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.

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