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.

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