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The courthouse lawn has changed –- has anything else?

On the last Friday in June, the courthouse lawn in Eureka is dotted with dandelions. Weeds battle lavender and daylilies in a concrete planter, and not a single soul sits on the benches once occupied by Occupy.

It's late morning, and a few of the remaining, sporadic protesters are inside the courthouse, where three are being tried on suspicion of gathering to light candles after the government-approved hours for gathering had passed.

All that remain of the hope and chaos that began last fall are a littering of cigarette butts, new county signs with lists of forbidden acts, and three pieces of cardboard. Two are folded beside a bench, perhaps makeshift shelter for later. The third, a Berry Plastics Corp. box, lies in a planter bed. Its motto, "Leadership by Design," faces upward toward the overcast skies. Anyone curious enough to flip it over would see "Let Them Eat War" in block letters -- outlined and then filled in with ink, as if this sign's maker had no easy access to the bold assertions of a felt-tip marker.

In mid-June, at one of those consensus-driven general assemblies that made the Occupy movement seem both dazzlingly hopeful and utterly batshit, the Eureka courthouse occupiers agreed to give up on their 24/7 vigil.

There just weren't enough of them to feel safe anymore, longtime participant James Decker said later. People were afraid of being hassled by police, he said, and afraid of being arrested.

So the group has scattered. By Decker's rough tally, a couple still occasionally sit outside the courthouse, and several hold nightly vigils in candlelit defiance, from 9:30 to 11:30 p.m. Others have broken off to work on local causes: setting up a sanctuary camp for the homeless, fighting illiberal laws that cracked down on civil liberties and trying to draft a living wage initiative.

With the permanent camp disbanded, "I miss it somewhat," said Decker.

He's a retired home health care worker and Air Force veteran, and he liked the way the stable protesters looked out for the weak -- the homeless or mentally ill people who just showed up, needing food, help with the bureaucracy or a place to rest without being robbed or rousted.

Most people who spend time around the courthouse do not miss Occupy. They didn't like the unkempt and unbalanced hangers-on, who smelled bad and yelled incoherently and sometimes crapped in trash cans.

Along with bad weather and the police, that longing for orderly public places helped unravel Occupy camps nationwide. Around the county, many were plagued by walking, breathing, reeking evidence of humanity's ability to turn its back on its castoffs. The irony was lost on no one. For every legitimate account of a rape or attack on an Occupy protester, there were dozens of magnified reports of disorder.

In just nine months, since Occupy Wall Street sprang up last September in New York City's Zuccotti Park, the movement went from inspiring to chaotic to largely forsaken.

At its height, there had been more than 2,000 Occupy encampments around the world, a paper in New Zealand reported. In October, coastal Humboldt had three sets of occupiers, on the HSU campus, at Arcata's Plaza and at the county courthouse in Eureka. For a little while, people talked about the 99 percent, about income inequality, about a political system hijacked by corporate wealth.

When police began breaking up some of the camps, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Chris Hedges wrote in a November column on "They think we will all go home and accept their corporate nation, a nation where crime and government policy have become indistinguishable ... a nation where the poor do not eat and workers do not work, a nation where the sick die and children go hungry, a nation where the consent of the governed and the voice of the people is a cruel joke." Back then, he wrote about the "twinge of euphoria" that comes from imagining that this time, the underdog might just win one.

This month, Hedges is not euphoric, but he's cautioning against writing the obituary for the social and political consciousness that fueled Occupy. This is a lull, he wrote in June, before the fury rises up in some other form, perhaps with some other name, with unknown odds for the underdogs.

In Humboldt, Decker confesses to "a little nostalgia" about the best hopes of Occupy.

On the eve of a national Occupy gathering in Philadelphia, planned to start on Saturday, June 30, he's trying to hold onto optimism. Something might get better for the homeless in Humboldt, or county residents might find a way to fight for better pay or a return of broader rights to assemble.

"I am disappointed that we were unable to sustain our momentum out there," he said, but "I am happy with what I'm doing now, so that kind of tempers that."

What Decker is doing now, along with promoting the living wage initiative, is handing out fliers on the street outside Bayshore Mall, decrying Wal-Mart's business practices. Shoppers drive past him when he stands there. Not many stop to take the fliers, and he's trying to make the case for better access to mall grounds.

"I was under no illusion that things would change quickly," he said.

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About The Author

Carrie Peyton Dahlberg

Carrie Peyton Dahlberg was editor of the North Coast Journal from June 2011 to November 2013.

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