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Occupy the Rose Parade: Working Through the Next Stage of the Occupy Movement

Today, after the floats and the marching bands and Grand Marshals and all the other pomp and circumstance crosses Colorado Avenue in Pasadena, California, marking the end of another Tournament of Roses Parade, over 1,000 activists will stage their own march. The protesters even have their own floats, including a massive 250-foot rendering of the Constitution of the United States and a 70-foot octopus made out of plastic bags symbolizing the predatory nature of the financial industry and the tentacles they use to strangle the nation’s economy taking the riches for themselves. At the end 99 activists representing the 99% will carry one member sitting on a throne, representing the 1%.

The alternative march, known as Occupy the Rose Parade, will happen in full view of the attendees in the stands who will be asked to remain seated as the protesters promenade down the avenue. It’s part of a larger movement featuring remnants of the core of several Southern California occupations as well as disaffected activists, all struggling to figure out how to advance what burst onto the scene this fall and best achieve meaningful political and social change.

As Lisa Derrick mentioned, Occupy the Rose Parade exists on a continuum with a long tradition of Rose Parade marches and protests. In the 1990s the mayor of Pasadena actually wore a “Tournament of Racists Parade” T-shirt down the parade route to protest the lack of ethnic diversity on display. In recent years AIDS activists, Native Americans and antiwar protesters have held sit-ins and marches at the nation’s most prominent New Year’s Day parade (held on January 2 this year). In 2008 Los Angeles lawyer, activist and former state Assembly candidate Peter Thottam led 440 activists in a “White Rose” protest after the parade, calling for the impeachment of President Bush. In fact, that event led him and other activists to create Occupy the Rose Parade. Thottam, one of the loose coalition of organizers of the event who have been planning it since early October, expects “at least 1,000” and perhaps as many as 4,000 protesters on the scene from all over the region. A listserv for information about the event has hundreds of activists on it.

The Tournament of Roses Parade committee has authorized the protest which will occur after the floats have passed and local police sweep the route, but before the crowd is released from the bleacher seating. “The city and the Rose Parade organizers have been fully supportive,” said Daniel Niswander, who led an educational “summit” for the community on New Year’s Day at the progressive All Saints Church, another OTRP-sponsored event.

This doesn’t mean that anyone outside the people physically at the parade will see the march. Typically post-parade marchers never hit the airwaves, as the broadcasts cut off their productions once the floats pass. The fact that the giant Constitution, which activists are calling “the 44th float” (there are 43 Rose Parade floats this year) will be the first part of the OTRP event, this has led some organizers to hope they will break through. “If Middle America gets to see that, they will have a different image of the Occupy movement,” Niswander said. “But we’ll see – traditionally they cut it off.”

Others predicted that the sound and fury will signify little. Bonnie, a member of the local Occupy Pasadena chapter (which has not given their endorsement of the OTRP event), said that “the city is well-prepared” for such after-the-parade disruptions, typically made up of religious apocalyptic types or other protesters, and they know how to control them. By giving the Occupiers a fig leaf of access, organizers can have a successful parade without disruptions, and not alienate their corporate sponsors.

But the activists have been media savvy enough to garner a good deal of attention for the action, including notice from the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times. They also have a contingent of relatively well-known activists appearing, including antiwar Gold Star Mother Cindy Sheehan (appearing as the not-Grand Marshal), public banking advocate Ellen Brown, musician Michelle Shocked and three-time Congressional advocate Marcy Winograd. “The Occupy movement has done something the Democratic Party hasn’t been able to do, to shift the focus of the dialogue from deficits and taxes to wealth and inequality,” said Winograd, who now believes she can do more from the outside and through work on the local economy than through working from within the Democratic Party infrastructure.

What’s more, OTRP has gotten the attention of one of the lead sponsors of the Rose Parade, Wells Fargo. When they rehearsed their protest last week, Thottam explains, the head of community banking from the financial giant called them several times, and a meeting between Wells executives and OTRP protesters has been tentatively set for mid-to-late January. Thottam pointed out that 6 of the 43 floats in this year’s parade come from the financial services industry, as well as the increased militarization of the parade, with Air Force flyovers and other accoutrements. “The parade is a metaphor for how the nation has been co-opted by a Fortune 500/military/industrial/Congressional/media complex,” Thottam said. “This is a perfect place to protest.”

The emphasis on foreclosures, a major area of interest for the Occupy movement since before the physical occupations were broken up, will be on display in Pasadena. At the teach-in style forum at All Saints on Sunday, the foreclosure crisis was a major topic of discussion (along with corporate personhood and the desire to get money out of politics). Activists have called on Wells Fargo and other banks to put a moratorium on foreclosures in the state due to the overlapping set of fraudulent activities that have confused the true ownership of millions of properties. “There’s concern on Wells’ part,” Winograd said. “This is a PR campaign for them, so this is not what they bargained for.”

While Wells’ offer of a meeting smacks of more public relations management from a big bank, something we’ve seen time and again during the foreclosure crisis (the greatest asset to someone facing foreclosure is a TV camera or print journalist), there are stirrings of deeper actions by the protesters. Carlos Marroquin, a 27-year postal service employee who lost his home to an illegal foreclosure using fraudulent documents, now participates in the Occupy movement as a homeowner advocate, turning his tragedy into a passion to help others avoid the same fate.

Homeowner Advocate Carlos Marroquin

During Occupy LA, Marroquin received 300 requests for help from local families and he has gotten to work helping families with direct action challenges to banks. Recently, Marroquin organized the disruption of a Bank of America foreclosure auction in Norwalk, getting investors to walk out in droves after explaining that the banks had no proof of ownership on the homes and that by purchasing them, they were participating in crimes. This week his group will occupy the home of a 79 year-old woman facing eviction in South Central Los Angeles. They also plan to sit in the quarters of the judge overseeing the court response, demanding that he look at the evidence underlying the eviction.

Marroquin’s story offers a way forward, part of an Occupy 2.0 that translates the already-achieved rhetorical shift in emphasis into real action. “I’m here to meet people who need help,” said Marroquin, positing the Occupy movement as a kind of community resource. “The banks are afraid of the community getting involved. We are going to their doors and demanding justice. Wells is trying to pacify us. But we are going to become a nightmare for these banks until they stop stealing homes.”

In the end, Occupy the Rose Parade may wind up another in a long line of largely forgotten protests on the fringes of the annual celebration in Pasadena. But the still-young movement coming together around this and other direct actions is feeling their way through, continuing to press the public conscience, finding the right mix of actions to raise public awareness and force real change. And they don’t intend to stop.

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David Dayen

David Dayen