Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.

Occupy, Preoccupied

Justine Hecht. Photo by Haylee Schiavo.
Justine Hecht. Photo by Haylee Schiavo.

November 5 was a day circled in red marker on the Occupy Phoenix calendar.

Civic Space Park hosted “The 99% UNITYFEST,” put on by arts and activism group Artistic Reason AZ, which combined performances, activities and organization booths to promote more inclusive and broad support of the Occupy movement and its causes.

A couple blocks away and a couple hours earlier, Occupy Phoenix held a potentially landmark general assembly (GA) at Cesar Chavez Plaza, where the movement hoped to officially announce its main concerns about American society. In between, “The Make Your Money March” aimed to encourage citizens to close their accounts at major banks and switch to community banks and creditors. The march would end on stage at Civic Space Park, where protesters would cut up their old credit cards for everyone at UNITYFEST to see.

It’s no coincidence that November 5 was also Guy Fawkes Day.

But whether or not the day — and, by extension, Occupy Phoenix — was successful is uncertain. Can the Occupy movement be expected to be completely organized after just one month? And will it succeed in Phoenix, even if, as some claim of its counterparts, it lacks a unified message?


Danielle Nieto arrives at Civic Space Park three hours before the event, lugging boxes of water bottles in old flip-flops and wearing a T-shirt that says “One World/One Love.”

A white van pulls in — surprising the security guard — to unload a full bed of sound equipment for the 15 acts expected to perform that afternoon. Soon after, Vprolific arrives in a matching shirt to MC the event he co-organized.

Vprolific, 25-year-old co-director of Artistic Reason AZ, says the group officially started in July. He and co-director Nieto, 30, had been involved in independent projects and activism for indigenous peoples before forming a partnership to pool resources for bigger payoffs.

Recently, Artistic Reason AZ has held fundraisers for homeless youth, and even put on a hip-hop event in support of “the 99%” early in the movement. But Vprolific says UNITYFEST had higher aspirations: They focused on the concept of unity because even great leaders like MLK and Chavez needed the support of many people behind them to create social change.

“Everyone has a great idea, but as an individual, there’s only so much you can do,” Vprolific says. “And we feel that we can get individuals [who] have great ideas and bring them all together, we’re able to make movements.”

He also says that social movements need to be able to plan and execute their vision, traits that perhaps the current Occupy Phoenix is lacking.

One way to address this problem, Vprolific says, is through artistic expression, which is important in any social movement — formulate the message, and then send it out to the world.

The goal of UNITYFEST: infuse the movement’s message with art. In fact, every performing artist had to provide a statement about why the movement was important to them, as a sort of screening process.

While planning and official statements are important, Vprolific says art can express the feeling of a movement in a way that no amount of public speaking can.


Meanwhile, six bike cops zoom down First Avenue to join at least three others at Cesar Chavez Plaza on the same afternoon. Though faint, one could hear the noise coming from the General Assembly before the protesters came into sight.

Such open-forum, every-voice-is-equal assemblies happen often in Cesar Chavez Plaza these days, but November 5 was special. The 80 to 100 people in attendance were to deliberate, approve and announce the movement’s three main concerns. The proposal was wordy, but boiled down to:

1)    Politics becoming too influenced by money

2)    The “criminalization” of all citizens, but especially immigrants and the homeless

3)    Corporate and financial greed

Approving a quotable message for Occupy Phoenix would truly mark an upswing in momentum for the struggling movement. (The makeshift headquarters averages perhaps a dozen people at a given time, minuscule compared to other Occupy movements.)

But after 90 minutes of civilized-yet-halting debate, the proposal failed the final vote. Many people are irate, though some remain optimistic. Protesters still wave signs; some, like “HONK IF YOU’RE IN DEBT” still get a noisy response from sympathetic citizens. But the coming march to UNITYFEST seems less powerful after Occupy Phoenix cannot show they are unified on core issues.


Justine Hecht, an activist organizer in Occupy Phoenix, sees things differently.

She tried to view that day’s failed proposal as a success, because it showed the movement still had a wide range of passionate voices. Occupy Phoenix would get a sense of accomplishment from setting down concrete goals, Hecht says, but adds that Occupy Wall Street doesn’t have a list of demands either, and that the Civil Rights movement took years.

“We’re brand new still,” she says. “We’ve got a long time to work this out.”

The 26-year-old graduated from NAU with a history degree in May, and moved back to the Valley to be with family. She has been involved in Occupy Phoenix since meeting other activists on ASU Tempe campus in early October; she also helped lead the November 5 general assembly.

