Monday, October 31, 2011

Growing Pains: Reflections on Occupy Los Angeles, October 29-30

On Sunday, October 30, 2011, Occupy Los Angeles turned 30. Make that 30 days, not years. I mention this, because OLA Occupiers made brief mention of the milestone at both the General Assembly (GA) of Saturday, October 29 on the South Steps of City Hall and at the GA of Sunday, October 30 on the North Steps of City Hall. It is fitting that we should speak of 'days,' rather than 'weeks' or 'years,' because some ominous portents have appeared this past week, namely Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's veiled threat that OLA cannot remain at City Hall "indefinitely" and Councilperson Bill Rosendahl's suggestion on the local ABC affiliate that occupiers start to "move on." Note: Rosendahl is my Councilperson. Neither Villaraigosa's nor Rosendahl's offices returned my calls asking for an explanation of their comments.

OLA is no different from many of the other Occupy encampments around the country and, in many ways, has it better. Most readers already know about the police riot unleashed on entirely peaceful demonstrators in Oakland on Tuesday, of the numerous Keystone Kops raids on Occupy Nashville throughout the week, and of the raids in Boston and Chicago. These are but a sampling of the ongoing attempts by the security services to crack down on this grass roots movement. For the moment, at least, it appears that the crackdown is having the opposite effect from what is intended. Support for the Occupy movement is broad based and shows little sign of diminishing. But, as summer turns to autumn at Los Angeles' City Hall, more than the physical temperature has started to change.

So far, OLA has not experienced any crackdown from the external security services. This has not stopped Occupiers here from beginning to make preparations should a crackdown appear imminent. And if Oakland has proved anything, it is that OLA Occupiers should prepare. The morale at OLA remains quite high and, this weekend's growing pains aside, remains an inspiration and a source of joy to those Angelenos who are paying attention.

Alma and I missed some of that joy on Saturday, as we arrived at City Hall a bit later than usual. Apparently, we just missed witnessing a Native American wedding ceremony conducted on the steps of City Hall with the full blessings of OLA and, knowing the folks there, their active participation in the rituals. A spectator who witnessed the wedding told me it was quite beautiful and I am sure he was correct, based on the eye candy of which I constantly partake there.

At 5:30 on Saturday, we once again headed to the meeting of the Facilitation Committee (the committee charged with daily administration of the General Assembly). The Committee consisted of many faces I recognized from the previous weekend. There was Vance, a well-rounded generalist who, with his pork pie hat and ponytail, conveys the air of the grand impresario. There was Sergey, the husky fellow with wild black beard and an accent that hints of his origin in perhaps Spain, who had done such a wonderful job time-keeping at last Sunday's GA. There was Dele, a well-dressed and bespectacled traveller from, of all places, Nigeria. Ruth, a British woman who carries a little Chihuahua wearing a multi-colored blanket sweater. Jessica, studious-looking and highly detail-oriented. Caroline, vivacious and charismatic. Rick, studious and, with his wire-rimmed glasses and slightly unkempt but short hair, reminiscent of a young John Lennon. There were also some new faces. Vanessa, a reed-thin blond from the original Occupy Wall Street encampment in New York City whose words on the Consensus process and best practices from Wall Street, served to focus the group's energy. A very hyper gentleman named Alan who arrived a 1/2 hour late, had little patience for the process and who was constantly being chided by the moderators for his interruptions. Others too numerous to mention. And myself.

I have said this before and I will say it again. This is democracy in the raw. These folks are learning as they go and it is quite inspiring and moving. So much so that, during the assignment of roles for Saturday nights' GA, I found myself volunteering to serve as time-keeper. Being the weekend warrior I am, I had only the faintest of ideas as to what exactly I was supposed to be doing. I was fortunate indeed that Sergey volunteered both his touchscreen phone with its 'stop watch' app and his fastidiously-printed set of sheets showing time remaining. And Jessica, dear Jessica, took it upon herself to write down for me the various times allotted for each type of appearance before GA:

Announcements - 1 minute
Proposals - 5 minutes
Responses to Proposals (Questions and Hard Blocks) - 2 minutes
Questions of Concern - 2 minutes
Questions of Clarity - 2 minutes

Without the assistance of Sergey and Jessica, I can plainly state that I would have sucked as a timekeeper. So those who subsequently complimented me during GA on my 'professional time-keeping' were complimenting not only me but those two as well.

I should step back and point out that while individuals at these committee meetings argue their positions and ideas with passionate ferocity, this energy is balanced and complemented quite nicely by a spirit of love and comradeship that infuses the group dynamic. Joe, the tireless and good-humored man who runs logistics for the GA (getting the public address system set up, making sure the power sources measure up to the task and positioning the various pieces of other audio-visual equipment) and seems to do it almost single-handedly came in for some good-natured ribbing from the Committee when he groused that his work was never done. That ribbing seemed to restore his good spirits and defuse his frustration. (This frustration would re-surface Sunday and find a different avenue of release then.)

