Around midnight, a San Antonio Park Police officer walked by some Occupy San Antonio regulars at HemisFair Park, and one of the protesters asked him, “How’s it been?”
“You’ve got two Coca-Colas,” the protester, Shamus McWright, added casually.
“Anyone want one?” the officer said. “Whoever can get it first …”
A few occupiers got up and teasingly ran for the soda, but let McWright, 24, limping a bit from an all-day march, claim it.
It was just another night in San Antonio’s starkly different version of the nationwide movement against concentrated wealth and power.
In other large cities, Occupy encampments and marches have sparked confrontations and arrests, concerns about trash and sanitation, occasional crime and all-around civic frustration.
Here, the protesters have bent over backward to keep peace with the city and law enforcement.
“Police have been fully cooperative, so that is why we’ve been fully cooperative with them,” said Joe Ballard, 26, a participant since the local occupation began more than five weeks ago. “That is also why, when we have extra food, we offer them something to eat.”
The occupiers that night had feasted on donated leftovers from the Diwali San Antonio Festival of Lights across the park — Indian curries, naan bread and even pizza — whose remains lay on a table at the gazebo the group uses as its pantry and People’s Library.
A garbage truck drove by and stopped in front. Occupiers gathered to dispose of their trash bags.
“Thank you, thank you very much, gentlemen,” John Simpson, 53, said, handing workers on the truck some bottled water.
Simpson, who served in the Marines, stayed up until 3 a.m. sweeping the gazebo and picking up trash, even the litter outside their area. He was awake by 7 a.m. to set up fruit, oatmeal, hot water and coffee for breakfast, and spent the next couple of hours holding signs and getting cars to honk for the cause.
Meanwhile, everyone else sat around, “chilling.” Sure, they clean the bathrooms regularly and it was a Sunday morning, but, Simpson groused, he was tired of “people just raiding food, the way people sleep like bums. If I was a tourist walking by, I’d think, ‘What a mess.’”
Simpson has had his moments — he almost took off on a walk to Oakland, Calif. — but the group itself has also come close to losing its cool.
Irked by later-than-usual notice of an event that required them to move to the other side of the park, protesters last week almost reached a consensus to stay and risk arrest.
“All I see is San Antonio sitting on its ass,” cried a 30-year-old occupier who calls himself Shadow. “There’s 20 of us here every day out of the entire city. Let’s stand up and do something!”
An hour later, though, they began moving their belongings — a decision reached through their majority-rule system. The next morning, Park Police Commander Steven Baum visited and had a very civil exchange.
“They’ve been real good,” Baum said. “They don’t disrupt traffic, they don’t disrupt any events here. You can’t really complain about it.”
City Councilman Diego Bernal said city officials don’t want conflict and, for the most part, neither do the occupiers.
“One thing that really sets this group apart is, I think, they have the best relationship with city government of any Occupy group in any major city in the U.S.,” he said.
Individual flare-ups bother him — they’re not representative of the entire group, he said.
“They’re presenting a situation like impending war,” Bernal said. “If you want Oakland, go to Oakland. This is not Oakland.”
Since the near-encounter, police have been “a lot more lenient,” acknowledged occupier Jeremy Lockridge, 32, a medical assistant at Girling Health Care.
Temperatures down to the mid-30s have been bearable so far, Lockridge said, but with colder weather, the group may decide to tarp off the gazebo. City ordinances forbid camping there — meaning personal belongings, cooking, and yes, tarps — but Baum says “it’s a discretionary deal.”
But they’re not welcome everywhere.
When two dozen occupiers and veterans marched to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Friday, some vets who were already there, including Stan “Doc” Sellers, 64, who served as a U.S. Navy medic, didn’t want them around.
“You beat the drum when you come and we’re holding a quiet moment — you all are disrespectful!” said Sellers, raising his voice. “You all want to protest, go somewhere else!”
He flagged down a passing police car and Officer Trey Turner stepped in: “I don’t care, as long as we all get along. Why can’t we all just get along?”
The dust-up ended like others have. The Occupy S.A. delegation stood on the sidewalk quietly and finally left without a sound.
“We have to be able to have a strategy of calmness and peace — that is why you have mediators,” said one of them, G.M. Briggs, 63, a former military nurse who cooks for occupiers on weekdays. “You can’t do things without leadership.”
Since Oct. 6, the group has been led by “facilitators” who, for all their insistence that they are not leaders, have gotten things done.
But the core group has dwindled from a peak of about 80 a few weeks ago to half that number, said Andrew Duran, 21, who takes calls at a Pizza Hut.
“A lot of people left because of contention within the group, and because it’s disorganized,” he said. “We’ve had meetings about it, about getting organized, but the meetings themselves have been disorganized.”
Indeed, organization appears to be the biggest difference between Occupy S.A. and sister movements — aside from the obvious, size, said Gabriel Acevedo, a University of Texas at San Antonio associate professor of sociology.
Occupy S.A. is “much more grass-roots and seems to be less orchestrated” than the movements in New York and Oakland, he said.
“Most social movements start out small and if they’re successful in mobilizing, can have greater impact on social change,” Acevedo said. “History has shown us you can’t count them out.”
Occupy S.A. may have made history in one way, with a wedding last week. The bride and groom, both 19 and occupiers since day one, gathered the guests together in Occupy fashion: “Mic check! … Mic check! We’re about to cut the cake … we’re about to cut the cake.”
The newlyweds spent the night at their apartment, but came back the next day.
“We can’t stand to be away from everybody; everybody is like family,” said the bride, Victoria Rodriguez. “Family is going to have bumps on the road, but we get through them