Monday, November 7, 2011

Distance Learning: Reflections on Occupy Los Angeles, Nov. 5-6

Alma and I both came down with colds last week. The worst of mine had ended by Friday, but even today I still have a lingering cough and occasional stuffiness. Just as mine was ending, Alma’s was beginning. (Funny how that works.) Alma was pretty distraught that we would not be able to attend Occupy Los Angeles in person this weekend. I might have gone by myself, but a wintry storm front moved through Southern California this weekend also, bringing colder temperatures and rains that alternated between light mist and steady drizzle.
One of the things I admire most about the Occupiers who camp at Los Angeles’ City Hall is their resilience and stamina. I know from first-hand experience that there is no easy way to warm up there when outside attending a General Assembly. True, Southern California does not have the winter extremes experienced by our colleagues on the east coast and Pacific northwest. But there’s something about the way a Los Angeles damp cold seeps into your bones. As that old 
Albert Hammond song would have it, “It never rains in California . . . it pours, man, it pours.”

This weekend Alma’s cold and my own tentative recuperation constrained us to experience Occupy Los Angeles at a distance via live internet video feeds. As it happens, this was the perfect weekend for it, because OLA Committees had scheduled full days of teach-ins both Saturday and Sunday. Virtual participation, I’ve found, is an experience alternately frustrating and exhilarating, as it can often appear that OLA’s reach exceeds its grasp on the technical front. Ah, but when the technology clicks and one watches a panel composed of Robert Scheer, William Black, Joel Rogers and (remotely via a separate real-time feed) Michael Hudson, one suddenly has a sense of what this movement can become with time and continued devotion. Move over, PBS and NPR. There’s a new dog in town and it actually represents the 99%!

So Saturday, November 5, was the infamous Bank Transfer Day. Personal confession here, I have not yet closed my accounts at Wells Fargo over some lingering concerns about how closing accounts would affect employees at those institutions and, frankly, a bit of laziness also. However, some consultations with folks over the weekend on this forum and others have now set me straight and cleared my thinking. So Wells Fargo shareholders are hereby warned, you’ll have two fewer accounts generating profits for you come this time next week!

Saturday morning began with a march from California Plaza to City Hall, a walk which, not coincidentally, took Occupiers and affiliated marchers through LA’s downtown financial district. I was not too upset to have missed this march, as I remember all too well the absurdity of marching through downtown on Saturdays during the latest Iraq War (2003-Present), when the streets of downtown LA would be little more than empty urban caverns, the only spectators the isolated Latino and Asian shopkeepers and their customers. Alma and I actually stopped marching in the downtown Saturday anti-war marches for that very reason, i.e., the expenditures of vast amounts of time, energy and money to preach only to the converted. Not saying such events don’t have their uses (and they did for us, at least at first, in that the mass marches validated for us our sense that we were not alone), but Alma and I ended up feeling we could affect public opinion more by participating in local anti-war vigils which we did conscientiously from 2004-10.

There were some moments of hilarity during this Bank Transfer Day march, at least based on what I saw from home. The funniest came at the downtown branch of Wells Fargo where several Occupiers entered the facility in order to close their accounts, only to have WF employees try to lower metal security gates and blinds with the Occupiers still inside. Would the Occupiers be allowed to leave without being arrested. We both held our breath and exhaled a huge sign of relief when protesters emerged unscathed and unarrested, their accounts at WF presumably now closed. According to some who were inside the WF facility, employees looked variously bewildered or panicked.

Saturday’s events continued after lunch with a teach-in on the economy that featured opening remarks by former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich and a panel moderated by Robert Scheer, Senior Editor at Truth Dig and former op-ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times. The Media group of OLA outdid itself during all phases of this teach-in and it was great hearing Reich ‘give ‘em hell’ and the panelists led by Scheer explain and analyse the causes of the current financial disaster.