After the minutiae of settling upon roles for the GA was decided, the Committee took up proposals. Sergey advanced a proposal that 'Faciliation' expand its domain and set up teams of ten 'facilitators' to travel the grounds in the minutes preceding the GA and immediately following its commencement to serve as emissaries and facilitators for the GA and OLA. It was a proposal that the Committee took under advisement. Basically, I think the Committee was reluctant to take on still more roles when it barely can staff its current roles.

The Committee adjourned and we all headed from the North Steps over to the South Steps where the GA would take place, me trailing meekly in Sergey's footsteps. (Joe had left about 15 minutes before us to see that all facilities were up and running for the GA.) When we arrived at the South Steps, I was astounded to see a huge circle of people already assembled around 2-3 people with a megaphone who were holding what seemed to be an impromptu assembly of their own. Indeed, this so-called "People's Assembly" (PA) had sprung up out of frustrations with the seeming rigidity of the GA process and apparently continued the Open Mike that graces the South Steps during the day. I bumped into Joe and both he and Sergey seemed concerned that this PA was supplanting the formally constituted GA. As it happened, the conveners of the PA did not see themselves as a rump GA but rather as an adjunct, and they cooled down after Vance started speaking into the microphone for the GA's public address system. I'm not sure the PA willingly surrendered - it may have been that they conceded in the face of their hand-held megaphone being no match for the public address system of the GA. A veritable Battle of the Bands, if you will.

As the GA began, I estimated the number in attendance between 2- 250 Occupiers. The GA does not seem to have grown much from last week, but neither had it shrunk noticeably. Somewhat surprising, given that this was Halloween weekend and many people who might otherwise have attended were probably attending Halloween parties and festivities elsewhere.

Some Occupiers feel that GA has become too process-oriented. Having sat through countless corporate meetings, I can say for a fact that there is an absolute minimum of process here. Indeed, I would say that the process, such as it is, broke down on Saturday night through no one's fault in particular.

After opening with the clap of solidarity and routine committee, affinity group and individual announcements, the GA's moderators Jessica and Ruth  had moved the GA on to proposals. The Labor Solidarity affinity group was presenting a proposal that OLA endorse a work stoppage by the Sugar Beet Growers Union. While Caroline was reading the text of the proposal to the GA, a stoutly built young black man strode past me very quickly towards the area where Caroline was speaking. Upon reaching her, the black man seized the microphone from Caroline's hands and proceeded to start yelling incomprehensibly into it. This Disruptor (as I have taken to calling him) was immediately swarmed upon by OLA Occupiers who attempted peacefully to usher him into Stack (the method GA uses to queue up speakers) . The Disruptor raged back at them saying he had a First Amendment right to free speech and continuing to bull his way back toward the area where Caroline, Ruth and Jessica stood. By this point, the crowd of Occupiers surrounding the Disruptor had grown to about 20-25. Imagine a rugby match where players swarm on top of the person carrying the ball while all remain standing and a bit crouched over and you will have the exact image of what was transpiring.

Up until this point, the GA was practicing Shante Sinah, a regimen whereby members of the GA encircle any disruptive person and, by their mere presence, attempt to re-focus the disruptive person's energies. It was not working on Saturday night or was not working as efficiently as one might have hoped, however. The Disruptor continued to lead the swarming circle in circles around the plaza. I had decided to make discretion the better part of valor and so had pulled myself off to the grassy hillock where Alma sat observing. I did this not out of fear for my own person per se, but more out of fear that Sergey's expensive cell phone might get damaged in the melee.

Various attempts were made to move the Disruptor away from the GA area but to no avail. While this drama was playing itself out, the microphone had become up for grabs and anyone who wanted could grab it. Competing announcements were uttered from the stage by persons with no authority to make them via the GA's process. So we heard, variously, that LAPD had been summoned and that we should "let the officers do their job." (They were summoned but were never needed to subdue the Disruptor.) We heard that the GA would relocate to the North Steps. (A group of Occupiers dutifully set off towards the North Steps.) Various people were yelling at Jessica and Ruth, the two moderators, that it was their fault this had happened. (It was most certainly not their fault.) In short, general pandemonium reigned for about 30 minutes.

Eventually the swarming circle somehow got the Disruptor into the hands of the LAPD and I learned subsequently that he had a history of such run-ins with the police who, last night, hospitalized him on some sort of emergency psychiatric hold. And eventually the GA resumed on the South Steps. (The resolution supporting the Sugar Beet Growers Union passed by consensus shortly after GA resumed.) The episode raises many red flags for OLA going forward. First and foremost, while their hearts are clearly in the right place, OLA has neither the structures nor the expertise to handle the severely mentally ill. Leading to a second observation that speakers at GA are all at risk of facing another Disruptor bent upon 'rushing the stage' and getting his or her 15 minutes of fame. Perhaps most important, though, is that the sanctity of GA is under threat. Occupiers had to put up with a 30-minute disruption to the normal deliberative process last night.

