There's a boiling point in California and currently it's expressed in the 253 tents surrounding Los Angeles City Hall
LOS ANGELES -- I had just taken the hour-long tour for those new to Occupy LA, a solidarity demonstration sparked by Occupy Wall Street in New York. My husband had been visiting the encampment, centered on the lawns around Los Angeles City Hall, in solidarity with me, snooping around the mini-gatherings that pepper the building's grounds.
"You have no idea what's going on here!" he declared after finding me on the corner of Spring and Temple Streets listening to an elderly Hispanic man standing on a box telling a captive audience how the bank took his home.
"Civics," I answered.
"Then you do know what's going on here," he said.
Well first off: there's a tour. There's nothing more inviting and informative than that. It's given primarily by Cheryl Aichele, a medical cannabis advocate who looks like the person you'd seek out at any event for answers; she's non-threatening, sincere and most importantly knowledgeable. When I first meet her she's in a large tent with a production company logo on it (this is how we roll in LA). It's like a reception area for a community center. There's a whiteboard with the schedule of a dozen or so committee meetings that day. They use words like "outreach" and "liaison" and combinations thereof for their committees (and sub-committees). There's an "objective and demands" box that a middle-aged man stuffs a letter into. A woman next to me is inquiring about the AA meetings. She's immediately paired up with a fellow 12-stepper within earshot. There are flyers and maps and notices. It's Day Seven of the encampment -- they have AA meetings.
"All of the problems we are facing are legal. They're laws. We need to pass the right laws," says my tour guide Aichele.
These are terrible anarchists.
A few days ago some LAPD officers came by to donate bags of clothes; they're made available to anyone who needs them. The Occupiers offer free food, also provided by donors. There's a lending library and a first aid tent. I'm told the health department came the day before. They told everyone to wash their hands and not to eat melon, but Occupy LA generally passed inspection.
"In LA, disasters tend to bring us together."
"In LA, disasters tend to bring us together," explains Professor Wendel Eckford, a historian with Los Angeles City College who's been coming down to the Occupation everyday after class.
And it is a disaster: One of out of every five U.S. foreclosures this year was in California. The unemployment rate in Los Angeles is 13 percent. State budget crisis after city budget crisis has taken its toll.
There's a boiling point and currently it's expressed in the 253 tents surrounding City Hall. Its part Peoples Park, part low-budget film set and part civics crash course.
Due to a city ordinance they can't sleep in the park surrounding City Hall. So every night all the tents move to the sidewalk and every morning they move back. They also recycle and have signs reading "Zero waste station" on all four corners of the park. I see a guy scrubbing a graffiti tag off of the wall of the landmark marble building. The group has a non-violence policy which includes graffiti. But their big concern: wheelchair access. It's a new goal to make the whole occupation accessible to those with disabilities.
"We'd like to be an example for other cites," says tour guide Aichele.
And by "cities" she means Occupations. Which are growing in number everyday.
Los Angeles City Council members make frequent visits to the tent city encompassing the building where they work. City Council President -- and soon-to-be mayoral candidate -- Eric Garcetti, who holds an annual Government 101 seminar at City Hall to help citizens make better use of the system, has been down at Occupy LA recruiting participants for next year's tutorial. Councilmembers Dennis Zine and Bill Rosendahl also are staunch supporters of the Occupation.
But it was Councilmember Richard Alarcon who was approached by one of his constituents, a member of the City Liaison Committee for Occupy LA, Mario Brito, to support this demonstration. Alarcon tells The Atlantic, "[Occupy LA] is exhibiting the frustration of people throughout America."
Alarcon's resulting City Council resolution in support of the demonstrators reads like an Occupy Wall Street manifesto: "WHEREAS, the causes and consequences of the economic crisis are eroding the very social contract upon which the Constitution that the United States of America was founded; namely, the ability of Americans to come together and form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense of, promote the general welfare of, and secure the blessings of liberty for all, allowing every American to strive for and share in the prosperity of our nation through cooperation and hard work;." It's a three-page resolution mentioning Citizens United, foreclosures, wealth inequality, Egypt and corporate personhood.
"I've never written one that long before," says Alarcon.
Alarcon's resolution was expected to pass Wednesday morning with a wide margin of support, giving the Occupiers the blessing of the council.
Sure, there are hippies dancing. And yes, there are drum circles. It's LA, so there's also "medicinal" marijuana wafting about. But mostly the crowd looks like LA: Half Latino, a quarter African-American and Asian and mostly middle-class. And that's who is in the meetings, not the hippies. In the meetings, people discuss things like Glass-Steagall, plans of actions and politicians to reach out to. There's a general sense that this is something big and they need to figure out what to do with it. All is reported at the General Assembly or GA every night at 7:30 p.m. Participants use Quaker consensus decision-making hand signals in all meetings. Participants can indicate if they agree, disagree, kind of agree or oppose vehemently -- all non-verbally. So speakers get to see the reaction of the crowd in real time. It's public polling and it's painfully slow and tedious. Meaning: this is what democracy looks like. Everyone has a voice and not all of them are poignant. Some of them are repetitive -- and there's a hand signal for that, too.
What about being on message? At the encampment, there are communists next to Ron Paul supporters next to vegan activists next to those LaRouche people (who always seem to show up) -- even a couple of union guys. I've always called this liberal "micro-cause-ism." Will they stay on point? "We're not focused on the thing that's not causing the problem," says Aichele. Message cohesion is not the rigged system they're rallying to change.
The cumbersome process and cacophany of messages is all about honoring the First Amendment to them. Everyone gets to be heard regardless of someone else's opinion. As long as you're the "99 percent" -- which the vast majority of are -- and are respectful and peaceful, you're welcome at Occupy LA.
What are they doing there? Teaching people who are angry what to do about it. "The sense of building something together -- that experience is empowering," offers Aichele. They are occupying, yeah, but they are organizing. And that means teaching.
Eckford tells me Occupy LA isn't leaderless -- it's "leaderful." When asked when this demonstration will end, he says, "When we feel like our democracy is working for the 99 percent."
How are they going to do that? This is how it starts.
LA Democratic Congresswoman Karen Bass, who describes herself as a long time activist, quietly showed up with bags of El Pollo Loco for protesters last Saturday. "I just wanted to show my support." She says the role of elected officials is to show their support for this movement she describes as organic.
Local civic leaders, union leaders, police, councilmembers, a couple of celebrities and members of Congress have all made their cameos at Occupy LA. It's a hotspot.
Other cities have run into conflicts with the police. Occupy San Francisco had its demonstration quashed by police in riot gear. There were 700 arrested in New York on the Brooklyn Bridge. Boston's occupation led to the biggest mass arrest in recent city history. LA? There were arrests at a Bank of America and at a Fannie Mae, it was rumored to be Occupy LA members. However the actual groups involved were the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment and the Service Employees International Union. Beyond a few who have tried intentionally to incite something, the LA protest has been peaceful and kid-friendly. Most importantly, it's been effective.
How long is it going to be out there? I ask around. They are in it for the long haul, protesters say. "We're not going fast, we're going far," is a phrase they use. The time between the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the ratification of the Constitution in 1788 gets mentioned.
I ask my tour guide how long she's going to be out here. She pauses: "I don't know. I've never revolutionized before."
Image credit: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson