A couple of weeks ago, a young woman, a girl, really, who's been selling hot dogs on the Spring St. sidewalk next to City Hall, was surrounded by a group from Occupy Los Angeles. They yelled that she needed a health permit to sell food on their site. The girl was nearly in tears by the time her mother came around the corner and stepped in. The Occupiers turned their abuse on the older woman. Mario, who is quoted for nearly every newspaper interview, chats with the police on the City Hall patios, and is generally thought to be running for the City Council District 1 seat in 2013, was speechless until an African American gentleman with another group of Occupiers stepped up to defend the mother and daughter. Like most bullies, when they were challenged, the Occupation tormenters backed off and drifted away.
Occupy Los Angeles, as I suggested when all this occupation business began, is a strange, maybe unique, entity in the Occupation movement. I hoped we would build an Occupation that would be the story of the Occupy movement. I hoped, if some of us pushed hard enough, we would find our footing and become a space for something radical, something life-changing. I was glib then about the privilege and traps we face. That's over.
In spite of some people's best efforts, OccupyLA has managed to re-create all the ills of the society we purport to change, right down to the do-gooders who want to tweak our system to make the problems less visible.
We've created a shadow government. We have our very own 1%, although, if the Occupiers number about 600, it's more honestly the 5%. They've dubbed themselves Point People. Members of this Soviet-style politburo are self-selecting and mostly anonymous. They meet to determine the Occupation's agenda, message, and key actions, and announce themselves as the Committee That Monitors the Other Committees, or some such thing.
The non-leader of this Committee on Committees (officially we have no leaders) is a CSULB student named Michael Lozano. Right behind him is a union organizer, Mario Brito. Mario is the non-leader who initiated and enforces the “Be nice to the cops and they'll be nice to us” OccupyLA mantra, the city council candidate I mentioned earlier.
There's another powerhouse grouping, waiting to step up when the City Hall campground crumbles. They're called Occupy the 'Hood and sometimes the Outreach Committee. They're fronted by a UCLA student name Emilio Lacques. Behind him is Kwazi Nkrumah, chair of the Los Angeles chapter of the Coffee Party (a liberal response to the Tea Party) and a union organizer. Occupy the Hood proclaims that it will Occupy your neighborhood, but so far they've only managed to organize in Pasadena.
Most, maybe all, of the 5% have been around since the very first meetings. They've concocted an ideological wasteland spread over an absurdly and dangerously (neo)liberal agenda. Their determination to offend no one inside or outside the movement should have left us impotent. Instead, the plethora of ideologies on the site has congealed around a simple dictum: spread the arrogance. We're positioning themselves to take over all the Occupation movements in the region with the lowest common denominator of a demand: force the banks to meet middle-class expectations of affluence.
The 5% are building a Brave New World of arrogance, acquiescence, obedience, denial, debauchery, and distraction.
OccupyLA is encamped on the lawn of Los Angeles's City Hall, across the street from Parker Center, home of LAPD. When we were planning all this, Mario said he would go to City Hall the next morning and get a permit to occupy the lawn. It actually took him two days, and in the first week of our tent city, we got the blessing of a supportive resolution from City Council. For Occupiers, there is no irony in these permissions to occupy. Two weeks after a pair of City Councilmembers and Mr. Mayor himself said our days on the lawn are numbered, we're still making nice. And all those sucking noises, coupled with the pervasive whiteness, may keep us safe from the cops, who knows. If you listen very closely to the lawn chair conversations, every once in a while you'll hear someone blaming the other Occupations for pissing off their cops. Yes, that's what I said: some in OccupyLA blame the Occupiers in New York and Oakland, Boston, Atlanta, San Diego for the police violence.
There is no revolution here. There is no demand for systemic, fundamental change. OccupyLA is the mildest, the nicest of reformist movements. Whatever significance there might be to claiming the City Hall park was lost once it was done with permission, although we keep assuring ourselves that camping on the lawn has some meaning. The public face of the governance process, the General Assembly, has finally accepted that a microphone is better than shouting the speaker's words to each other, except when they want to silence someone. Then some non-leader reinvigorates the old chant: “Mic check! Mic check! Mic check!” until we scream the transgressor into silence. Individual complaints, formerly relegated to the last few minutes of the General Assembly, are now shunted off to a separate meeting that no one except those with complaints attends. The bar for consensus has been lowered from 100% to 90%, but that hasn't changed the outcome: only the most benign and uncontroversial proposals can survive the gauntlet of political interests and anonymous opposition.
And we're determined to keep it that way. Any discussion of Planned Parenthood, or immigration, or racism is swept aside because someone might be offended and, omg, leave. We reject any political affiliation or position for fear of takeover on the one hand and fear of offending someone on the other. No matter that we're about changing the power dynamics between the 99% and those who govern them. Making political demands means making choices, and those choices might not be in the interests of some of those in the 99%. We would no longer represent those in the 99% who aspire to, or hope for largesse from, the 1%, for instance. We can't even decide what to do with provocateurs, since they're merely misguided members of the 99%, just like the police.
If you want to insult people here, call us hippies. But it's hippies who should be insulted. In their day, hippies were conscious that they were creating a community. They struggled with individualism and collectivism, with shared values, principles, food, with individual needs, with the intrusion of the leeches and destroyers into their communes and houses, with hierarchy and leadership. They dreamt of re-creating the world. And most of OccupyLA despises them.