After Saturday's GA adjourned and the open mike (sans amplification) resumed on the South Steps, we on Facilitations retreated to a tent on the north side for a debriefing. A couple people who had not been on Facilitation Committee before the GA showed up for the after-the-fact session. One of them, George, spoke movingly and eloquently about the absolute necessity and possibility for resolving future disruptive events non-violently by engaging in 'active listening' of the individual. I was in too much shock from what had transpired to speak coherently about my feelings. So I merely complimented Ruth and Jessica on their poise and grace under fire and passed the baton to my right. Alma then mentioned that, with a contingent of 200 nurses attending OLA on next Thursday (as part of the California Association of Nurses union) that OLA should take advantage of those nurses' expertise to find out how to 'restrain' the mentally ill, should the need ever arise again. I think frankly that everyone was in a state of shock that the Disruptor had so significantly disrupted events. (It happens that there may have been some tent pilfering going on while the Disruptor raged, perhaps a sharp-eyed opportunist awaiting his or her moment to strike.)

I believe in non-violence as a tactic and a strategy. I believe that Martin Luther King's vision of a peaceful and just world remains to this day a dream deferred. But I also believe that under no circumstances should this Disruptor have been able to breach the line (the 'Stack') to confront Caroline and seize the mike from her. That he did so can only have a chilling effect on women's willingness to speak at GA or on anyone who is concerned for his or her safety.

Indeed, I am sorry to say that a common theme I heard voiced this past weekend (on both days) was many women's concerns for their personal safety. Apparently, there have been some incidents of voyeurism and even sexual assaults directed against some of the women who camp at City Hall. Jessica spoke in the debriefing about her personal worry that she could and might be accosted or assaulted by any aggrieved lunatic with an ax to grind who decided in his or her tortured imaginations to fix the locus of discontent and frustration upon the moderator and not upon the very process itself. This revolution means absolutely nothing, in my opinion, if a segment of our brave front-line soldiers no longer feel safe and secure in their persons. But I am at a loss as to what to suggest to ameliorate the situation.

Thus I returned on Sunday bristling with a proposal of my own, that the GA authorize Facilitation to appoint a Sergeant at Arms with power to see to it that the microphone and the person speaking into it are protected at all times and that the sanctity of GA be placed as a value above all other values at OLA. I did not make my proposal because, on Sunday, Ruth was moderating the Facilitations Committee meeting. She mentioned to another proposer that all proposals presented at Committee were supposed to be in writing. Well, mine was in writing in my little notebook. But it was in no shape to be presented to the 15-20 members of Facilitations who met on Sunday. So I withdrew my proposal, then offered it as a 'friendly amendment' to another proposal to situate speakers at the top of the stairs, rather than at ground-level. That proposal was taken under advisement, since it too was not in writing. So I shall return next weekend with my proposal\amendment typed up and printed out for presentation to the Committee.

Alma and I reached Facilitations Committee about a half-hour late because Alma wished to place a demand before the Demands and Objectives Committee and both committees were meeting at the same time. This is a pet peeve of mine, that it is nigh impossible to attend two very important Committees because both are meeting at the same time. Believe it or not, there is some kind of Coordination Committee that is supposed to address coordination between various OLA committees. I don't know when it meets and perhaps I shall have to attend it next Saturday to make my concern heard.

I can see, though, why some Occupiers might feel the GA is excessively focused on the process. It so happens that showing up at the Demands and Objectives Committee is not enough to place a demand before the GA. The process is very long and drawn out and it quickly became clear that the D&O Committee would not be entertaining new demands on Sunday night. Instead, we were advised to put our written demand into the Suggestion Box for consideration by D&O at a later date. In fairness to the D&O Committee, it is acting under processes duly authorized by GA. And, to its credit, D&O has a set of preliminary demands:

1) Stop the wars
2) Repeal the Patriot Act
3) Divert military spending to social programs
4) Declare a moratorium on all residential foreclosures
5) Prohibit LA County personnel, e.g., Sheriff's deputies, from assisting in any foreclosure actions
6) Repeal the National Security Act
7) Repeal the Federal Reserve Act
8) End Corporate 'Personhood'

With the exception of Demand #7, I find these are all laudable aims. This set of demands, according to a regular attendee of D&O who provided me with the list, has now been sent to the Research Committee prior to its return to D&O for presentation to GA. A cumbersome process indeed, I think it is fair to say. I advised Alma to place her idea -- that corporations be held responsible for destroying the environment -- in the Suggestion Box and, that decided, we departed for the Facilitations Committee again.

We came upon that meeting in medias res as it were, upon those same north steps as the day previous. The usual suspects were present and the discussion was raging fast and furious around the actions of the Disruptor of the day previous. So having decided to self-table my proposal for a Sergeant at Arms, I again volunteered to serve as timekeeper, my offer accepted by unanimous consent of the Committee.

A decision had been reached between the conveners of the People's Assembly, the Facilitations Committee and Logistics that Sunday's GA would be held on the North Steps. This was a fortuitous decision, as there was no ponderous public address system to set up and manage but instead a small guitar amplifier with a simple mike attached to it. The GA on Sunday night had more of a town hall feel to it than any I have attended previously.

