FEATURE STORY, VIDEOS: The new face of the Occupy Movement: Castro protesters gather to reclaim neighborhood

Originally written for J300: Reporting, San Francisco State University on Dec. 5, 2011

There were no tents. There were no portable kitchens. There were no sanitation issues. However, there was still a group of angry protesters wanting to occupy the streets of San Francisco. Metaphorically, that is.

As part of a new direction of the Occupy San Francisco Movement, the group gathered in the Castro while similar groups jointly held demonstrations in other neighborhoods throughout the city on Dec. 3.

This new face of the Occupy Movement was not based on literally taking over high profile areas. Instead, the idea was to bring the message closer to home.

In the same space where weekly rallies were a common occurrence during the heyday of social activism 20 years ago, a group of roughly 50 people of all ages and backgrounds huddled in Harvey Milk Plaza, just outside of the Muni Station to take back their neighborhood. One by one, the angry protesters stepped up to the hand-drawn soap box to speak about how fed up they were with the high rent rates and evictions because of the Ellis Act in the Castro and beyond. According to Occupy the Castro organizers, the Ellis Act, which is a state law that allows property owners to get out of the market by evicting all their tenants, is frequently abused. During the dot-com boom, real estate speculators were getting financing from banks to buy buildings, evict all the tenants and flip the buildings into tenancies-in-common for a profit of up to $1.5 million which has resulted in homelessness.

“Banks are responsible for the eviction crisis that we have had in the Castro and we are here to hold them accountable,” yelled Occupy the Castro’s organizer, Tommi Avicolli Mecca through a bullhorn. “We are here to serve them with eviction notices to tell them, we the people, we the 99 percent are evicting them because if they are going to try to evict us, we don’t fucking want them in our neighborhood.”

VIDEO: Occupy the Castro Organizer Tommi Avicolli Mecca discusses why they are protesting / Kevin Skahan 

The crowd was fired up, waving picket signs in the air depicting a giant Wall Street building looming over a home that read “Banks: No More Evictions and Foreclosures for Profit!”while they took their message to the streets. The protesters chanted “we are the 99 percent” as they made their way down Castro Street. Passersby tried to make their way through the crowd as confused onlookers stared at the scene from Muni busses and cars. With the protesters marching in the street, traffic was forced to stop and wait. Cars honked their horns in unison of the chants in solidarity. The protesters were on a mission to evict unruly businesses from their neighborhood.

The Occupy the Castro protesters piled into Citi Bank to serve them a notice of default for their misdeeds. “Your violations include pressuring tenants and homeowners, evicting tenants and targeting low income neighborhoods.  You failed to comply with loan modifications and your practices had directly led to the financial crisis that has increased unemployment, homelessness and budget shortfalls at every stage of government in San Francisco and across the U.S. and specifically to low income queers living in the Castro,” a woman told the bank manager as she handed him the notice. Customers were surprised and babies cried as the notice was read.

Citi Bank was one of the few businesses the protesters managed to occupy to hand deliver notices of evictions. At their second stop, police blocked the door to Bank of America. Police officers said they chose to block the door to prevent the protesters to come in to ensure no one would get hurt.

Yet their decision did not come without consequence. “Shame on the police for not letting us in!” the crowd chanted.

“They don’t realize they are part of the 99 percent too,” Mecca said.

Occupy the Castro blames banks like Citigroup and Bank of the America for financing real estate speculators and encouraging Ellis Act evictions. At the zenith of the dot-com boom, there were 384 Ellis Act eviction notices, according to the San Francisco Rent Board. The number is again on the rise with 61 notices filed this year as compared to 43 last year.

Next, the protesters marched over to the Castro Country Club, a clean and sober meeting place to address their concerns of the fate of the building. The owner of the building died last year and the building is currently pending sale and under contract to a real estate investor, according to CCC’s newsletter. Terry Beswick, the manager of the club spoke on the front steps on behalf of Occupy Castro, voicing his concerns about the possible evictions of tenants who live upstairs, including himself.

VIDEO: The protesters stop by the Castro Country Club / Kevin Skahan

“I don’t want to move,” Beswick said. “I’m going to use everything at my disposal to fight it. Not just for me, not just for my roommates, not just for my dog, but for this community.” He told the crowd that he is living with AIDS and cannot afford his new $400 a month prescription and his health insurance does not cover it.

If he gets evicted, he could be among the 5 percent of homeless people in San Francisco living with HIV or AIDS, according to the Human Service Agency of San Francisco. A visitor of the Castro Country Club had dim hopes for the meeting place’s future, fearing the new owner will evict it. “Do you think he is going to keep a clean and sober coffeehouse underneath him that makes a lot of noise and has a lot of meetings? That’s kind of pie in the sky. I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

As he spoke, the future owner of the building, Deek Johnson ran up the stairs to say what they are saying is a lie and that he is going to keep the Castro Country Club in the same location. However, he would not comment on if he was going to evict the tenants upstairs.

Occupy the Castro made their last stop at the Human Rights Campaign shop, which used to house Harvey Milk’s old camera store. As they marched they chanted “HRC don’t speak for me.” The protesters were allowed to personally voice their demands.

“We call on the Human Rights Campaign to make affordable housing, living waged jobs, the maintenance of benefits for seniors, people with AIDS and others and healthcare for all priorities.”

When asked if he was surprised with protesters storming into the store, the HRC employee said he was used to it. “San Francisco is a passionate city,” he said.

As Occupy the Castro wrapped up their march, it seemed like the mood in the air was different, like the calm after a storm. This was a storm that was brewing for at least 20 years. It was a storm that echoed earlier Castro activism and for a moment, it almost felt like Harvey Milk was back in town.

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