A Seasoned Voice for the Occupy MovementMarch 2nd, 2012 © by Susan Swartz
The woman with the white hair in flowered turtleneck and jeans standing on the corner in front of the Occupy Sebastopol tent is quite aware of her relevance.
“I think it’s important that I’m here,” says Geneva Folsom who is 89 and knows she adds a respectable senior visual to the movement that some detractors would dismiss as scruffy, unfocused and played out. But even skeptics might take a second look at Geneva the Occupier, including the drivers who squeal past, curse and raise a middle finger.
For them she offers sympathy. “They’re angry. Maybe they just received a foreclosure notice, have a sick family member, be bottomed out on their credit cards. They may be relying on the food bank so they don’t have to choose between prescriptions and a meal.”
Geneva is energized by the occupy movement. She first got encouraged by the Arab Spring protests and then came Occupy Wall Street. “And I finally saw the possibility of changing things in this country,” she says in a homey drawl that she defines as more Oklahoman than southern.
Her father worked for an oil company in Ponca City, Oklahoma. Her mother was a teacher. Her father was a Republican. Her mother was not. Geneva says, “On election day she would walk out the door and tell my father, ‘Walter, I’m going to cancel your vote.’”
Geneva was a therapist, married to a psychiatrist. They lived mostly in the Deep South and while Geneva has known grander digs she is now happily snug in a downtown studio apartment. Her daughter and family live nearby. Her phone message tells solicitors, “I’m old. I’m poor. And I never buy anything over the telephone.”
She’s proud of the occupy movement. “It’s only been a few months and it’s in everyone’s heads. Everyone knows what people mean by “the one percent” and “the 99 percent.” If you say occupy anything, people know what you mean.”
Occupy Sebastopol has had a pretty mellow presence, partly because it’s in liberal western Sonoma County. Partly too, Geneva says, “Because we’ve had no outside trouble makers and have worked closely with the police department.” As for the violence that has sprung from occupy actions elsewhere Geneva says, “When people have been thrown overboard their anger can get out of control.”
She quickly adds this is her personal opinion. She does not speak for the movement. However, she adds, “If I was running the show I’d figure out a way to occupy Congress and follow all the candidates.”
“Sometimes I think we have a stupid public.”
“I believe in revolution,” she says, “but I try to be polite.” Her style is to carry a placard that says “Tell Obama, the Congress, the banks and corporations we want economic opportunity.” She points to a report that 50 percent of Americans are a crisis away from falling below the poverty line.
“I’ve been waiting for a revolution for four years,” she says, since President Obama’s election. But she’s been on the side of change for a lifetime. The KKK once burned a cross on her front lawn “because they didn’t like that we were friends with black people.”
When her husband became a hospital director in Alabama the job came with a white house with pillars and a maid. Unaccustomed to both, Geneva asked what people in town paid their maids. And then she paid twice as much.
When elders in the local Methodist church invited the family to join, her husband said they would as soon as the church started welcoming black families.
Then and now Geneva says people have disappointed her. “Sometimes I think we have a stupid public.” But there is always reason to hope that people turn around. In her last email to me she wrote, “So happy to see the Girl Scouts are still in business in spite of them being terrorists.”