Several hundred participants turned up as early as 6:00 AM this morning to participate in San Francisco’s Occupy the Courts action. The event was part of a nationwide protest to mark the two-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which granted corporations unlimited spending power via political action committees. As South Carolina prepares to vote in the 2012 Republican primary, the topic is a timely one.

I spoke with a longstanding member of Occupy San Francisco, an elderly woman who lived in the city’s first encampments. We stood in line as volunteers handed out hot meals to protestors, the site cleverly situated in front of Market Street’s (Food) Bank of America.” When asked about the next steps for the Occupy movement, she emphasized that the focus needs to shift toward communities. “We have to occupy our neighborhoods,” she explained, “breaking into smaller groups and fighting for local issues.” Occupy activists, she argued, are probably already experts at local politics, but they need to be take more control over their communities.

Whether this approach would work is difficult to say. As Ira Katznelson revealed in City Trenches, decentralization may lend the appearance of community empowerment, but its goal is often a placatory one. One of Occupy’s strengths has been its relentless attack on corporate greed and federal incompetence; a shift to local politics would fail to address these systemic issues.

The two of us – the woman preferred to remain anonymous – also discussed criticism by the media. “The media has a twentieth-century understanding of protest,” she remarked. “I don’t think anyone knows yet what modern protest looks like.”

Although the purpose of today’s event was to denounce corporate spending in elections, much of the activity centered around bank foreclosures. A total of 18 protestors were arrested at the intersection of California and Montgomery this morning as they attempted to block entrance to a Wells Fargo. In one of the most tense scenes of the day, Officer M. Ali beat nonviolent protestors with a nightstick, shouting, “Get out the way!” (Video footage is available here.) Protestors noted that most policemen did not have visible badges – a violation of state law – and therefore could not be identified.

Protestors returned to Wells Fargo in the early afternoon, though this time, police stood peacefully to the side. A few participants covered the front entrance with yellow tape reading “CRIME SCENE DO NOT CROSS,” an allusion to the bank’s involvement in the Great Recession of 2008 and its heavily-criticized foreclosure policies. Representatives of Causa Justa :: Just Cause, a multi-racial, grassroots organization for economic justice, spoke against Wells Fargo’s investments in private prisons, which profit from the incarceration of undocumented migrants. As they marched up California Street, Causa Justa was joined by hundreds of other protestors chanting, “We got sold out, banks got bailed out!”

Across the street from Wells Fargo, some 45 community members gathered for an interfaith discussion on politics and morality. The meeting’s purpose, as one rabbi explained it, was to “tear down the walls between each other.” A deacon remarked, “It’s not just about feeding our families. The people of faith are morally hungry.” The clergy present — including an imam, a deacon, a rabbi, and a reverend — each had something different to say, but the overwhelming message was one of healing and social justice. “We lift up human need, we bring down Wall Street’s greed,” the gathering chanted.

Though each of the protesters came in good faith, I felt the carnivalesque nature of Occupy the Courts sometimes distracted from the urgency of the movement. One young woman traipsed through Justin Herman Plaza on stilts; another’s face paint mirrored that of a die-hard sports fan. Still, the vivacity and enthusiasm of the protest was uplifting.

Max Coleman is a sociology major at Oberlin College, and a web editorial/social media intern at Tikkun. His research focuses on the intersection of social media and activism. Follow Max on Twitter @max_e_coleman.

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