A former mortgage industry insider from La Mesa shares why he joined the Occupy movement
Story and photos by Ron Logan
"When you get presidential candidates saying that the first thing we should do is take a bath, and then go get a job, they really don't understand the movement." – Mike Garcia
January 2, 2012 (San Diego) – Even though the Occupy Movement has lasted for more than three months now, most people do not comprehend the importance of the movement or understand what the protests are even about.
On December 19, I sat down with Mike Garcia at Downtown Johnny Brown's at the Civic Center Plaza. Garcia is a La Mesa resident and Committee Member of Occupy San Diego (OSD). I asked him some straight-forward questions. His answers were eye-opening and offered insight into what OSD is all about, its struggles and its evolutions-- and how he first became involved in early October.
The corporate media has notcommunicated the opinions of the protesters very accurately. Perhaps that’s because this movement has confronted the greed of corporate America and many of those corporations are the same owners and sponsors of mainstream American media outlets.
Some media outlets marginalize the occupations by choosing to portray them as violent thugs, homeless transients, people with mental illness, stoners, anarchists, and bohemians. Although the occupations have those elements in their camps, that is not the DNA of the average protester.
Garcia stood out to me right from the beginning in his business suit. I thought to myself, "This guy seems different. I wonder what his story is…"
This is his story.
"I spent a dozen years in the mortgage industry," said Garcia. "During the run-up of the housing market I was just as much caught up and seduced by the money and what happened with the mortgage industry as everyone else. But I could see where things were headed, and it made me very uncomfortable."
Garcia, disillusioned with the industry in which he worked, began searching for something more fulfilling. He worked on his own as a loan modifier, trying to assist borrowers in modifying their loans so they could save their homes, and later as a substance abuse counselor. This search eventually led him to Occupy San Diego.
Occupy Wall Street began on September 17 in Zuccotti Park, in New York City. The movement learned from the protests in the Middle East and took advantage of the power of social media to spread their message.
"One of the things about the social media is that it has changed the nature of protesting and the effect thereof," explains Garcia. "In the Civil Rights era it took years, and years, and years, and a lot of bloodshed in order to affect that kind of change that eventually happened. Now things happen so fast … It's also made it global. A lot of people don't understand that this is not just happening in America … Mohammad Bouazizi was the 26-year-old fruit vendor in Tunisia who was stopped from selling his fruit because he didn't have a license. So he couldn't make a living for his family. So he set himself on fire [on December 17, 2010]. And that brought forth the change, the protests that happened in Tunisia, which spread to Egypt, which spread to Libya, spread all over the middle east and it came here in that form at exactly the same time as those protests in Wisconsin. They happened simultaneously as Egypt and Tahrir Square were happening in one picture, and in the other picture was the protests in Madison [Wis.]. So, social media has really accelerated what can be done, and the effectiveness, and made it global … But in essense, those people in Tahrir Square were not just taking on their local government, they were taking on the United States by proxy."
"I had been reading about what had been happening in New York," he explained. "And then one day, a group of protesters marched by my office, I had no idea really who they were, but I heard rumblings that there was an extension of Occupy Wall Street in San Diego. I picked up my cell phone, I started filming. On my birthday, October 5, I went to my first meeting … and I've been a part of movement ever since … I've been filming, and writing, and working with committees."
Garcia is now one of the core members of OSD. There are approximately 125 to 150 members that can be rallied in short order for any action called. Of these, about two dozen are 24/7 occupiers who remain on-site at the Civic Center Plaza.
After having spent twelve years in the mortgage industry, Garcia understood the need for a movement against the corporate control of America. When Occupy Wall Street (OWS) emerged, it struck a chord. This movement is about eliminating the corporate control of America. Until this happens, our democracy cannot properly function, supporters believe.
"To me [the movement] is about unwinding the mortgage crisis, making it possible for people to stay in their homes," Garcia explained. "Two, getting the money out of politics. If we could get an amendment passed, to the Constitution, that will say corporations have never been, are not now, and never will be people, and therefore do not have the rights of personhood or a person, that would be a huge accomplishment. Then, to me, healthcare is a right. Getting a national exchange so that people have an opportunity to get healthcare at a reasonable price. We spend more in healthcare in this country than any other civilized country in the world, yet we are 37th in service. So, those three things, to me, are what Occupy is about and why I'm involved in it."
One of the major frustrations that Occupy wants to address is the destruction of the American Dream by corporate greed.
