Los Angeles City Hall. A few blocks away, eleven thousand homeless people bed down on Skid Row for the night. Directly opposite, in front of the imposing Police Station, a film crew shoot a commercial for a sleek, silver car. The only police presence on site are two cops, watching the cameramen, smoking Parliaments and shooting the shit. They decline to give their names, and don’t seem to know the whereabouts of the six LAPD officers assigned overtime to watch Occupy LA. “How long are those guys gonna stay?” they ask, nodding to the lawn, crammed with tents, protestors and signs -- at the last estimate, around 370 people are bedding down there each night. “Surely it’s not fair for the people who want to eat their lunch on the lawn?” From the City of Tents, the beat of a drum starts up again. A mood of anxiety and frustration pervades. The evening before, Oakland was attacked. The very next day, the formerly welcoming Mayor Villaraigosa seemed unenthusiastic about their presence. "Look, our lawn is dead, our sprinklers aren't working . . . our trees are without water," he said. The party, “cannot continue indefinitely”. Officially, the relationship between Occupy LA, LAPD and City Council continues to be a productive one. Occupy LA’s twitter feed glows with positive messages: #LAPD and #OccupyLA share a respectful and positive relationship. City Hall supports us, as we continue to grow and organize. LAPD’s official stance on the occupiers is that “There has been no arrests, no trouble reported, no complaints of noise from nearby residents. All groups are very peaceful, and we have no knowledge of any illegal drug use on site”. City Council echo the same message. Richard Alarcón, the council member who has shown the Occupiers the most support, reiterated that City Council and LAPD are happy to host the Occupiers as long as they are not “conducting themselves in a manner which is illegal, unhealthy, unsafe or damaging city property, or beyond the level which we believe they have the ability to repair - that [doubt regarding ability to pay for repairs] is what you’re hearing from The Mayor and Bill Rosendahl right now.”
The Occupiers know that the good relationship they have with the City Council and LAPD may turn sour at any moment. It’s all they talk about. A contingency plan. Gas masks. A meeting point if things turn ugly. There are also peculiar problems unique to Los Angeles and their location which urgently need to be addressed -- not least of which is the bad rap they’re getting in the local community for noisy partying and the suggested use of illegal drugs. The problems are discussed daily in Livestreamed General Assemblies and committee meetings, as well as being publicized in The Fix, blog posts on the Occupy LA website, and in articles and comments on LA Weekly and The LA Times - so its surprising that the City Council and LAPD claim they are unaware of the issues. The occupiers know they won’t get support in dealing with internal divisions from outside. They’re working overtime on confronting the problems themself. There’s already a new flyer on the Occupy LA website: ‘More Revolution, Less Party’ -- and leaflets handed out across camp bear the same message. The silk-screen printers are designing new logos with a similar theme to adorn a mass of donated clothes, bed-sheets and bandanas. A tent village, housing the media team, has a whiteboard propped outside: “Don’t ask us for cigarettes. The only thing we can give you is the news. MORE REVOLUTION, LESS PARTY!” It echoes similar signs which were posted all over Madrid for the 15th May movement, the precursor to Occupy Wall Street. Giant signs on the plaza read "REVOLUCIón NO BOTTELLón!" or "Menos botellón, mas revolución" (Revolution, not party....less partying, more rebelling). It didn't stop people in Madrid from partying, according to Esteban Gil, a Berkeley graduate and Occupier who works on the Facilitation Committee here in LA. But it made them be more discreet.
There can be no doubt that the Occupiers currently living in tents outside Los Angeles’ City Hall are facing an internal crisis of sorts, brought about by the very fact they seem to be the only large occupation in the United States who have not suffered from police brutality. A large medical marijuana contingent, courtesy of a lenient interpretation of Proposition 215, intense proximity to Skid-Row, and an uncertain police force still reeling from the PR nightmares of past-riots and scandals, has led to a peculiarly relaxed and permissive atmosphere. “All it takes is one brown person to come down, and this turns into a race riot,” says Liz Savage, on the social media team, explaining LAPD’s unusual stance towards Occupiers. The lack of active opposition has created a volatile melting pot of hardcore protestors and activists -- alongside young hedonists and the poorest, most dispossessed sections of society. Cracking down on drug and alcohol abuse, petty crime, and the party contingent who are along for the ride, is Occupy LA’s most immediate problem -- and their biggest challenge in terms of PR. “If we had the same kind of external threats that Oakland and the other occupations had, we would have much more unity and camaraderie here in LA,” says Daniil Dillinger, a member of Occupy LA’s webteam. “There are kids in the minority here who feel alienated from the current system, so they come to us. But then they find that we’re a complicated mass of committees, everyone’s working all the time, the Police don’t seem to care if they smell weed, the atmosphere’s pretty relaxed -- and so they do what they like best. They drum, and they party.”
Occupy LA’s Head of Security (or “Peacemakers” as they are known by the Occupiers), Emilio Arreola says, “If I see the hard shit -- heroin, crack -- I throw those people out. But marijuana? I don’t have the legal right to enforce that.” Emilio estimates that of 370 residents living on the site full time, about forty are from Skid Row, and approximately twenty are; “Kids who don’t know how to act. We try to take care of them, but that’s what the media picks up on: kids partying. They don’t see the majority of us running the show and doing our best to keep the movement together.”
