Monday’s ‘Occupy Santa Ana’ Council Discussion Was No Failure

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Collage of Occupy Santa Ana photos

Clockwise: Santa Ana Councilmembers Michelle Martinez and Vincent Sarmiento; protestors; witty cardboard. (Sources for college: OC Weekly and Voice of OC)

What you may have read about Monday night’s Santa Ana City Council meeting, as it pertains to Occupy Santa Ana, is in its most critical aspects not quite true.

Let’s look at some headlines.  First, from the generally excellent OC Weekly:

Santa Ana City Council Denies Occupy Protesters Permission to Camp in City, Scoffs at Protesters

“Last night, the Santa Ana City Council denied Occupy permission to camp in the Civic Center, or anywhere in the city for that matter.”

“Scoffs” is a matter of opinion, but I don’t think it stands up to scrutiny.  As for “denying protesters permission”: no, that didn’t happen.  They never voted on a proposal. There was no rejection of our position.  I’ll explain below.

How about the generally excellent Voice of OC?  Their headline was:

Santa Ana Says No to Occupy Orange County Camping

Closer, but again not quite.  They didn’t say “no”; they said “not yet” and “we’ll continue the conversation.

As for the ecstatic cries of “FAIL! DEFEAT!” from the former proprietor of this website in his new digs — not even close.  Occupy Santa Ana has opened up a conversation with the Santa Ana City Council — not ended one.  That is neither a failure or a defeat.

This is a good point for me to declare my interests: I’m a Civic Liaison for Occupy Irvine; I’ve informally advised Occupy Santa Ana.  I have spoken to both City Councils in support of the Occupy movement and their respective proposed (and in Irvine’s case ongoing) encampments.  I’m not a neutral party, but I’ll happily be judged by the objective facts I present.

There’s a delicious irony in what happened Monday night in Santa Ana, as opposed to thirteen nights previously in Irvine, that may help to explain why people (excluding the members of the Santa Ana City Council itself, who seemed to understand what was up) are getting this wrong.  For connoisseurs of irony:

On October 25, Occupy Irvine went into the Irvine City Council meeting not expecting that any motion to grant permission to stay overnight would be introduced and passed — but one was.

On November 7, Occupy Santa Ana went into the Santa Ana City Council meeting expecting that a motion to grant permission to stay overnight would (or at least might) be introduced and pass — but one wasn’t.

There was really nothing that disappointing about the Santa Ana Council not immediately inviting us, at the end of their meeting (which was, after all, ’round midnight) to step into a back room and work out a temporary agreement over the following hour.  That was extraordinary — although perfectly proper and justifiable — on Irvine’s part.  Irvine’s actions had built up the expectations of Occupy Santa Ana, as did the understanding that Councilmembers Michelle Martinez and David Benavides had placed the issue on the agenda for that meeting.

As it turned out, they had intended to agendize that item for discussion rather than action.  That’s OK, but it was not well-understood.  The discussion was helpful.  And while action would have been possible, it would have been … well, extraordinary.  No Santa Ana Councilmember had come prepared, as Irvine’s Larry Agran had, with a proposed motion folded and tucked away in a jacket pocket just in case things went well.  (And they had gone very, very well.)  That should not really be too upsetting: we know that Santa Ana has challenges that Irvine does not (although the reverse is also true) and, as at least one Councilmember reminded us, political victories often take time.

So, while we would have liked for the Council to help end the misery of the protesters out in the cold and damp, that was always a best-case scenario.  That didn’t happen; we have hard work ahead of us.  Many protesters were bitterly disappointed, but that was disappointment based on very high hopes.  My understanding is that Occupy Santa Ana protesters have been meeting over the past few days and that spirits have been high — people are digging in for a long fight.  That’s miles away, in the opposite direction, from “failure.”

Brandon Ferguson provides good coverage in his article at the OC Weekly link above, and I will politely avert my eyes from his snarky evaluations of the responses by City Councilmembers.  (It was late and they were in a tough spot; not everyone will be at their best.)  But there are some points that demand note.

First, we realize, as did the Irvine City Council, that the concern about setting precedents and treating all groups fairly are not trivial.  But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t good answers — otherwise, we would not have seen a unanimous vote (on a council with a 3-2, rather than 6-1, Democratic majority) for Irvine to allow overnight occupation.  I hope to discuss those solutions to that concern with Santa Ana city officials in the days and weeks to come — whether speaking on behalf of Occupy Santa Ana or just relaying useful perspectives from Irvine.