Andrea, who had appeared before the Facilitations Committee the previous Sunday, opened the GA with a stirring demonstration of the "Moving Torah" (a version of interpretive dance). I would guess there were 100 Occupiers at Sunday night's GA, all of them making various bodily gestures in sync with Andrea and her companion, to phsyicalize (if such a word exists) the personal narratives of 5 Occupiers. I was in tears again by the end of it.

The normal run of announcements took place. And then the moderators, Vance and Caroline, announced a special presentation by Scott and Isaac on non-violence and civil disobedience (CD). It was fascinating watching the two of them demonstrate to a circle of Occupiers various best practices for CD, should the need arise. Attendees practiced linking arms and holding hands in such a way as to minimize the potential for broken thumbs and fingers. Isaac demonstrated various hand signals we might expect to see from the security services should the oft-anticipated crackdown commence.

I was a bit grouchy from sleep deprivation and at first groused to Alma that this non-violence presentation was hijacking the GA. Alma rightfully pointed out how absolutely essential it was that Occupiers know this information ahead of time, should the need for it ever arise. And I must give Scott and Isaac credit. By the end of their presentation about how Occupiers could more easily frustrate police efforts by forming a 'puppy pile,' I was transported, watching a circle of some 50 Occupiers formed in two rings play-act the act of civil disobedience in the face of a police onslaught. Again, this was one of the more moving experiences of my life. They seem to be coming fast and furious these days.

Sunday night's GA concluded with a proposal for a march to build support for the Bank Transfer Day this coming November 5. This march of support will happen in the late afternoon and early evening on November 4 and will march from City Hall to the downtown facility of the Los Angeles Public Library. It will happen during the time when GA is normally slated to occur and consensus was reached to skip GA next Friday and instead do a 'Speak Out' in the Public Library's huge grounds. I was at first torn, because I believe in the absolute sanctity of GA. But I also have come to trust the correctness of the consensus process. And, besides, tireless Joe in logistics will need a day off by then, as OLA will have by then been going for some 35 days. So I wiggled my hands in the patented spirit fingers, aka jazz wave, to signal that I approved. With that GA adjourned.

As OLA continues and matures into something more long-lasting, its growing pains manifest themselves. There is, however, no diminution of morale in the slightest, nor any flagging of devotion to the cause, facts that Mayor Villaraigosa and Councilman Rosendahl would do to note before sending in their goons. For me personally, meeting this wonderful cast of characters has to rank among the high points. I have given you names to go with the faces. But there are the nameless whose faces are just as memorable. Balanced against the annoying Jesus Freaks who have opportunistically attached themselves to OLA and who mercilessly berate passersby with a loud megaphone, there's the young man wielding a push broom on the North Steps in the moments before the GA begins. His clean-up prompts Alma to quip that "It's nice for a change to have someone else do the housework." And there's the older guy with white hair in a  ponytail selflessly emptying trash can after trash can into the Dumpsters. I asked him whether Sanitation had ever received the help it had pleaded for the weekend previously. "I don't give a shit about the Committees," he said. "You don't need a committee to tell you that the trash needs to be emptied." I told him I would help him next Saturday or Sunday if I happened to see him. He waved me off and said, "I've pretty much got it under control now." With people like that, this movement is here for the long term.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Reflections on Occupy Los Angeles, Oct. 22 & 23

The Los Angeles City Hall occupies an entire city block. Bounded by 1st St. on the south, Spring St. on the west, Temple St. on the north and Main St. on the east, the City Hall building (home to Los Angeles' City Council, Mayor's Office and other municipal services) sits in the middle of two areas of grass. Paved sidewalks divide and divide again the portion of grass to the south of the City Hall building, while the grass to its north is broken only by a single large flight of steps that bisects the building's imposing facade.

That grass is now no longer visible to the naked eye because a sea of tents has sprung up on both the north and south sides of the City Hall building. Many of the tents are simple two-person Pup tents, but a few are large enough to sleep a family of four or more. On the weekend of October 22 and 23, I did an unofficial count and found some 227 tents. Remarkable really. And those tents house a group of people Alma and I have taken to calling the "Occupiers."

When I walked on the western edge of the building yesterday (along Spring St.), I saw a garbage Dumpster filled to overflowing with trash and refuse. That was not what caught my eye. What caught my eye were words stencilled neatly in white on the side of the Dumpster: "Autonomous Revolutionary People's Collective". These are strange days indeed.

I'm not sure I'd go so far right now as to say what we are seeing is 'revolutionary'. Perhaps what we witness at Los Angeles' City Hall is what Lenin referred to as the 'vanguard' of the revolution. I'm still trying to figure out what it all means. But here's what I can tell you. A remarkable experiment in self-government is happening outside the official halls of power, an experiment begun by many of the castoffs of today's economy, those for whom capitalism has always ever been a dismal failure.

