Monday, October 17, 2011

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.

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