Occupy L.A.: Where the 99% Get an Assist From Hollywood's 1%

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Taking on City Hall and picketing against foreclosures, the Occupy Wall Street movement -- backed by L.A. heavies -- has embraced the Pacific, even if it hasn't exactly embraced the specific.

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LOS ANGELES -- For a populist revolution in uneasy times, the right spark can come from anywhere.

On October 5, in a quiet La Puente neighborhood of Los Angeles, it came from Rose Gudiel, a 35-year-old state government employee, who became a figurehead of the Occupy LA movement, an extension of the Occupy Wall Street protests that have spread from Zuccotti Park in Manhattan to the West Coast.

Gudiel set off a massive protest and media frenzy when people got wind of the foreclosure of her home, which Guidel has shared with her disabled mother and other relatives for ten years. A coalition of activists kept a round-the clock vigil outside the Bel-Air mansion of the president of OneWest Bank that had initiated foreclosure proceedings. From there, they moved to the sidewalk outside Fannie Mae's office in Pasadena, after discovering the government-sponsored lender had taken over Gudiel's loan. Another group surrounded Gudiel's house, pledging to risk arrest if sheriff deputies tried to evict the family, including her wheelchair-bound mother.

Police arrested Gudiel and five others when they refused to leave. In the end, Gudiel prevailed, bank executives relented and she remains in her house.

As these kind of protests swept the city, I dropped by Occupy LA's encampment outside City Hall last Thursday and Saturday to survey what has became one of the largest theaters in this national protest movement, second only to its epicenter in New York City. What I saw could only be described as a spectacle of energy and potential. Liberal media heavy weights mixed with young hippie-types. The protesters are loud and angry, but also have a peaceful relationship with the police. What does it all mean? Even at ground level, it's a visceral movement whose goals and next steps aren't always easy to see.

Celebrities are everywhere Los Angeles, even in the growing group of Occupy LA protestors camped out in tents on the lawn outside City Hall. Droves of media show up each morning in downtown and set up their equipment directly across the street from the encampment. They come to capture footage of Janet, Jermaine, LaToya, and other relatives of Michael Jackson as they stream into Foltz Criminal Courthouse to attend the trial of the pop star's personal physician, Conrad Murray.

"What're you 'gonna do?" sighed a resigned protestor. "Nobody can compete with Michael Jackson."

Still, the group's size, support and media attention has grown steadily since its October 2 kick off. At first, there were 10 tents and a single "Information" card table set up on the sidewalk in front of 200 N. Main Street. A week later, the public park around City Hall had been transformed into a bustling urban campground, with 200-odd tents pitched closely together. Nearly 400 sleep-deprived, overnight campers, most of them young students, claim they're not leaving until Wall Street executives responsible for the country's economic crisis are held accountable and economic justice is restored in America.

Tarp-covered makeshift stations devoted to food and medical supplies, legal counseling, security, and even a library, have been set up. Cash donations pay for food, trash collection and rental fees for the six portable toilets standing at one corner of the park. The media center is up and operating, streaming live 24/7 -- thanks to media donations from "three very supportive Hollywood producers who shall remain unnamed," said Occupy LA's Joe Briones, 29, a film student at L.A. City College.

At last count, Occupy protests have sprung up in more than 100 cities around the country, with Occupy LA ranking second to New York in participant turnout. Last weekend, an estimated 1,000 people showed up at City Hall, as the encampment turned into a 1960s throwback festival of open mic political rants, live music--guitarist Tom Morelli of Rage Against The Machine performed on Saturday--a Make Your Own T-shirt section with paints and stencils, wafting incense, lovers kissing, kids napping on blankets in the sun--and lots of dogs. "The Revolution welcomes everyone," added Briones.

Media heavy weights also dropped in. Keith Olbermann, Tavis Smiley and Princeton professor Cornell West addressed the crowd on Sunday--actor Danny Glover came during the week--but the rumor circulating that Anderson Cooper would also show proved to be unfounded.

"We have a cakewalk compared to New York," said Allen Eaton, 33, who spent 20 days at the original anti-Wall Street protest in Zuccotti Park before coming west to help kick-off Occupy LA. For starters, there's the weather, sunny and warm, except for steady rain on Day 5 that turned the manicured lawn into a muddy mess. Rarely does the city's entrenched car culture have a beneficial aspect, except in situations like this. A steady stream of harried drivers are able to show their support by simply pulling to the curb in front of City Hall, their engines idling, as they drop off boxes of food, blankets, water and other supplies.

LA protesters are allowed to pitch and sleep in tents overnight--a luxury not afforded to their counterparts in privately owned Zuccotti Park. For the first week, the LAPD forced campers to move their tents onto the sidewalk by 10 each night to comply with a city code that makes it illegal to sleep in city parks. In the morning, they moved back to the lawn, but logistics soon became unmanageable and as of this Tuesday, the city council passed a resolution that allows them to stay on the grass 24/7.

Another stark bi-coastal contrast: L.A protesters have a mostly peaceful relationship with the police and support of the mayor and city council. "Stay as long as you need, we're here to support you," Eric Garcetti, president of the city council, announced to the protestors, who are grateful yet wary of politicians who may try and to align disaffected protestors with their political parties.

It's easy to find fault with the operation. Committee meetings are coordinated, but little else is. The daily bog of scheduled events and planned demonstrations is unreliable. Trash containers overflow and last Sunday, a few of the toilets nearly did too.

Yet a sense of excitement that something really big could actually be underway overshadows every glitch. Occupy protestors are aware of the media's criticism that they have yet to come up with specific plans of how to implement the economic and social justice reforms they seek, yet the group won't be rushed or pressured.

"The media has dismissed us, ridiculed us, but now they're taking us seriously," said organizer Patrick Moore. Protestors take pride in being a "leaderless" group, convening every night at 7 for a general assembly discussion of issues, an exercise that sometimes drones on until nearly midnight. "We are a leaderless movement and for us it's all about reaching a consensus, which takes time," explained Mark Medina, a regular assembly speaker. "It gets heated and messy sometimes but we always come to the right decision. We're building a new society and believe that not having a leader is a strength."

Their long-range goal is "to reinvigorate democracy around the world, but for the time being, they have accomplished their first goal of creating a national narrative. "More Americans are aware and talking about the issues that are ruining our country," added Medina, "and that's what we want, a national dialogue." Or as KPFK radio host Margaret Prescott puts it: "Americans are speaking up--finally."

Occupy LA's biggest accomplishments have been realized by teaming up with organized groups of homeowners facing eviction and California labor unions that for months have been carrying out demonstrations and civil disobedience targeted mostly at banks.

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Where do things go from here? Occupy protesters in LA and around the country know that it's a numbers game. The media will only continue to follow the story, and politicians will only take the protests seriously if the number of supporters and targeted demonstrations keeps growing. Organizers of Occupy LA also recognize the power that celebrity support could bring to the movement, and they are reaching out to Hollywood and entertainment heavyweights--Jay Z for one--but they won't mention other high-profile prospects for fear of jinxing their efforts.

Nationally, Occupy Congress and Occupy the Pentagon are reportedly in the works, as is an international coalition of millions of activists who plan to swarm the city of Cannes in November where the G-20 heads of government will discuss financial markets and the world economy. At Occupy LA, excitement mounts. "Stayed tuned," said Joe Briones, "because important things are about to happen."

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Mary A. Fischer is an award-winning journalist and former senior staff writer for GQ Magazine, where she earned two National Magazine Award nominations. She regularly covers the legal field and is currently a feature writer for Scotusblog.com

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