As soccer moms dutifully toted their kids around town in luxury SUVs during the heart of a busy Friday rush hour commute, a predominantly white, upper-middle class Bay Area suburb about 20 miles south of San Francisco went 1960's Berkeley.
In a scene that in recent weeks has been repeating itself throughout the nation, a crowd of over 150 gathered at a busy freeway overpass, carrying signs in support of Occupy Wall Street, a grassroots movement that these days is finding support in the most improbable places.
The Mid-Peninsula American Dream Council (MPADC), which functions under the liberal MoveOn.org umbrella, organized the 4 p.m. "Jobs Equal Safe Bridges Rally" on the Alameda de las Pulgas overpass of Highway 92 to call attention to San Mateo’s aging infrastructure as an example of how America can create employment amid the Great Recession.
Unlike some of the other events across the country that have turned confrontational, this rally more closely resembled a victory parade, with the occasional whiff of marijuana in the air and minimal police presence.
Motorists driving BMW’s and Lexus’s in a city where average household incomes routinely exceed $95,000 honked their horns in support of protesters who carried “Tax the Rich” signs. A fire truck blew its siren as it passed.
“Berkeley’s coming to the country,” said longtime San Mateo resident Sande Anfang, a former teacher and librarian, who said she’s fallen out of the middle class and now just gets by.
It is perhaps a sign of the times when social activism typically associated with big city urban minorities and college campuses of the 1960s comes to towns such as San Mateo, where Anfag is joining the growing ranks of what one protester called the “Nouveau Poor.”
Anfag said she’s “absolutely not” seen any socially activist protesting such as Friday’s in the well-heeled suburb in the 30 years that she’s lived there.
She cited a decade of overly adventurous military escapades, unjustified bank bailouts and corporate greed among the leading culprits of wealthy, white suburban angst.
Who knew, right?
“It’s a pretty complacent area,” Anfag said. “Not to put it down, but when things are working, why fix it? And now there are an awful lot of people who are unhappy, so I think it's great. I think it’s a healthy response.”
“Unemployment doesn’t have any boundaries, and compassion and concern don’t have any boundaries,” said San Mateo resident Eric DeBode, who recently moved to the Peninsula from Ventura County.
The protesters carried signs saying “We are the 99 percent,” calling attention to the growing income disparity over the last few decades that’s become more pronounced since the foreclosure crisis plunged the nation into an economic hole in 2008 it still hasn’t recovered from.
“Ninety nine percent of us are getting screwed by the one percent elite on Wall Street,” said Sean, a San Mateo man who asked that his last name not be published.
Investing in infrastructure they say is desperately needed – the group claims 74 San Mateo County bridges have been found to be structurally deficient - could be paid for in part by ending the Bush tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans. They say that would be a nice start.
“We’re here because we think our tax policies need to be reformed so people who are wealthy and corporations who are wealthy are paying their fair share to help pave roads and build bridges and support people who are struggling with unemployment,” DeBode said.
Event organizer Robin Hansen, who sits on the Dream Council, said that Friday’s protest was about calling attention to the need for jobs, not “sticking it to the rich.”
She said the Dream Council formed over the summer, long before the Occupy Wall Street protests were making headlines.
“When we got together in July, we were a bunch of people who were individually frustrated who were just yelling at our TVs and thinking ‘what’s the use,’ “ Hansen said.
But as the disaffected suburbanites got to know each other and learned more about each other’s plights, Hansen said she and others felt compelled to take action on each other’s behalf.
“We’re almost doing this more for the other people in the room, to let them know we can make a difference,” she said, noting there was one person at the first meeting who seemed especially bitter whom “I really wanted to give some lift to.”
Hansen said and her group got a lift from motorists honking their horns in support of Friday’s rally, and the better-than-expected turnout.
“I guess it was kind of surprising how quickly it built up, “ she said.