"We are not against business. We're very pro-business. We understand that that is what makes America one of the best countries in the world, or maybe the best country in the world to live in. But, we are losing that America. When CEOs are making 350 times what their employees make – when just thirty years ago they were making just ten times to twenty times what the average employee was making – that is the way the game is rigged. When I was a kid, you'd be in school, and they'd tell you you can be anything. You can be an astronaut. You can even be the President. But now you have to raise literally a billion and a half dollars to be President."
This cuts to the core of what is wrong in our country; occupiers believe, arguing that our children's futures are being compromised by the mismanagement of our society.
"The way people vote, they seem to vote with their aspirations instead of their reality," said Garcia. "And [my friend] has great aspirations for herself and her children that they are going to be able to go to college and have a better life than she had. And that's the way my parents raised me. They wanted a better life for me than they had. And that has been generation to generation in America. So, what I try to point out to her and what I'd like to point out to people whenever I'm asked this question, your current situation makes that, or our current situation, I should say, makes that impossible. I have a 24-year-old son. There is absolutely no way that I can provide for him a better quality of life than my parents provided for me … My parents bought their home in the 50s in Garden Grove, in Orange County, for literally $17,000 dollars. Which was about two to three years of their income. So that's exactly what I mean when I say there is absolutely no way that the middle class can provide a better opportunity for their children than our parents gave us. And that has fundamentally changed here in America. That is our current situation."
Because the changes have come slowly over a long period of time, the loss of freedoms, the rise in healthcare costs, the rise in housing prices, the loss of income and jobs, people have not noticed it as change, he contends.
"That is what I think people don't know," said Garcia. "It's like the boiling frog. We've been in the slow boiling pot now for so many years that wedon't understand that we can change things in order to favor the people of the United States … Things can be reversed. We can get back the America that we had when we were growing up. It's really not impossible … you positively CAN fight City Hall and all it takes is enough people getting out onto the street, and there are a lot of other ways you can help the movement. You can sign the online petitions. You can call your congressman. You can write them a letter, and you know, send it first class to help our post office. Those are the things that we can do."
One benefit of having spent the last three months with OSD is that Garcia has learned about the inner workings of our local government.
"All politics is local," he said. "And there have been some stunning things that I have learned about local politics here in San Diego … One of the things I learned about local politics was how such dire, extreme circumstances for people is just business as usual for the City Council, or for the Mayor's Office, or for the Police Department."
Much in the way that seasoned combat veterans become desensitized to the tragedies of war, or how a mortician becomes comfortable with the deceased, people in government can also disconnect from the suffering of others, perhaps in a effort for self-preservation.
"The rules in City Council are that if we all just said 'Let's speak about Occupy San Diego' they would group us all together and give us three minutes," said Garcia. "But if we sign up for the individual agenda items, then we get three minutes per item. I'm not sure who came up with that strategy, but it is a brilliant strategy. The only problem is having someone who can take that topic and spin it. And that is one of the things they've asked me to do because I am reasonably articulate. So, they asked me to speak in regards to the resolution that proclaims a state of emergency due to the lack of affordable housing."
"I said fine, I can easily spin that into an Occupy San Diego topic. What I didn't know was that this state of emergency was declared in 2002 and is reaffirmed every month. Now at some point the words "state of emergency" lose their meaning over time. And, I found that to be appaling. Why would a City Council continue to do that?"
After returning home and browsing the internet things became more clear to Garcia.
"The only thing I can figure out about it so far is that one of the reasons any municipality declares a state of emergency is to request funds from the state government or the federal government. So, my only real answer so far is that they must be paying for studies, and commissions, and they continue to request funds from the federal government – how much they've gotten I don't know – if they've gotten any I don't know – but there is a reason why they are doing it. And now people dying in the streets is just business as usual after nine years. They get desensitized to it. It turns into an opportunity to make political hay on an issue. Both sides do it."
On a more personal level, Garcia has learned a lot about himself and about human nature while occupying at the Civic Center Plaza (which has been renamed "Freedom Square" by the occupiers).
"The other thing that I've learned – and it's more of a personal awakening – like I said, I went to my first meeting on my birthday," Garcia explained. "It was just kind of coincidental, but looking back on it now, it's one of the best birthday gifts I've ever given myself. I spent Thanksgiving night here. I'm 48 years old so I can remember at least 40 Thanksgivings quite clealy … it was the best Thanksgiving to see the dedication and selflessness of so many people. The people who come down and give donations of clothing and food. The people who work behind the scenes … It's the individual stories. It's just sitting and watching the people interact and talking. It is very difficult to put that on the news and make it interesting."