It's not so odd that the few serious conversations about any of this are happening on the dozens of lists. Not so much at campsites or group meetings, and really not at the decision-making General Assembly or the public rant called the People's Forum. Occupiers have very little experience actually living in the material world. Until last month, most of these folks kept their social lives firmly at arm's length on Facebook. And so it's no surprise that their most thoughtful conversations are online.
Los Angeles's Occupiers are in complete denial that co-habiting, arranging their tents in like-minded communities, eating simultaneously (we haven't mastered communal dining and we complain when the people working get their meals delivered to their work areas), sharing toilets, and sorting out who belongs and who doesn't, requires more than an online chat and plopping down a row of administrative tables under tarps. There's no vision of how this might work, and so no conversations about what we're doing except for the occasional mention that we really should have a code of conduct. That ends when we can't figure out how to enforce it. The determined avoidance of any sociological discussion would seem pathological except that almost no one wants any real change to the status quo. The result of all this unconscious cohabitation is, you guessed it, a replication of pretty much everything that's wrong in the rest of Los Angeles.
They'd tell you their biggest problem is drug use on the lawn. Not racism, not assisting the long-term homeless who've migrated to the space, not coordinating a hodge-podge of ideologies that have never come together before, not the sexual assaults, not the financial inequities on the campsite, not the health department clamp down on preparing food, and not the lack of drinking water. It's that you can smell the pot. And yes, they've got a problem. A few weeks ago, while some of the more focused Occupiers were off bicycling through Echo Park and others carried signs outside a bank, the half who stayed at base camp marched around City Hall demanding the legalization of weed. They ended up on the south steps lecturing each other about how they are oppressed by the rest of the campers who've asked that they take the pot and booze a few blocks over, as they lit up within yards of the cops that stroll around in pairs smiling at the encampment. The straight edgers suggested the stoners move to a designated “drug, alcohol, and tobacco” zone. The stoners showed more sense than the sober crew in rejecting that offer. Meanwhile, everyone ignores the needles that keep showing up underfoot. Drop by during the week when we haven't cleaned up for tourists, and you can watch people shooting up. We've got a drug problem, and it's got nothing to do with legalizing pot.
Do you remember I said something about racism, the people without housing, the molestation, the ideological stew, the class differences, the looming logistics nightmares? Then your attention span has lasted longer than most of those camping in the middle of the problems.
OccupyLA still manages the small miracles, though. The Health Department shut down our food preparation facilities (too many homeless people eating, I suppose), but the food just keeps coming, brought in from nearby restaurants. The General Assembly decided not to incorporate (no corporations, remember?) so we aren't taking cash contributions. And still we managed to add more portapotties when the City demanded thaem How's it happening? That's anyone's guess.
You might remember that early on we ran off Occupiers who wanted to affiliate as a Stop Police Brutality group. OccupyLA finally held a day of action on Stop Police Brutality Day last weekend. But somewhere in between, we divested ourselves of most of the people who've been victimized by the police. The mostly white Occupiers authorized a spin-off group called Occupy the 'Hood. Many of the Black and Brown Occupiers gravitated to the new group under the (leaderless) leadership of Emilio and Kwazi, and they set off to organize neighbors in the name of OccupyLA. Some of the Brown and Black organizers have since walked away from Occupy the 'Hood. You see, most Occupations confront financial institutions. Here in LA, we snuggle up to City Hall in our sleeping bags and send out delegations to occupy our neighborhoods. If anyone at the encampment is waiting for a report, so far Occupy the 'Hood has scheduled a street corner protest in Pasadena. No encampments in Boyle Heights or Watts yet. People with housing in those hoods might be a little reluctant to give it up to sleep in parks. Maybe. I could be wrong.
Meanwhile, back at City Hall, we're looking to consolidate all the southern California Occupations, from Lancaster to San Diego to Riverside, under the auspices of OccupyLA. We're organizing to teach other Occupations how to facilitate General Assemblies and how to build communities. It doesn't bother anybody that we haven't figured out how to run our own GAs—even the guy imported from New York couldn't make LA General Assemblies work—or that our online community is more communal than the people basking in the moonlight. I could play with the irony of occupying other occupations for paragraphs, but let me call this what it is: a microcosm of neoliberal neocolonization.
Did I mention that one of the Occupy Wall Street principles is the local autonomy of each Occupation?
Here Point People are sniffing at a solution to the problem of the stoners and the homeless folks who've gravitated to the food and companionship. Some are circumspectly putting out feelers to move, maybe to the Westside. The plan under discussion would move the chief OccupyLA site and leave a satellite on the City Hall lawn, populated by the stoners and the homeless people. Or maybe cart those people over to the Cornfields. Presumably, the move to the Westside would take place first, when the people left behind weren't looking, to keep the Westside-bound campers safe from the obligatory police invasion.
How long will this topic last here? That will tell me a lot about the people here.
For three weeks now, the family farmers at the weekly market on the south side of the City Hall lawn have been relegated to a space across the Temple Street because some Occupiers refuse to move their tents for this portion of the 99%. Each week, regular customers of the farmers market don't find the farmers or don't make their way across the street, and each week the farmers report losing money. That's what it means to Occupy Los Angeles.