Take, for example, the middle-aged couple I'll call Eeva and David, from the far eastern reaches of Riverside County. They occupy the same spot each weekend day along the western edge of City Hall. David is currently working part-time but wishes to work full-time. Eeva used to work full-time as a caregiver to an elderly client who suffers from diabetes. That client's assistance fell victim to California's budgetary crisis, according to Eeva, and she lost her job when that government assistance stopped. They had tacked a sign to the tree under which they sat. "Back then we had Steve Jobs, Bob Hope and Johnny Cash," the top portion of the hand-lettered sign said. "Now we have no jobs, no hope and no cash," the rejoinder at the bottom wittily announced.

Eeva and David are but two of the several hundred people who are part of Occupy Los Angeles (OLA). And I have seen them sitting in the same spot for the last three weekends. Like Alma and me, Eeva and David leave at the end of each weekend to return to their daily lives. But their plight echoes and mirrors that of many of the Occupiers.

Alma and I spent a good portion of yesterday and today at the OLA encampment. Yesterday afternoon, I attended a meeting of the 'Action' Committee. This committee, one of 20-some committees organized around various topics, was authorized by the General Assembly and charged with considering proposals for actions that the OLA community could take to make its protest heard and its dissent considered. How did I become a member of this committee? I simply showed up at the appointed time and place (announced on a white board at the Welcome Tent on the North lawn). I showed up and found myself in the middle of a spirited discussion about whether OLA should attend a City Council subcommittee meeting on Monday that would be considering selling a plot of urban park land to one of LA's ubiquitous developers. Some wanted OLA to officially endorse the action and send an official OLA contingent to the meeting to oppose and protest against the proposal. Others warned that OLA risked losing support from the City Council if it too visibly and vocally supported the group of South Central farmers seeking to retain the park plot. And there were a few who actually thought the park plot should be allowed to be sold in exchange for a healthy financial consideration.

And I? I was the proverbial 'undecided' Committee member, undecided mainly because woefully uninformed. That did not matter in the slightest to my fellow Committee members. The model of direct democracy being practiced at OLA is built around achieving group consensus before reporting proposals out to the General Assembly. My voice and opinion, it turns out, meant as much to this Committee as that of the most dedicated policy wonk on urban parkland. (I'm not sure I agree with that model, for what it's worth, but I must dance with those who brung me, so to speak.) So the proposal to send an official OLA contingent was tabled but the person who was there from the South Central Farmers' Group announced that she would be attending and asking those on the Committee who supported her to join her. I'm not sure what you call that, but I see it as a fledgling democracy trying to define what it is and what it isn't.

These folk (most of them young, all of them passionate) constantly struggle with matters of substance, questions of process, issues of authority and privilege. Everything, it seems, is up for reconsideration. And everyone's voice, it seems, is equal. Unsettling to someone like me whose activist roots derive from hierarchical top-down structures. But also strangely beautiful. There is not an ounce of phoniness with any of them, at least the younger generation. They are all deadly serious about this and well they should be, as they face a future with no certain prospects other than crushing debt and crippling un- and under-employment.

That Action Committee meeting yesterday concluded about 30 minutes before the General Assembly (GA) convened at 7:30 p.m. These General Assemblies are something to see. No need to ensure a quorum, no need to ascertain who is a legitimate member or representative there. As with the Committee, each person acquires standing merely by showing up. Each person has equal rights to address the General Assembly directly, a topic that has been casuing some stresses and strains as the movement matures. At last night's General Assembly, the moderators started with a unity clap, similar to one you might hear at a sporting event. The crowd was quite enthusiastic at the start and ended the Unity Clap with a war whoop that would have made Sitting Bull envious.The moderators next read the General Principles of Solidarity that I gather are part of many of the Occupy encampments, and then introduced the various hand signals those attending could use to communciate with one another, with the speakers and with the moderators as necessary.

Alma and I stayed long enough to hear all the Committee announcements and many of the Affinity Group announcements. We left before the GA moved on to announcements from individuals or proposals. (More on those below.) During the Affinity Group announcements, I found myself standing and waving both arms in an up-and-down motion, signalling that the presenter for "Occupy the Hood" was taking too long. (This motion is called "The Hands of the Clock" to signal excessive time being taken.) I was amused to see that I was not alone in my feeling, as the crowd looked like a sea of arms waving up and down at this particular speaker. The moderators took heed and prevailed upon the Occupy the Hood presenter to wrap up his presentation expeditiously. Blessed relief! As Samuel Johnson once said about Milton's "Paradise Lost," no one would have wished it any longer.

These hand signals constitute one signature element of the General Assemblies, so I thought I would catalog them here. If one hears something with which one agrees, one puts both hands up above one's head and wiggles all  fingers in a so-called 'Spirit Wave' (aka 'Jazz Fingers'). If one disagrees with something one hears, one chops the right arm up and down from the elbow in short movements known as the "I Don't See It" gesture. If one feels the speaker is violating some aspect of the process, one holds one's fingers up in the shape of a triangle. If one feels the speaker is being unnecessarily repetitive, one rotates one's hands and arms in a circular motion akin to a football ref's illegal procedure signal. If one fells a speaker is taking too long, one waves one's arms up and down like the hands of a clock. Anf, finally, if one finds what a speaker says so morally objectionable as to threaten the solidarity or safety of the movement or one's own participation in it, one crosses both forearms over one's head. This is the so-called 'hard block' and seems to be one source of continuing stress and strain.

