As the Occupy Caravan roars east, organizer and Occupied Wall Street Journal editor Michael Levitin will be filing dispatches from the road. First up: Reno.
Our caravan of three vehicles with nine riders pulled into Reno a little before six o’clock on Monday afternoon as the hot Sierra sun was still beating down on dozens of bathers out splashing around by the rocks in the Truckee River.
At the Strega Bar on Arlington Street, a potluck spread was laid out for our arrival: quiche, lasagna, salad, crumble pie, strawberries—and lots of ale. We dove into conversation with a lively mix folks from Occupy Reno, about 30 in all, then headed out to march through the warm, deserted evening streets of “The Biggest Little City in the World” bearing signs, flags, some livestream cams and a chorus of chants—our voices united across cities and states on this first leg of the Occupy Caravan, which had left downtown Oakland at midday heading east.
That evening we pitched tents and settled into the backyard of Cathy Blaine. Dressed in a long-sleeved cotton shirt with rolled-up jeans and leather sandals, Cathy sat on her patio deck describing what led her, a 53-year-old middle class mother of two, to join the Occupy Movement. She had quit work as a massage therapist, she said, to stay home and raise two children but was thrust back out into the workforce—this time as a dermatological assistant—when the housing market crashed and she and her husband, Steve, a realtor, found themselves inches away from bankruptcy and losing their home.
“We’ve got nothing. We went through all of our savings, our children’s college education savings, we sold our jewelry and cashed in coins—we had to liquidate anything that had any value, anywhere we could cut, just to stay afloat,” she said. “Nobody knew it was going to last this long. My husband went from making $100,000 a year down to nothing overnight.
“I always leaned toward being very compassionate,” she continued. “I’m a massage therapist so I have a lot of empathy. But it made me understand: it could be you or me just like this,” she said, snapping her fingers.
To get a sense of things as they now stand for people in Reno, consider: Nevada has the third-highest foreclosure rate in the nation, behind Georgia and Arizona. It ranks dead last in education and unemployment. When Occupy Reno got going last October, Cathy helped establish a camp at Moana, a natural spring that had been converted into a large indoor pool, which the city closed down and left abandoned once it could no longer afford to maintain it. The pool “was in ruins, dirty, with weeds and broken glass, so we went in and cleaned it up,” Cathy recalled. “The city made us buy porta-potties. We had a community kitchen. There were probably about 20 tents and we fed homeless there.”
Occupy Reno’s camp was broken up in the winter, but Cathy and dozens of others still occupying: still feeding the homeless, still marching, still doing what a small group of dedicated people can to do that their broken system has failed to. A 20-year-long resident of Reno leading what used to be a comfortable life, Cathy said it was her own experience of desperation that brought her “to the edge of the mountain to look over and see that you can fall off the side.”
“It’s hard for people who are comfortable to understand what is really going on,” she continued. “It took us almost losing everything to open our eyes, and I’m grateful. Then Occupy came along. It’s just logical and it makes sense. Things can’t get a whole lot more obvious and worse.”
Occupy Reno is still feeling the sting of an anti-police repression march that turned ugly on Memorial Day, when protesters came out to decry the police’s abusive treatment of a homeless teenager whose arm they broke during an arrest.
Members of Occupy Oakland, who call themselves the Nomads, drove four hours to join the march—a piece of news that caught the attention of Reno’s police department, which jumped in using immediate force against the nonviolent protesters. According to Cathy and others, police swarmed the marching crowd and without warning began making arrests, 13 in total, on charges of “parading without a permit.”
Now just stepping off the sidewalk during a protest has a new element of risk in Reno—a considerable shift from months past, said Cathy, when the city remained tolerant, almost oblivious, to the occupation.
“Every march we’ve done we’ve taken the streets,” she recalled. In the fall and winter, “we could march down the middle of Virginia Street and you couldn’t find a police officer. We would stop traffic and they would be nowhere.” The change happened when a few people from Oakland showed up, and “that’s when the police came out in force,” she said. “Now they monitor what we’re doing from afar.”
But for Cathy, a woman a warm, gentle face, the struggles she and others in Reno are facing make protest the only logical response—one for which she’s willing to take some risks. “It’s such a division of the classes and it’s just so wrong, that only rich people’s kids can afford to go to school. Can you imagine how many minds are wasted? It makes me want to cry,” she said. “I’ll get arrested for feeding homeless people. But I feel it’s my right to march if I want to. They’re not going to back me down from that.”
As for drawing out more people like herself into the streets to address the economic injustices and suffering so many here are facing, Cathy’s not sure what it will take—but she sees hope.
“People are numb. I think a lot of people have the same beliefs that we have but they’re afraid to lose that little piece of the pie that they have. They’re comfortable and afraid to lose that little bit of comfort. We’re already powerful for a grassroots movement. But for real change we need numbers. It’s legislation: I think we need to be more involved getting active politically, sitting down and having roundtable discussions, and seeing who we’re putting our votes behind.
“People wait for perfect, and there’s no such thing as perfect. And so they’ll just wait forever,” she continued. “We’re not supposed to have all the solutions. We’re supposed to ask the really important questions, and then get so big that we can’t be ignored. You can still live in a house and be an activist and make the right decisions. It’s not about surrendering everything you have and living on the street. It’s the activists now, and we need to get everyday people out, the grandmas and the children, everybody,” she said, “because it’s just common sense.”