Hecht says their community’s decision-making process is slow, and admits that it must look “very disorganized” to people outside the movement. But, she says, it’s because what they are doing is different from what they’re used to, from politics as usual.

To fix this, Hecht has spearheaded a series of teach-ins to educate community members about how the general assembly process works. (She also did a teach-in about the history of democracy in America at UNITYFEST).

Perhaps projects like these are just as important to keeping Occupy Phoenix alive as a set of concrete goals.

“We’re ready for something to change, and maybe we don’t know what that something is yet, or how we should affect that change, but this is the first step,” Hecht says.


A few hours into UNITYFEST, a small congregation has been drawn into the event, hearing the day’s message. Several booths dot the park, including Council of Color, Arizona Prison Watch and a kids’ activity table.

On stage, a woman performs spoken word poetry, then strips into a leotard for some interpretive dance as few dozen spectators and one bike cop look on.

Officer W. Gates, a 14-year veteran of the Phoenix Police Department downtown unit, says he has been among the police supervising the Occupy movement since it began last month.

“We’re making sure their rights don’t get infringed, and [that] they don’t infringe upon the rights of others,” he says.

Unlike the activists themselves, Gates does not perceive the multiple voices within the movement as a plus.

“I’ve been watching this since day one, and it seems like they don’t have a unified perspective,” he says. “In Phoenix, the movement doesn’t seem to have much strength.”

Gates says he has no criticisms of the movement at large — “we’re all in the same boat,” he suggests — but says Occupy Phoenix is bogged down by people with other agendas, like SB 1070 opponents and anarchists.

Dr. Thomas J. Davis, an ASU history professor since 1995, recognizes some of the complaints about the Occupy movement: It has no clear leader or objectives, and it doesn’t offer anything immediate to the general public.

But he argues that if people want change, they can’t wait around for a Martin Luther King Jr. figure to emerge.

“We don’t have a single national leader for anything,” he says. “But people do project that notion that this movement must be disorganized because there [are] so many different voices. Well, check out Congress.”

Davis, a lawyer and historian who teaches U.S. civil rights history and law, says the Occupy movement has a lot of similarities to the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Like many protest movements in American history, both focused on social equality, and used civil disobedience to draw media attention to social issues.

The Occupy movement is all grassroots, locally organized, and hopes to mobilize society from the bottom up, Davis says. Because of this, it will take some time to shift into high gear.

“It’s correct to say there is no clear objective besides seeking more equity,” he says, “and maybe that’s enough.”

People should recognize this as an opportunity to become more organized, and create achievable goals, Davis says. He has not been to an Occupy Phoenix protest yet, and cannot say whether the movement will be permanent. Still, he predicts that things will get hotter before they cool down, and that social movements can transform and affect change long after their lifespan.

“One would hope the anger demonstrated here will continue until next year, and those out protesting will take it to the polls,” Davis says. “Anger is never enough by itself.”


Back at The 99% UNITYFEST, Danielle Nieto agrees, and says Artistic Reason AZ is first and foremost about combining social justice and the arts.

She says she saw an opportunity to do that in a big way in the protests on behalf of “the 99%” that have swept across America.

“From the beginning, when [Vprolific and I] saw Occupy Wall Street, we had a conversation about it, about how this is going to be a really great time for change,” Nieto says.

So, Artistic Reason AZ started to plan ahead for when the Occupy seeds would sprout Phoenix, to “build upon the momentum of that.”

Nieto says Occupy Phoenix seems to have a different identity from sister movements in Oakland, Denver, and Tucson.

“I think what makes us unique and different is that we’re seeing a lot of new faces and new activists,” Nieto says, but adds it would be nice if Occupy Phoenix develops into something more than the small crew in Cesar Chavez Plaza that can’t seem to agree on what they agree on.

“It’s an evolution process,” she says. “Wherever the movement goes — hopefully it evolves — this is a good energy shift and a catalyst.”

Nieto hopes Occupy Phoenix will continue to remain together, connected with the community, and focused on social change. But she adds that after UNITYFEST, her organization will move on to different causes.

“We [Artistic Reason AZ] are already forward-thinking, and we’re hoping this movement is forward-thinking as well,” Nieto says.

Reach the reporter at or via Twitter @TheRabens

Continue supporting student journalism and donate to The State Press today.

Subscribe to Pressing Matters



This website uses cookies to make your experience better and easier. By using this website you consent to our use of cookies. For more information, please see our Cookie Policy.