As you might imagine, there can be a veritable Tower of Babel effect to these silent hand gestures, as at any moment, some may be using Jazz Fingers to signify approval, while others chop away in disapproval and still others make a triangle to signal a point of process. But it's quite moving to see an entire GA with arms raised above its head and fingers wiggling in ecstatic approval by consensus of some proposal or announcement.

We arrived today in time for me to attend once more the Facilitation Committee. This committee has the tremendous responsibility of first of all finding moderators and support staff (called 'Stackers' who maintain the various speakers' queues) for each nightly General Assembly and, secondly. deciding what rules should govern the General Assembly.

After some spirited give and take, the facilitator for the Committee managed to get two volunteers for Moderator and four volunteers for Stacker. The continued fishing around for a timekeeper right up until the last minute and karma must be good because they got a hulking Latino named Sergio who, tonight's GA would reveal, had to be the most gracious and punctilious timekeeper I've ever seen in either the public or private sectors.

This meeting convened on the steps on the North Side of City Hall. One problem is that the traffic tends to make a lot of noise going by. Add to this that word has gotten out into the larger community and cars going by are frequently honking in support. All of which means that the moderators and Commitee members had to make constant use of another signature element, the so-called 'Human Mike'. This is one of the most moving and endearing mechanisms being used by the Occupy movement. A speaker speaks a short phrase and the assembled listeners then repeat what the speaker has just said. Sets up this chant-response pattern that achieves its own rhythm and power. Whenever anyone had problems hearing, he or she would simply shout out "Mike Check". The crowd would interrupt whatever was being said to repeat back 'Mike Check" before the speaker continued.

Tonight the Facilitation Committee was wrestling with deep issues of democracy, such as whether full 100% consensus was required for measure to be reported out of General Assembly or whether some lesser degree of agreement would suffice. The percentage being bruited tonight was 90% but this brought up all sorts of tangential quesitons, such as 90% of what? How would you count to know whether you had 90%? The whole question was driven by the disproportionate influence the so-called 'hard block' could have on reaching consensus. Under consideration also was how many hard blocks should be able to explain their hard block to the GA before the measure got pushed back to committee or was withdrawn.

Fascinating stuff and I was glad to see that the Committee refused to let itself be rushed into changing the 100% consensus rule, merely in the interests of expedience. This 100% consensus model is both a strength and a weakness of the movement. By allowing a single hard block to prevent measures being voted out, it grants filibuster power to the individual. There is no requirement that said filibuster be maintained with any number of votes to avoid invoking cloture, as one would find in parliamentary systems governed by Robert's Rules of Order. But it is a strength, because it forces dialogue. It forces people to talk to one another, to understand one another and to find a modus vivendi.

There were constant pleasant surprises at this Committee meeting, Most notable in this regard was the Committee's indulgence of a woman named Andrea who gave a stirring presentation on the Moving Torah, a Jewish\Interfaith method for turning words into physical movements. She asked several Committee members why they were there and, upon hearing their stories, turned them into physical movements. She then had the entire committee (about 20 tonight) learning how to turn words into physical gestures. Absolutely astounding, truly poetic and a major stress relief from all the tension around the contentious hard blocks and consensus.

I do not mean to suggest that all is roses and ambrosia and nectar. This is not yet a workers' paradise. At tonight's GA, the Sanitation Committee announced that it had only 4 people to sort out recycling for the entire OLA encampment and pleaded for help.  Several OLA folks immediately got up and went over to the Sanitation Committee's tent presumably to help. A group of farmers used to use the City Hall lawn to sell its produce once a week at a Farmers' Market. With all the tents now erected, those farmers can no longer sell their produce at City Hall. At least for now. The issue is being addressed but building consensus (meaning convincing OLAers to move their tents if only for a day) is a long process. Finally, there have been some scattered reports that the city's dysfunctions (drugs and sexual violence) have showed up in the encampment. Again, tonight demonstrated that the problems are getting addressed. But there are problems.

These folks are so committed on all levels. They embody selflessness. There are tents providing free meals, free medical care, free child care, free education (at the "People's Collective University") and even a free library with a sign quoting Henry Beecher that libraries are not luxuries but are necessities. During tonight's General Assembly, a young woman from an affinity group called the Rainbow Village proposed a 'new' way to provide collective security when disputes between Occupiers arose.  Whenever anyone at the encampment sees tension or misconduct arising between people, he or she is to chant the words 'Shanti Sinah'. Any Occupier who hears those words is summoned as if by incanation to envelop the people having the dispute in a circle so that the disputants become aware that their dispute is occuring within a larger context and under observation of the larger community. 'Shanti Sinah' are (I think) Hindu words for "Peace Seen'. Alma fancies herself something of an armchair anthropolgoist and she was in tears as this measure passed by consensus, because to her it summons the best practices of tribal societies. I found myself tearing up also and wonderiing where Shanti Sinah was when Bush set out to attack Iraq.

