IN EARLY OCTOBER, ABOUT A MONTH after the original Wall Street occupation had begun in New York's Zuccotti Park and inspired offshoot occupations around the world, people began to stage their own general assembly meetings in Riverside, California.
I moved from Seattle to Riverside in 2003 to attend graduate school at the University of California, Riverside, where I studied creative writing and then taught as a lecturer until the state budget imploded; in 2009 I was laid off. Since then I've cobbled together employment at two of the local community colleges and hung on as a resident of this desert city — dusty birthplace of the California citrus industry — sixty miles east of Los Angeles, and home to an unemployment rate that for the last two years has stuck at around 14%.
At first I was skeptical about Occupy Riverside. I'd heard about the occupiers' cultish hand gestures and the strange call-and-response that is the People's Microphone. My closest friend and roommate, however, already writing essays about Wall Street's role in wrecking the world economy, suffered no such hesitation. Like me, Kathryn had moved to Riverside to attend the university. Like me, she had lost her job teaching there. As soon as she found out about a local occupation near the downtown Wells Fargo on University and Main, she was at the site. I agreed to stay home with her daughter so that my roommate could take part. Within a few days, she was staying overnight.
The more Kathryn told me about what was going on downtown, the more enthusiastic I became. Soon I attended one of the general assemblies and saw for myself what all the right-wing media conglomerates had been trying to dismiss for weeks as so much twinkly hippie childishness. I saw people wiggling their upraised fingers and making jazz hands to signify approval of a speaker's message, and waving in front of their faces to signify disagreement. I saw the hand signal to request clarification or a point of procedure. I heard the People's Mic get checked.
In the entire eight years I'd lived in Riverside, I had never developed a relationship with the city's downtown. After ignoring the area for so long, it felt strange to be there — the Wells Fargo and other businesses shut down for the day, the delis and restaurants and boutiques all dark, my fellow residents not just interacting with one another but taking their discourse seriously and seeing how far they could take their collective energy towards actual change.
Riverside, like Ontario, Colton, and Moreno Valley, is a densely populated city in Riverside County, which, together with San Bernardino County, makes up the vast Inland Empire: a freeway-crisscrossed slab of metropolitan Southern California. Until recently it was a place I had viewed largely through my windshield while commuting from one job at this college campus to another job at the next. Downtown Riverside, local historians like to note, is home to the Fox Theater, where Gone with the Wind premiered in 1939. But it is most famous for the hotel that likely put up Clark Gable, the inn that hosted every president — from Taft to Dubya — to pass through these parts since 1919. To me, the iconic and imposing Mission Inn — with its hokey presidential lounge, its yearly Christmas light display and its moneyed patrons — had long been synonymous with "downtown." The last time I'd been to the...