Next up, occupiers across America are joining together to make their voices heard.
"We're currently planning a trip right now to go to Washintgton, D.C., for January 17, which is Occupy Congress Day. And they are looking for a million people to show up with tents. And to see how many selfless people are just donating behind the scenes and working behind the scenes, to help make this happen, and the reason, I think, is people across the country have this feeling that the system is broken. That the government no longer represents them."
Garcia continued. "And so, that's one of the chords that has been struck and why Occupy is so popular, is that people feel, when they see the signs, when they hear the chant of 'We are the 99%,' of seeing people getting maced for nothing more than trying to point out to their local government that there are problems that need to be addressed. When they see all of this. When they read about all of this. It brings them this little bit of hope that maybe there is something we can do to change this."
In that capacity, the Occupy Movement has seemed empowering to people who have been disheartened by our government and our failing economy. After years of struggling, and watching the situation deteriorate, people begin to lose hope. This is one reason why Obama's hope platform resonated with the American public in the 2008 election.
"There is this old adage that I grew up with that "You can't fight City Hall," said Garcia. "Well, maybe you CAN fight city hall. Maybe you can change things. And that's one of the reasons why it's taken hold and has become so popular and why it's so important that we all get to Washington, D.C."
As a side effect of fighting City Hall, the occupiers have been in an ongoing struggle with San Diego law enforcement from day one. San Diego, unlike many other cities, will not pass a resolution allowing the protesters to set up a more permanent occupation. The protesters are arrested on a regular basis – some 144 arrests so far as of December 28 – mostly for what opponents consider selective enforcement of city codes.Occupiers have contended that protesters are being arrested in an inordinate amount for violations that, outside of the occupation, are rarely being enforced. Critics of the crackdowns claim the enforcement is being used as a tactic to control the protests and to quell free speech, rather than as necessary police enforcement for reasons of safety and peace.
Garcia, however, has managed to avoid arrest thus far.
So, have Garcia's experiences with Occupy San Diego strengthened or weakened his resolve? His answer was not unexpected.
"They are strengthened more and more every day. Absolutely," he said. "As a subtance abuse counselor I understand that empathy and personal relationships are a key to mental health … And the personal relationships that I've developed with people that I never would have met in my normal course of life, who are now people that I can't imagine my life being without … Chaplain Ron [Dismuke] is a perfect example of what I mean. I would never would have known Chaplain Ron if it wasn't for this experience. Knowing him has enriched my existence."
After Thanksgiving, when the police told the occupiers that they could no longer bring tents into the Civic Center Plaza, Garcia had an idea. After publicizing that the occupiers intended to return to the Plaza with tents, the police were prepared to implement more arrests. The protesters held their ground and waited for the inevitable melee that was about to ensue. Tension mounted. Then the occupiers arrived with their tents. Their tiny little tents. They brought symbolic miniature tents that were maybe the size of a bread box. Occupier John Kenney referred to it as a "tents situation." It was another victory for the movement.
Garcia recalled discussing the "tents situation" with fellow occupiers. "We had a fund-raiser and we auctioned off the tiny tents … I have my memory of that night, but to hear the inspiration and the good feeling that they had from their experience of that night, they were ready for a conflict and they were ready for a face down with the police and they had so much apprehension but they were ready to do whatever it took. And then to see us walk in there with these tiny little tents, and the smiles that came on their faces. It really is a basic human necessity to recount your – two people's similar experience, that they were there at the same time – and to share how it was from their point of view. That really makes for a happier life."
OSD is working with the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), the ACLU, and attorneys who are offering their services free of charge, to defend the protesters at the Civic Center Plaza. The NLG has also supplied Legal Observers, who, wearing bright safety-green hats, have been on-site at the protests to document the events, and any arrests, as objective third party monitors.
"I don't know who put the site up, but they ranked us, I think, sixth in the nation for arrests," said Garcia. "The National Lawyers Guild has been instrumental in coming out and helping people to understand what their rights are."
So what is the reason behind the continuing game of cat and mouse with local law enforcement? I asked Garcia if this relentless fight with the police has diverted the focus of the movement.
