Occupy Seattle -- Saturday, October 15, 2011

Occupy Seattle protesters gathered Saturday at Westlake Park for a rally, then marched through the streets. The young woman in the center of the front row is Amy Halloran, niece of Terrence Halloran of Beaumont, California.

Protest swells at Westlake Park on Saturday

Police estimate 3,000 people filled Westlake Park on Saturday for Occupy Seattle's protest against joblessness, corporate greed, and its influence in government.

By Emily Heffter and Brian M. Rosenthal
Seattle Times staff reporters

Less than a week after their ranks dwindled to a couple of dozen protesters, Seattle's contribution to the burgeoning Occupy Wall Street movement surged Saturday with an estimated 3,000 people filling Westlake Park to protest corporate greed and joblessness.

And charter schools.

And home foreclosures.

And environmental degradation.

And the war in Iraq -- and the war in Afghanistan.

By late Saturday night, at least 150 tents had been set up in Westlake Park, in defiance of the site's 10 p.m. curfew. But there was no show of police force in the area, and no arrests had been made when The Seattle Times went to press. City parks officials left at 10:45 p.m. and said they didn't plan to return until 7 a.m. Sunday.

Saturday's daylong rally drew protesters with a huge variety of causes who gravitated toward a single theme: Corporations and people with money have too much power.

From there, they diverged. Some called themselves anarchists. Others, socialists. Some carried all their belongings on their backs. Others carried babies on their fronts. Protesters came from labor movements, teachers unions and religious groups. They were there to protest war, or Middle East policy, or to fight for the right of protesters to camp in Westlake Park.

A "leaderless movement" that started one month ago in New York City's Zuccotti Park, the Occupy protests have spread around the country -- Occupy Omaha, Occupy Harrisburg, Occupy Utica -- and gained traction internationally (Occupy Perth, Occupy Zagreb, Occupy Helsinki).

The Seattle contingent spent much of Saturday marching, hoisting signs and debating where to pitch their tents.

Police officers were stationed along the edge of Westlake Park as the protesters' numbers grew over the lunch hour from a couple hundred to enough to fill the park and spill over onto Pine Street. At about 3 p.m., the group marched to Chase Bank, with some protesters burning their bank cards to express frustration with corporate America.

At about 5 p.m., hundreds of protesters sat down on Fourth Avenue at Pike Street, chanting and playing drums while the police stopped traffic and confined the protest to a half-block.

The first Occupy Seattle protesters arrived at Westlake Park two weeks ago with a whiteboard, a megaphone and a distaste for corporations. Their movement has since grown by thousands to include seemingly anyone who has ever protested anything in Seattle.

"There are anarchists down there, there are socialists down there, there are people down there strictly for environmental reasons ... . From marijuana to Afghanistan, there are all different agendas," said Artie Nosrati, 24, a community organizer who's been spending most of every day and night at the protest.

The movement has clear momentum and appeal, but last week threatened to disintegrate into a bickering match over whether protesters should insist on camping at Westlake Park.

Mayor Mike McGinn has said police will enforce rules barring tents from Westlake Park as well as the park's closure time of 10 p.m. He's offered a permitted site for camping at City Hall.

The protesters' "general assembly," a loose-knit group of organizers, has struggled over the last 14 days to agree on basic policy, let alone a list of demands or practical steps forward.

The group split Friday night, with about 40 people sleeping in the city-sanctioned City Hall Plaza site and a similar-sized group spending all night at Westlake, according to protesters. As the crowd grew Saturday, a team of people passed out fliers defending the group's plan to pitch 500 tents in the park.

"Why Occupy Westlake?" the one-page flier said. "Because the surrounding area is Seattle's Wall Street."

Megan Burger, of Everett, attended the rally with her husband. She was there to push for changing the tax brackets so the rich pay a bigger share of their income for social services and infrastructure.

"We're just tired of, you know, corporate greed and really hoping for some evolution in the way corporations are treated. It's kind of unfair there's so many people making so much."

To her, the camping question is a distraction.

Walking past her in the park, two other protesters in their 20s, who asked to be identified only as Wulf and Gabrielle, said the camping issue is at the crux of the movement and winning the fight with the mayor on where to camp is crucial to Occupy Seattle's survival.

"If the police come in, they're not going to make me move," Wulf said.

On a corner, two Renton teachers protested against charter schools and corporate influence in classrooms. But though they had the same goals, they disagreed on whether occupying Westlake 24 hours a day was crucial to the movement's success.

"I believe in the Constitution, I believe in the right to free speech ... I believe they should be able to occupy this," said Susan DuFresne, gesturing toward the sprawling park.

"Breaking the law just to break the law is not effective," said Rebecca Ritchie, standing next to her in a matching Save Our Schools T-shirt.

Another protester, Kyle Houser, 23, a University of Washington graduate, has deferred $39,000 in student loans while struggling to find a job. Holding a sign that said "Student Loans = Indentured Servant," Houser said he wants the Bush-era tax cuts to be repealed.

"There is a human price to cutting the budget," said Houser, who is living with his parents.

As evening fell Saturday, drum circles began to form. Some protesters passed out geraniums as passing motorists honked horns in support.

About 500 people gathered for the nightly general-assembly meeting. Since the protesters can't have a sound system, one person spoke while others repeated the words as a chant.

In the makeshift campground, two men played chess among the tents while others took fortification from pizza, instant coffee and a big pot with a sign that said "vegan soup."

Feeding a pole into his camouflage tent, Ian Finkenbinder said he is prepared to be arrested.

"The idea of us setting up tents, even though we may be arrested, is to say, 'Our message cannot be restrained by your handcuffs,' " he said.

Anticipating that police might try to force the protesters to leave, some responded by tying their tents together to make them harder to dismantle.

One camper, Henry Sapanza, a 33-year-old Seattle resident, said: "We ain't going nowhere."

In one tent, two women played Speed, a card game.

"I'm hoping so far that we will have safety in numbers tonight," said one of the women, Meghan Christenson, 29, of Seattle. "It's good to question the laws and teach kids to ask questions."

The other cardplayer, Alanagh Gannon, a 22-year-old University of Washington student, said: "I'm here because I feel like change could really happen."

Another camper, Brandon Dzidzic, 24, said he moved to Seattle from New Jersey three weeks ago. Homeless, he has been moving from city to city ever since his mother lost her Las Vegas home to foreclosure. "I'm here for all sorts of good reasons," he said. "I love this movement because there are so many people like me."

Earlier in the day, a couple gave him their tent. He was hunkered down Saturday night drinking a 16-ounce Milwaukee's Best, with a backpack, some blankets and an American flag.

Staff reporters Christine Willmsen and Ken Armstrong contributed to this story.