But I digress. The experience is transformative in every positive meaning of the word and makes me think that we are seeing what Abraham Lincoln might have called "a new birth of freedom." I found myself moved to tears so many times last night and tonight. I never thought I would live to see this and there's a part of me who wonders when I will wake from this dream to find that it was all a chimera and that we have returned to the same old greed-ridden shitty days of frontier capitalism. But for now the dream continues apace and I'm going with it. All possible futures except this one suck equally badly from what I can see and so I am content for now to support the Occupy Movement and to participate in its birth pangs. One could do far worse. And the Demands Committee has announced a preliminary set of provisional demands. Alma and I agreed with all of them without either of us ever having sat on the Committee. Maybe this Consensus process has something going for it after all.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Our Sacred Duty

I have been thinking about Abraham Lincoln frequently in the past few days. The Occupy Revolution has gotten me to think about why America exists and what about her, if anything, is worth preserving. A few months after the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg had concluded with Robert E. Lee's ignominious retreat, Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg to deliver a memorial speech.

The history of that event and the speech itself have been dissected ad nauseum, so I do not think it is necessary for me to rehash the history or the speech. It is Lincoln's peroration that has grabbed my attention in these past few days.


"That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."


I think about this because we are now faced with a revolutionary situation in America on the streets and in the town squares of over 800 cities. A wide spectrum of folk have come together in these public and public-private spaces to "Occupy" and take back their democracy from the forces that have conspired to rob them of their birthright.

Many of the people I meet daily have succumbed to despair. "All politicians lie," they will say. "There's no difference between the Democrats and the Republicans." While statements such as these may not be literally true, they express a psychological truth that vast numbers of the working class feel as if the government no longer exists to serve their interests but only the interests of the moneyed class.

In 2008, a great movement arose and voted in a candidate who professed to stand for 'Change' and who encouraged us to "be the change." It's three years later and there's precious little 'change' to see. Today Obama announced that all but 160 U.S. troops will be out of Iraq by December 31 of this year. That's fine and I'm happy for the troops and their families. But why were they not withdrawn on January 20, 2009 (the day of Obama's inauguration)? Likewise, when Obama took office, the national unemployment rate stood at a disastrous 7.6%. As of September of this year, it had increased to 9.1%. That may be change, all right, but it's not the change everyone thought we would be seeing.

And the suffering continues apace. 46 million Americans without health care, 44 million Americans receiving food stamps, the highest number of Americans living beneath the poverty line since the government started keeping official statistics. And meanwhile, 1% of this country's population controls 40% of its wealth.

So it is easy to see why people can give in to despair. And, until Occupy Wall Street began barely a month ago, one would be hard pressed to give reasons why despair was not only a logical response but indeed the only logical response.

Along comes the Occupy movement. In cities large and small across this land, brave folks are putting their bodies on the line for what they believe in, facing down legions of police and the taunts of the moneyed class and its lackies and lickspittles. Finally, the working class has found its voice and it is growing slowly to a roar.

Anyone with eyes to see, with ears to hear, with a heart that feels cannot fail to observe has a sacred duty to support this revolution. The time is now, my brothers and sisters, to renew the promise of America that was and should be our birthright, not for 1%, not for 10% but for 100% of us. This is a sacred duty and history will not look kindly on those who shirked their responsibility when duty called.

What can you do? Donate until it hurts. Alma and I have been taking food donations each time we go. This is more important now than ever, because Occupy Los Angeles has not had a permit approved for its communal kitchen yet and so relies entirely upon donated food. Donate funds. Even though I am unemployed and my net worth has declined substantially this year, I will be making money donations each time we visit from this point forward. Donate your talents. Alma has created some beautiful signs and I have started to write songs for the movement. Find ways you can express your creativity and put them to work to support the Occupy movement. Most important: visit the nearest Occupy encampment and lend your voice to the voice of the united working class. We are all in this together and we will survive together or perish alone.

So we must not succumb to despair. We must remain steadfast in our resolve. We must not waver in our conviction. We must show compassion to our enemies, but we must also provide justice for our brothers and sisters who have been grievously wronged by our enemies. We must be willing to shed our blood, to die even, for this our sacred duty, so that those who have already died in defense of the promise of America shall not, as Lincoln said, have died in vain.

Monday, October 17, 2011

How the 1% Think

Reflections on Occupy Los Angeles

The Occupy Wall Street movement, like all radical movements, has obliterated the narrow political parameters. It proposes something new. It will not make concessions with corrupt systems of corporate power. It holds fast to moral imperatives regardless of the cost. It confronts authority out of a sense of responsibility. It is not interested in formal positions of power. It is not seeking office. It is not trying to get people to vote. It has no resources. It can’t carry suitcases of money to congressional offices or run millions of dollars of advertisements. All it can do is ask us to use our bodies and voices, often at personal risk, to fight back. It has no other way of defying the corporate state. This rebellion creates a real community instead of a managed or virtual one. It affirms our dignity. It permits us to become free and independent human beings.