I commented to Alma that the economy teach-in should be required viewing for all Americans of voting age. What made it more noteworthy was the use of General Assembly ‘Stack’ process afterwards whereby members of the audience could ask questions of the panelists and of Reich. For the most part, these Q&A exchanges were remarkably civil, a further example of how OLA has provided a forum for serious discourse from knowledgable and thoughtful participants. At one point, Robert Scheer took issue with someone who pooh-poohed the advances made in the past 30 years and thoroughly schooled the questioner in a somewhat-uncivil tone. But Scheer’s passion was balanced by those (like SCLC and Planned Parenthood), of whose achievements he was reminding the audience. Scheer’s larger message is that activism and involvement within the system can bring massive change of a progressive nature.

The presentation by William Black reminded us, as I’m sure was his intent, that we had been down this road before, during the S&L crisis of the Reagan years, which can now feel like a charming relic of a distant age. Not so, according to Black, who noted the vigorous use of the judicial system to right wrongs, while contrasting it with the current regime’s pathetic record in that regard.

We tried to watch the General Assembly on Saturday night by remote feed (through a haze of cold meds for each of us), but we had very bad connections as apparently did many others watching remotely. The audio and video feeds were down or choppy frequently. I gathered that a proposal was made and passed by consensus to “occupy” the Los Angeles Dodgers. That seems like something of a moot point, at least until Spring of 2012 at the earliest. But a definite sign that the movement is continuing to think ‘mainstream,’ even as public opinion polls show the larger Occupy’s popularity beginning to shrink a little under the constant onslaught of negative stories propagated by the corporate media.

For remote viewers, Sunday’s schedule began with a teach-in on Civil Disobedience at 11 a.m. that featured panelists from a wide spectrum of L.A.’s activist community. One of the panelists whose name I failed to note made the excellent point that each of the panelists represented an organization with structure and specific policy interests and that the virtue of the Occupy movement is that it had caused these organizations to ‘think outside of the box’ and place their own organization’s efforts in a larger context of broader societal needs. I was especially moved by Erick Huerte’s presentation on the Dream Act and how he and his schoolmates used CD to move the Dream Act forward in Arizona and California. (For those unfamiliar, the Dream Act recently signed by California Governor Jerry Brown allows undocumented children to pay in-state tuition at California’s public colleges, provided they meet all other admissions requirements.)

After lunch on Sunday, a panel convened on the topic of ‘Sustainable Living.” The most poignant presentation, I feel, concerned the South Central Farmers. At one point, a group of some 300 predominantly minority families farmed an 85-acre urban plot of land, the largest urban farm in the country. Wouldn’t you know it, the Los Angeles City Council decided that the farm had to end thanks to some leasing arrangement that pre-dated the farmers’ tenancy. LA County Sherriff’s performed an eviction in the face of substantial civil disobedience a few years back – I remember well listening to it go down on my local Pacifica radio affiliate – and the farmers were given other land as a substitute.

It so happens that these farmers, who used to set up a farmers’ market once per week on the lawn of City Hall that is now occupied, are now having problems making sales at their alternate locations and their case comes before the GA every so often. If about 10-15 Occupiers would relocate their tents one day per week, the problem would be solved. But consensus-building is a long, hard process and, thus far, as far as I know, the farmers’ plight continues.

My heart goes out to those hardy souls who braved the cold temperatures for Sunday night’s General Assembly. I had taken an anti-histamine before it began, so I faded in and out as it continued. At one point, the person running the video camera commented in the chat window that he could see his breath in front of him. I really wish there were some way the GA could be held indoors during the winter months or that OLA could figure out a way for people to quickly warm themselves up, as the inclement weather will put a damper on participation. By the end of Sunday’s GA, only some 30 Occupiers remained. I think the GA passed a measure involving the enforcing of a code of conduct for campers but by then the anti-histamines were in full force and I actually fell asleep with the laptop open on my lap.

We hope and plan to return to Occupy Los Angeles in person next weekend. I wish there were some way people could participate remotely, aside from chatting in the chat rooms that accompany the live stream. It would be great to be able to make proposals remotely or even to vote on them using your computer. But I feel like I actually learned more watching these live streams as I would have had I been at OLA in person. That is a tribute to the dedicated folks at OLA who presented quality content both days and, for the most part, delivered that content in ways that were accessible to anyone with an internet connection. Bravo!

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