Along with the party tribe, the site’s proximity to Skid Row has been both a blessing and a curse. Within days of taking Occupation of City Hall, Skid Row residents started showing up for food and water -- and thefts and violence soon followed. It took six policemen to put one violent individual in a car, and carry him off. But since working with local Skid Row advocacy groups like LA-CAN (Los Angeles Community Action Network), starting their own ‘Occupy the Hood’ affinity group, and instituting a policy of self-policing, thefts and security have improved. “A good number [of Skid Row residents] are really awesome and help us out with other Skid Row people,” says Emilio. “They have their own style and way of dealing with that shit.” A young girl from the Action Committee with a determined jaw butts in, “I think it’s weird to call out all the different groups here. We’re all the 99%”.
Not to LA City Council. There seems to be a direct correlation between their positive attitude towards the movement when it seemed merely a few discontent, educated, middle-class types -- to the new, more worried tone adopted by the Mayor and council members now that OLA has become an increasingly fractious and volatile group encompassing the most dispossessed and ignored factions of Los Angeles’ Society. “The fact that the word ‘homeless’ is thrown into every article about the Occupy Los Angeles movement in order to invalidate it, is just hypocritical,” says Becky Dennison of LA-CAN. She sees the change in attitude of Mayor Villaraigosa and Councilmember Bill Rosendahl, who responded so positively to the Occupiers only a month earlier, as evidence that an increase in support from the dispossessed is challenging Los Angeles’ local politics and the controversial economic policies the city has pursued over the last few years. She cites the 2.2 million in Federal funding earmarked for Skid Row, 1 million of which was given to the San Francisco based architecture firm Gensler - the same firm handling the NFL stadium project. Eli Broad, one of the richest men in LA, was given a 50 million dollar subsidy by the city. “When the City Council supported Occupy LA, they were supporting the 99% -- and that includes the homeless,” says Becky. “But it’s not surprising that once the race and class dynamic of the occupation changed, and all these folks most affected by local politics started to emerge, the Mayor and City Council’s attitude changed.”
Along with ‘More Revolution, Less Party’ signs, the Medics on site keep a watchful eye on their residents, whether from Skid Row or Melrose Avenue. Patricia Sanchez, who works in the First Aid tent and offers CPR training to Occupiers onsite, explains: “We have AA and NA running meetings everyday, and we try and make sure everyone is fed and hydrated. Sometimes I’ll see someone covered in a blanket, just lying on the floor, and I’ll sit with them a while, make sure they’re breathing. We actually got one guy into rehab in the first week. That was pretty amazing.”
But it seems only a matter of time before Occupy LA receives the same treatment as Oakland and Wall Street. Occupiers are convinced, though, that the attack, when it comes, will be of a more insidious variety. Emilio estimates that there are at least fifteen “plants” on site at any one time. “I’ve seen them walk round the block, and get into cop cars. It’s obvious who they are. The authorities are playing it smart with us. They’re hoping we’ll eat ourselves from the inside out, saying the Local Farmers [who have had to move their weekly Farmers market because of Occupiers’ tents] are pissed at us, everyone’s on drugs, all we do is party. It exists, but most of us are on two committees at once, getting no sleep because we’re working all the time.” As he says this, the distant stirrings of OLA’s nightly General Assembly is drowned out by an angry, volatile group who want to talk about Oakland, the Mayor, and when -- what they see as the inevitable -- attack will happen. The crowd -- about 300 people -- are at first yelling over each other, drowning out the General Assembly, until a woman from Oakland takes the mic and starts to talk about what happened “that” night. Pin-drop silence ensues. She’s followed by a man in a suit who used to work on Wall St, and urges everyone to load up on gas masks, join more committees, and stay alert. “It’s kind of like Thanksgiving dinner. Everyone’s family looks crazier than yours. But this, here, the craziness -- this is how it works,” laughs Patricia.
Daniil chimes in. “The point is that we’re a microcosm of LA society. To deny the presence of drugs and alcohol on the streets of Los Angeles would be disingenuous. We have a very evident problem and it’s been transferred to our camp, but unlike LA City Council, we’re not denying that problem.” Mayor Villaraigosa and Bill Rosendahl refused to comment on this issue, but when pressed, Alarcon admitted that “The issues [between Tent City and Skid Row] are relatively the same” and urged Occupiers not to try and deal with rogue elements alone, but call the Police to stymie illegal activity.
The heavy, sweet scent of marijuana still lingers in the air as another General Assembly drifts to a close. Occupiers wander back to their tents, and a documentary -- “Ghetto Physics” -- is projected on the faux-marble fountain for those who are left. A group passing by are talking about someone’s suggestion that the movement erect a Tent specifically for medical-marijuana card holders to “medicate” in peace. Half the camp are divided between wanting the “Zero-Tolerance” Policy adopted in New York. Half are violently opposed. A young man who’s just arrived from OWS turns to the group in shock. “I can’t believe this is what you guys are arguing about in LA. This is a fucking revolution. When the cops are coming for you, I can guarantee the last thing you’re gonna be thinking about is weed.” The group stops and considers. “Yeah, until after the fact. Then everyone’s gonna wanna toke.”