasn't going to tolerate the group's illegal takeover of the park for long. It would set a bad precedent. It occurred to him the KKK might want to set up camp - and how could he justify turning them down?

"Starting in the beginning of December, we let them know they would not be allowed to go on forever," Pike said.

By mid-December, the mayor's staff had given him three options: evict Occupy Bellingham on Christmas Eve or Dec. 28, 2011, or leave them there for the next mayor, Kelli Linville, who had just defeated Pike in the election.

Christmas Eve was just bad public relations, Pike said. And he didn't want to make the camp Linville's problem.

"This is something that happened on my watch," he said. "If there's a reasonable way to deal with this in my office, that would be fairer to her."

On Dec. 27, the city gave Occupy Bellingham 24 hours notice it would be kicked out of the park. The mayor didn't want to give more violent outside groups time to travel up to Bellingham to offer resistance.

THE EVICTION

What current and former members of Occupy Bellingham remember most was what they perceived as the excessive show of force by Bellingham police.

Occupy was on good terms with the city during the camp and was conscientious to maintain the park as well as it could, Cantrell said. The arrival of riot police was shocking to Occupy members present, including Alyce Werkema and Cantrell, who was arrested that day.

"We were hurt that we were approached by 40 officers in riot gear in the middle of the day," Werkema said.

There were two reasons for the aggressive display, Pike said: to be prepared for the worst, and "to scare the hell out of people" so they would be more compliant. It discourages the violent, revolutionary types from fighting back, Pike said.

"I felt it was right for the city to allow them to express their perspective," Pike said. "But it was also the right thing ultimately to say this can't go on forever."

Cantrell was one of four arrested for refusing to leave the area. Shea Field has been a no-show at his court hearings. The others are appearing for their court dates on obstruction of law enforcement charges. The next hearing is in April.

Twelve other Occupiers were arrested Dec. 12, 2011, for attempting to block coal trains on the tracks near C Street. Eight of those, charged with trespassing, still have active cases. Their attorney, Larry Hildes, argued that their action was necessary to prevent a greater harm - increased global warming from burning coal shipped from Canada to Asia. Those left among the so-called "Bellingham 12" have their next court appearance on Thursday, Feb. 7.

CURRENT FOCUS

After the eviction, Occupy Bellingham struggled. Meeting locations often weren't pinned down until the last minute. Some of the most talented members needed to find work and left town. Others left because a small number of people disrupted meetings by blocking decisions that required consensus.

"We spent last winter purging those people, essentially," Occupy member Dianne Foster said.

Those who have stuck around try to focus on a handful of issues most important to them:

-- The U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision that said corporations are people for the purposes of campaign contributions.

-- The Trans-Pacific Partnership, a "NAFTA on steroids" trade agreement being negotiated by nations on the Pacific Rim, that would put the interests of corporations above individual countries, workers and the environment, Occupy members say.

-- High on the priority list is the American Legislative Exchange Council, better known as ALEC. The council's website says it is a forum for state legislators who are for limited government and free-market solutions. Occupy says the secretive group crafts state legislation designed to dismantle the public sector and empower corporations.

Occupy Bellingham members say they are closely watching bills introduced by Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, who is a member of ALEC.

Ericksen rejected the notion that ALEC membership is secretive - his name appears in the organization's magazine - and said Occupy has nothing to fear. ALEC is one of several groups of its kind, including the more liberal National Conference of State Legislatures, Ericksen said.

"There's nothing unique or special or scary about any of these organizations," he said. "They're just organizations that bring legislators together to learn what's working in other states and what's not working in other states."

Ericksen criticized Occupy Bellingham for being negative instead of working on solutions.

"I'm not aware of any legislation they've worked to pass or worked to support, or solutions they brought forward. I really don't know anything about them, except for their activity at the park," he said. "For me it's a bit of a nonentity."

The county Republican leader gave Occupy a similar assessment.

"It was really tough to tell what their vision or goals were, or what they were trying to do," Whatcom County Republican Chairman Charlie Crabtree said. "I'm all for different diverse groups collecting for political ideas, but I never got theirs."

Occupy members still can be found, either on the streets or in the halls of power, letting people know where they stand. A small convoy of cars, including four Occupy members, traveled from Bellingham to Olympia on Friday, Feb. 1, to show support for a state health care bill.

Three members held signs for two hours in the rain on Saturday, Jan. 26, in Lynden, protesting gun violence at a gun show.

Occupy Bellingham has held trainings in nonviolent direct action. It has set up tables with petitions on the lawn of the Bellingham Public Library. Members protested in front of banks in the Barkley neighborhood and at a Montana coal mine. They occupied the Whatcom County Courthouse to perform a skit on corporate personhood. They staged rallies and marches in town, organized events at Western Washington University, and joined in activities with other progressive groups.

Bauckman, a former member, conceded the group didn't get a lot accomplished but said Occupy Bellingham still has been a success.

"People didn't know about NAFTA or Citizens United," Bauckman said. "We were able to talk about important things. ... I think it was a great educational experience."


ON THE WEB

• Occupy Bellingham: occupybellinghamwa.org.

• Citizens United: scotusblog.com (search "Citizens United" using quotes).

• American Legislative Exchange Council: alec.org.

• Trans-Pacific Partnership: ustr.gov/tpp.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his politics blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/politics or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

Bellingham Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service