Chris Hedges


Alma and I spent a good portion of both Saturday and Sunday at City Hall downtown to support the Occupy Los Angeles encampment. We each carried one of Alma's meticulously crafted signs. And we saw many great signs that others carried.

A revolutionary spirit infuses the air amidst the 2-300 tents that have sprung up on the lawn like so many mushrooms. There seems to be a sign or table for just about any political cause one can imagine, except for extreme right-wing, i.e., Nazi, thinking. The right wing is represented at OLA by groups associated with Ron Paul and Oathkeepers. The full spectrum of left wing groups are represented there, from the Wobblies (IWW) to the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). (RCP publishes a great newspaper called 'Revolution' to which I sometimes subscribe.)

Saturday, Alma and I stood with our signs displayed for motorists and pedestrians passing by. We did some of this also on Sunday. But on Sunday, our natural curiosity took over and we decided to investigate a little more closely the ways by which the OLA folks govern themselves. For make no mistake about it: what is happening with the Occupy folks in Los Angeles and countless other encampments across this country is a radical experiment in self government.

This experiment is not without its occasional moments of hilarity, both intended and unintended. Yesterday, at 6 p.m., Alma and I went in pursuit of the so-called 'Outreach Committee" because we were curious to find out what steps the OLA folks were taking to reach out beyond the block of City Hall. (They are making numerous efforts, as we would find out during the General Assembly later that night.) Alma and I walked to the South Steps where a band was playing rock and roll with amplified instruments. No Outreach Committee could be meeting there unless they would be conducting affairs entirely with sign language. Someone sitting at a table there pointed across the street (to the lawn of another City Hall building) where a group was gathered on the lawn and told us they thought that was where the Committee was meeting. So we ambled across the street and sat down at the outskirts of the group. It was using the 'human mike' whereby one person speaks short clauses and the entire group repeats those clauses. So it took awhile before we found out that we had actually stumbled upon the meeting of the Facilitation Committee which handles administration of the General Assembly.

By this point, our legs were weary from having walked the block 2-3 times. So, figuring that one committee was as good as another, we plopped down on the grass and listened as committee members (which we became by merely showing up) wrangled with proposals to make the General Assembly run more efficiently but also to ensure that all who wished to be heard could be heard.

A young black man with hair in dreadlocks was speaking animatedly when we came up and was countered by an older gentleman with long grey hair in a ponytail and a twinkle in his eye. (If I had not known it was 2011, I might have thought I was seeing Benjamin Franklin speaking.) They went around and around on the question of whether there should be any time limits on speakers or whether the speakers should be allowed to speak their peace, no matter the length. It was amazing to see the young people (and a few middle-aged folks like us) wrangle so energetically with the issue of whether questions should come before blocks, vice versa, or something in between. The decision was ultimately tabled for further discussion and the group broke up with a group hug.

Every so often, someone would say something and various members in the Committee would raise both hands above their heads and wiggle all their fingers vigorously. It was so endearing and I was to soon learn that this meant that the person listening, by wiggling their fingers, was signifying they agreed with what the speaker was saying. There were other arcane hand signals and verbiage (like 'Stack" and "Hard Blocks") that I am still struggling to understand. But this Committee meeting and subsequent General Assembly rank as one of the more moving experiences of my life.

The Occupy folks are using a form of direct democracy that I had never experienced personally before. Essentially, every member of the group (or 'General Assembly') must agree with a proposal before it can take effect. In other words, there is no attempt to secure just enough votes for a bare majority. If one person at the General Assembly holds their arms up in a crossed position, that is a hard block and the entire GA must  satisfy that 'blocker's' concerns for the proposal to achieve standing.

On one of our circuits around City Hall, I came across a hand-lettered sign someone had discarded. It held simply these words:

"That government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth."

Recognizing those words as the peroration of Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address," I propped the sign up against a tree trunk so that all who saw it might take heart.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sunday, October 9, 2011

My reflections on Occupy Los Angeles

My wife Alma and I have been in downtown Los Angeles the past two Saturdays, taking part in the 'Occupy Los Angeles' event.

I actually have mixed feelings about the Occupy phenomenon. While I find it inspiring, I remain somewhat skeptical about its ability to change anything substantial.

One percent of the U.S. population controls 40% of the productive assets of the U.S. And 10 percent of the U.S. population controls 80% of the productive assets of the U.S. But I hear nothing specific put of the Occupy jmovement that would alter in any signficant way these property relationships. There's little talk of taxing the shit out of people like the late Steve Jobs. And certainly no discussion whatsoever of confiscating or expropriating some or all of the property of the wealthiest families in the U.S. Without an alteration in the fundamental property relations, I am not sure that anything fundamental will change.