"I've heard that a lot as well," affirmed Garcia. "It is my feeling that the struggle for the physical property, the turf, is what brings the attention to the issues that we have."
Garcia stated that the police are actually very sympathetic to the movement. They are merely following orders which have trickled down from the directives of Homeland Security. "I don't want to become conspiratorial about it because the fact is that we are on the side of police," he said.
One of the many hats that Garcia wears is that of the OSD liaison to SDPD and city government. He has performed in this capacity for over a month now.
"We do have a dialogue," said Garcia. "I have spoken with Assistant Police Chief Boyd Long on several occasions. I have his cell phone number, I can call him anytime. I've sat in his office for an hour, he's been very cordial, and he has listened. And there are things we can agree on … When they deem a request is reasonable they are responsive to it. So we definitely have a dialogue open to the police department."
"With City Council," he continued, "we have met with some of their aids and we've presented plans in order to reoccupy the center, that were drawn by what we call the Occupy Architects, which is a group of architects that took the CIty Plaza and made a great rendering of what it would look like if it were occupied with considerations for the fire exits, and for city codes, and for the theater so that they could encourage traffic to the theater, encouraging traffic to the coffee cart, encouraging traffic to the different buildings, and we presented that to City Council. We don't have the dialogue we would like to have with City Council, and I think some of that is our fault, some of us like myself, have no experience with city government. So we don't really know the protocols and the procedures that City Council operates within."
"But, our real obstacle is with the Mayor's Office," laments Garcia. "The Mayor's Office gives us absolutely no access whatsoever. And many of us have been tax paying citizens for a long time and feel we should have access just as a normal citizen. But when you are identified as an occupier then you are shut out."
Another obstacle that Garcia has faced is the obfuscation while trying to navigate the maze of bureaucracy.
"The other thing about working with city government is everybody wants to pass the buck," Garcia said. "When we go to the Police Department they say well that's not within our providence, you need to talk to the City Council. So we go to City Council and they say well this is an executive-weighted government so you need to talk the Mayor's Office, and when we go the Mayor's Office they immediately send us back to the Police Department. Quite intentionally."
Additionally, there has been some reluctance from the police to assist the occupation when they have problems in their camps, Garcia suggested, noting that often the occupiers are expected to do their own policing.
Lt. Andra Brown with San Diego Police disputes that contention. “We have made many arrests in and around the `Occupy’ site so the San Diego Police Department is not averse to taking action/handling problems in the venue on behalf of the demonstrators,” she told ECM. “We have provided many services to the demonstrators…called ambulances, broken up fights, arrested demonstrators who attacked other demonstrators, etc. so we are there to assist at the site as well.”
Garcia acknowledged that problems within the camp has been discussed from early on. "From the very first this movement has attracted a wide variety of people, with a wide variety of philospohies, and political affiliations,” he observed.”There have been anarchists, there have been socialists, there have been people who are affiliated in many different ways, from the legalization of medical marijuana groups, unions, and religious affiliations. And so a lot of those organizations have fringe elements within them. And when you add that to the people who are desperate, living on the street, who are addicted to substances or mentally ill, when you put all of those people together in one place at one time, it's very difficult to keep any cohesion or any sort of message."
He continued. "I would say the best way that we deal with it is that we keep our focus on the grievances that have been brought forth by Occupy Wall Street … We constantly remind people of why we are here and what we are doing here. Now that doesn't cure all of the fringe elements, because they are very enthusiastic. So, for example, one of the conversations that I've had with Assistant Chief Long is – and this is the way I put it to him – I'm not a homeless person, and if I were on my street and I saw someone who let's say was dangerous, brandishing a weapon, on my block, where I live, then I could feel free to call the police, as a tax paying citizen, to have them deal with that issue. If someone was ODing I could call the fire department or paramedics and they would come out and they would deal with that issue. They wouldn't necessarily have to come in and search my house, or accuse every one on the block of being a conspiracy and tell them that they have to deal with their own problems. And so we feel that we have that same right here … The resistance we run into is that the police say "well, it's your movement, it's your problem, deal with it." That's one of the ways we really had to educate the police department that we attract people. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they are part of our movement. We have the same rights of citizen as anyone else when it comes to services that are provided by the city as a citizen of that city."
Garcia believes that people can make a huge impact by being more mindful of how they spend their money, the companies they support, and the political and social leanings of those companies.
