Protesters 'occupy' Merced

mnorth@mercedsunstar.comOctober 15, 2011 

When Gloria Sandoval went to the bank Saturday, the teller asked a question and may not have liked the answer.

The teller asked Sandoval, a 62-year-old educator, what her plans were for the rest of the day.

"I'm going to a protest," she replied.

"Are you protesting banks?" the teller asked.

"Some of it," Sandoval answered, adding that the movement she's part of covers an array of issues, not only with banks.

Sandoval was one of nearly 200 people who attended Occupy Merced on Saturday at Courthouse Park in Merced, an event that's part of a larger occupy movement that's swept across the country.

The gatherings are made up of people who claim to be marginalized by the upper-echelon of society, or the "1 percent."

Sandoval said she's part of the "99 percent" who face financial burdens because of unfair wealth distribution.

Though she has a job, Sandoval still feels financial pressures.

"Working people are part of the 99 percent," she said. "It's getting harder and harder to make it."

In the United States 15.1 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to 2010 data from the CIA World Factbook.

Protesters stood along M Street during the gathering, holding signs and prompting honks from many passing motorists.

Signs, including phrases such as "Money is slavery by proxy" and "This stuff trickling down on us isn't money," were held by a diverse group of people, spanning across all ages and backgrounds. Some had on face paint, and others wore Guy Fawkes masks.

The high cost of living, high unemployment and foreclosures factor into a weakened economy that has many wondering how they'll pay the bills, Sandoval said.

Tim Phelan, a 54-year-old who works in property management and as an artist, was also among those in the crowd Saturday afternoon.

Like so many others throughout the Central Valley, Phelan lost his home to foreclosure. But he doesn't place the blame on the banks. He takes responsibility for it.

Still, he thinks there's a lot that can be done to turn the tide of the economy, such as ending the tax cuts brought about by former President George W. Bush.

The gathering started just after noon, as another group read the rosary in front of the veterans memorials in the center of the park. Eight "occupiers" were there at noon, but soon they were joined by dozens of others, then scores. Merced Police Department cars cruised by from time to time but never stopped.

Law enforcement officials said a few people from the movement camped in the park overnight, but no citations were written and no one was arrested.

Some think the movement is similar to that of the tea party, just using different methods to achieve the same goals. Others described the movement as cut off from the tea party.

Phelan said he heard that some tea party members were considering joining the occupy movement.

Sam Palmer, coordinator of the Merced Tea Party Patriots, said most of the party is paying attention to the movement but not getting involved.

"In my view, it's an extreme, extreme, hard-left movement," he said, adding that it's wrapped up in socialism.

The tea party wants a return to basic constitutional principles, as opposed to the occupy movement, which calls for a complete overhaul of the system, Palmer said.

"These people are out for a full-blown revolution," he said. "They want to try and collapse the system."

Palmer hasn't heard of any tea party members getting involved.

"We have nothing to do with these people," he said.

The real issue causing the economic shortfall is government bearing down on businesses, not big corporations bearing down on the people, Palmer noted.

Jeff Freitas, who spoke several times during the Occupy Merced function, said he wasn't an organizer and that the movement doesn't have an organizer.

He did, however, help coordinate and facilitate the event, using various methods to maximize communication and minimize interruptions.

One device he put to use was "happy fingers" -- when someone vocalizes an idea people like, they put their hands in the air and wiggle their fingers.

For Freitas, the heart of the issue lies with how enormous revenues are going to 1 percent of the population. He noted that the occupy movement is spreading not only across the country, but throughout the world.

"This is going on in a thousand cities and 80 counties," he said. "People are organizing."

At about 2 p.m. Saturday, nearly 100 protesters gathered in a circle at the park and held a meeting that lasted for 40 minutes.

Most wanted to continue the movement and help it grow while keeping it localized and focused on Merced. Attendees decided to continue meeting on Saturdays and take it week by week.

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsunstar.com.

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