Second, I appreciate Councilmember Benavides’s concern about not wanting to put Santa Ana in a position to be sued (by other groups seeking authorization to stay overnight.)  This, however, presumes that Santa Ana is not in danger — even greater danger — of being sued under its current interpretation of the law.  Many in Santa Ana seem to put their faith in 1995’s Tobe v. City of Santa Ana decision, in which the California Supreme Court rejected a challenge to Santa Ana’s clearing out a tent city from earlier that decade.  Well, I’ve read Tobe, and I know that it’s a poor place to put one’s faith.  It’s a very limited decision by a Court that clearly did not want to get into the most difficult issues — where the City was at greatest risk of losing — and found a way not to do so.

(One might ask: if we’re so confident that we could win a court decision, why not go ahead?  The answer is that it is not a first — or even a second — resort.  So long as the prospect of working out a reasonable arrangement with Santa Ana is realistic, that’s a lot better for everyone than a lawsuit.  It’s especially better for Santa Ana, which needs to save its money right now.)

Third, Councilmember Tinajero’s lecture on how to run proper civil disobedience — let police know in advance who’s plans to get arrested and stage manage the results — doesn’t strike me as absurd at all.  That is how it is often done — although you need only look at the Occupy protests nationwide to see that the police often don’t go along with the program.  If it comes to that, I hope that Occupy Santa Ana and the police will work towards an orderly demonstration.  But, again, that’s nowhere near the best case.

As for the comments of Councilmember Michelle Martinez — and I should declare again up front that I support her rival Julio Perez for AD-69, but I don’t dislike her and if she makes it into the runoff against Tom Daly I expect to support her because I think that, barring extreme exceptions, the most Latino district in the state really ought to be represented by a Latino — OC Weekly said this:

But the most laughable response of the evening came from councilmember Michele Martinez who said, “This global movement is not just about your right to assembly; it’s about your duty to vote.” To which those in the audience loudly retorted, “our politicians are bought.”

That, indeed, did not go well.  Personally, I agree with Michelle: activists have a duty to vote — not, in many cases, for a person with whom they will agree, but for the person among available options that they would prefer to lobby.  (Put it this way: would you rather lobby Irvine’s City Council on behalf of the middle class — or Costa Mesa’s?)  The problem is that many of the Occupy protesters are really alienated — and understandably alienated — and want no part of local Democratic (or Republican, for that matter) politics.  As a Democrat, I want to see my party win over the Occupy demonstrators, one by one; I don’t for a moment think that we should consider them our natural due.  Occupy demonstrators value transparency, accountability, fairness — if the Democratic (or Republican) Party wants to win them over, they will have to do the same.

Adam Elmahrek in Voice of OC, while the headline of his article misleadingly says that the Council “says no” — to what motion? — took a less harsh tone with the council .  I ask you: do the following comments sound like “failure” to you?

Disappointed and angry, protesters departed the council chambers while shouting at council members. “Just remember we voted for you! That was a mistake,” shouted one protester. Added another: “People are going to get pneumonia out there.”

Council members said they were in solidarity with the protesters’ cause despite their unwillingness to lift the camping ban for them. Councilman Vincent Sarmiento asked the city attorney to draft a council statement affirming their support of the protesters.

Mayor Miguel Pulido, citing “interconnected” global problems like climate change and the struggling international economy, encouraged protesters to keep the movement going.

“Just because you don’t get a yes the way you want it or when you want it, keep fighting, because you have a righteous cause,” Pulido said.

Most Occupy movements in the country would love to have such a “failure.”   But Voice of OC was dead right about the mood of the protesters, who (“realistically” or not), expected and demanding something better.  (And that part about people getting sick?  That’s true too.)  Many people did report feeling screwed over by the Council’s not following Irvine’s path.  But is that more of a problem for the protesters — or for the politicians?

You’ll be hearing lots more about Occupy Santa Ana (whether I’m personally involved in it or not); round 2 ended without a win (round 1 being the arrests on October 22), but it’s a long fight.  Santa Ana has real reason to want to harness the energy of the protesters, who — as I argued before the council and will state again in a post here sometime soon — are actually its natural allies and clearly loving supporters of the City and its people.

It’s not going to be easy — no one ever said it’s going to be easy.  But a “failure”?  Not even close.  A “beginning.”


About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)