99Rise Policies Highlight Occupy L.A. Flaws
Nick Wagner says that he’s used to being harassed by police.
As a kid, he says, he was constantly looking over his shoulder.
The 32-year-old Riverside, Calif.-native camped for two months last year at Occupy L.A.'s base at City Hall, until police evicted the protesters on last Nov. 30.
Wagner has been arrested for protesting on the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. and regularly travels with his girlfriend to protests nationwide.
This year, as Occupy L.A. celebrates its one-year anniversary, Wagner has chosen to join an offshoot movement called 99Rise, which focuses on pressuring banks to reveal undisclosed campaign donations.
The new movement seeks accountability for those involved in combining big corporate money with politics.
Those who started and joined 99Rise used the Occupy movement's language and have applied it to a group less phobic of appointing activist leaders and more interested in enacting specific change.
Many say that this is what the Occupy movement lacks.
"I thought [Occupy] had grown, but it seems like to me that the media has really made it seem to the public that Occupy is dead," Wagner said over the phone.
A former Occupy L.A. organizer, a 22-year-old named Elise Whitaker, introduced him to 99Rise after spearheading its launch.
While Wagner still considers himself an Occupier, he found the discipline, organization and nonviolent focus of 99Rise immediately appealing.
He has witnessed how Occupy has become more antagonistic with police, while he believes that nonviolent action will be the way to change the existing American system.
Wagner is an anomaly in the protest movement for his willingness to adapt and alter his approach to making change in America.
At 99Rise's first action at Bank of America in downtown L.A. on Sept. 28, a group of about 50 delivered a petition to the bank managers asking them to reveal the bank's campaign donations.
The group was almost entirely white, mostly students from Occidental College, a private liberal arts college.
Several of the organizers have backgrounds in labor organizing and were dressed in white pressed shirts and slacks.
One man, Kai Newkirk, who was a labor organizer, was clearly one of the group’s leaders.
On 99Rise press releases, he’s listed at the top as one of two principal contacts.
Newkirk communicated with LAPD commander John A. Sherman--who shut down Occupy marches last year.
At the 99Rise protest, Sherman said, "I'll work with these people anytime."
Eight were arrested for refusing to leave the bank and the barricaded area outside it, including Christopher Weeks, an 18-year-old Occidental freshman from New Hampshire.
Weeks said that he believes in the 99Rise movement because he thinks it's right to "share" the freedom he’s had because of his family's privilege.
On the surface, Wagner, who is half-Mexican and half-German, and who attends L.A. Community College, doesn't fit into this mold.
Still, he does more than most to try to bridge together the 99Rise movement with the Occupy L.A. movement.
Each side has resisted the other, he says, with Occupiers thinking of 99Rise as elitist, and 99Risers thinking of Occupy as too anarchistic, too disorganized, and unfocused.
"Occupy is over," said Emma Gerch, a 17-year-old Oxy student who was an Occupier before joining 99Rise. "At best, it's not 'over,' but it's not a movement anymore. It's a community of people that are great, but aren't doing the things that make movements successful--really, [not doing things] that make them movements at all."
Gerch and her friends felt that they didn't have a strong voice in Occupy L.A., which wasn't as all-inclusive as many suggest, she said.
She also felt that the group didn't do enough to gain public support.
"Maybe they don't care about public support," Gerch said, "in which case none of this matters--they're just doing their thing."
Wagner and his girlfriend had the guts to approach 99Rise even if they felt alienated at first.
"After actually doing actions with the Rise and actually getting to know organizers from the Rise, it helped us understand it better, because they're political activists just like the rest of us," he said.
Wagner plans on attending an Occupy L.A. general assembly meeting in Pershing Square—which are held Monday and Wednesday nights—to voice his hope that the two groups might work together and learn from each other.
"I'm kind of nervous about it because I'm probably going to get a lot of flak about it," he said.
Wagner works as an actor, and is currently helping a friend make an independent film while also entering the final round of auditions to be on a reality show about the Occupy movement called "How the Other Half Lives."
Read more of Neon Tommy's coverage of Occupy LA here.
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