"So you go online, you find out which companies are the companies that you want to support. And vote with your dollar. We live in a capitalist society, even though we only vote for the President once every four years, we vote with our dollars every day. And if people would just take a couple of minutes to figure out which gas station, which paper product, which trash bag, which product which they use every day are made by companies that are transparent with their donations to political parties or PACs – and which companies are not transparent with that money – and support companies that think along the same lines as you do. Then you can absolutely vote with your dollar every day. It can make a gigantic difference."
So what are some of the strengths and weaknesses of the movement?
"There has not been nearly enough communication and organization between the cities," said Garcia. "My top thing that we don't do as well is getting the message to the general public about all the things that we've talked about … But, certain actions we do really well. We did the 'mic check' at the City Council. That was an amazing event. Rallying people together in support of individual causes is going to be the next phase. And what I mean by that is we are really good at calling an action and getting people to show up. We are currently searching for people who have tried to get their loan modified and who are facing eviction. And occupying those homes and bringing attention to that individual plight. We are putting together a ballot initiative to get a year-long moratorium on foreclosures. That is something that we do really well. We bring attention to individual issues really, really well."
There are other victories that the Occupy Movement has earned, like changing the conversation in our country.
"When Time Magazine makes 'The protester' the 'Person of the Year,' then you know you've affected [change] … We have changed up popular culture. Many more people know what a 'mic check' is. We've mic checked the President and in changing that conversation President Obama uses terms like 'one-percenter' or 'ninety-nine-percenter' … Many of the people who are in this movement are disillusioned Obama supporters. So the effect that we've had is to bring him back to his base … More people are using the term "occupy." More people are using the tactics. More people are picking up their newspaper and reading it maybe through a slightly different lens. We've affected the consciousness, that's what we've done. I think that is our biggest effect. And we are just getting started, which is really exciting."
In addition to affecting popular culture and the national narrative, Garcia confirms that there are one-percenters who secretly support the movement.
"I have heard several times of people who would be considered in the one percent, who are supporting this movement," he said. "There are people who are in the public eye like Michael Moore, or other celebrities, who would be considered in the one percent simply because they have made tremendous amounts of money. But they don't consider themselves to be one-percenters per se. But yes, I've heard of several people who wish to remain anonymous who are great supporters of the movement – at least maybe not with money or willing to come out publicly – but who have expressed, through channels, that they are big supporters of the movement."
So, exactly how is the Occupy Movement morphing over time?
"We'd like to think of it as evolving," said Garcia.
One way the occupation is evolving is to circumvent violations at the Civic Center Plaza, for example, by reoccupying the Plaza without tents. Another evolution involves more personalized protesting and less public protesting. One way this is being done is to protest home foreclosures at the residences themselves.
Garcia explained it like this. "We are actively seeking, and looking for people who have legitimate grievances against their lending institution, and who have tried to get mortgage modifications that they definitely qualify for under all the rules that were laid down by the federal government. The woman in Mt. Helix with the 83-year-old wheelchair-bound mother is one of the perfect cases [ www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/8147 ].
"In our estimation, because the banks and Wall Street play such a major part in crashing this economy, that they should be held accountable and be part of the solution," said Garcia. "And part of that solution is keeping people in their homes. So that the real estate market has a chance to stabilize … So, we plan to bring attention to each one of these cases as we find them."
Another goal of Occupy is to get candidates into congress, into city government, and into national office. "It's going to be a difficult balancing act to keep what we consider our grassroots purity and also become interjected into a system which is so rife with corruption and not be corrupted ourselves," Garcia said. "That is probably our biggest challenge."
Garcia summarized his view of the Occupy Movement in this way. "There is no question that our system of government no longer functions that way our founding fathers put it together. And, the evolution of the corporation, identifying itself as a person, when the actual only reason a corporation exists is for profit, has made it so actual people have much less of a function in this country, and therefore have no control over what our founding fathers put together. And it has morphed and mutated into something that they wouldn't even recognize. And, becoming a participant, even if it's in what you might consider the smallest way, has tremendous effect. You don't necessarily have to come to the occupation, you certainly don't have to spend the night, you don't have to pitch a tent, all you really have to do is start paying attention. Because once you start paying attention, your natural instincts to protect a country that you love, and a system of government that you want to pay along to your kids, will automatically kick in. If you just start paying attention."
I had thought to myself, "This guy seems different. I wonder what his story is…"
Now I know. So do you.