Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Everything that Rises Must Converge: Reflections on Occupy Los Angeles, Nov. 25-27

As Alma and I drove eastward on the 10 Freeway towards downtown Los Angeles on Sunday, I saw a light scattering of cirrus clouds in a mostly-blue sky. Los Angeles had been the beneficiary of a modest heat wave over the 3 days following Thanksgiving Day and so we each wore 3-4 layers of clothing that could easily be added or removed
We were going to downtown LA to support our brothers and sisters at Occupy Los Angeles (OLA) who had encamped at City Hall on October 1 and who now faced the threat of a forced eviction, based on a threat announced by Mayor Antonio Villagraigosa on Thanksgiving Day.

That threat culminated several days of contentious back and forth between OLA and the Mayor’s office. It should be remembered that, back in mid October, Villaraigosa had publicly and warmly welcomed the Occupation, a welcome seconded by the LA City Council in the form of a resolution recognizing the Occupation’s inherent right to petition for redress of grievances.

Since mid October, however, Villaraigosa and the City Council had grown tired of the Occupation with Villaraigosa saying that the Occupiers could not ‘stay indefinitely’ and with a key early backer, Councilperson Bill Rosendahl, announcing that Occupiers would have to leave.

In the two days prior to Thanksgiving, the city made an offer to a group from OLA’s City Liaison Committee (CLC) that essentially offered the Occupiers alternate space in return for the occupiers relinquishing their camp on the nourth, south and west lawns of City Hall. That offer had been debated by OLA’s General Assembly (GA) on Tuesday night but no official response ensued for various procedural reasons. When the CLC returned to negotiations on Wednesday, the mayoral delegation led by Deputy Mayor Matt Szabo informed the CLC that the offer was now ‘rescinded,’ for reasons that remain unclear.

The OLA GA subsequently rejected the offer at the GA on Wednesday night and published on its website a very eloquent explanation for why it had to reject the offer.

And so, on Thursday, as Angelenos snoozed over the remnants of turkey and stuffing, and Occupiers at the camp enjoyed Thanksgiving dinners donated by the communityd and ferried in to the camp, printed notices were placed on various trees in the camp that stated what hours the park was open and what hour s it was closed and that violaters were subject to arrest. Something of a panic ensued at OLA, as many Occupiers interpreted the notices as constructive notices of eviction.

Alma and I had not gone to OLA on Thursday, but we were paying close attention to events on the official OLA website (http://occupylosangeles.org) and various affiliated sites. Alma and I decided we had to break with our normal pattern of only visiting on the weekends and so we first went down on Friday, Nov. 25.

Another factor motivating us to return to OLA that Friday was that Mayor Villaraigosa and LAPD Chief Charlie Beck would be holding a press conference to update the city about plans for removing OLA and evicting Occupiers. When Alma and I arrived at City Hall, however, we found that we could not get into City Hall to attend the press conference.  (A couple OLA folk, I subsequently learned, did manage to attend and hilariously mic checked the Mayor and Police Chief.)

Instead, I return to the Facilitation Committee (FC), many of whose regular participants I have become close to over the past few weeks. Tonight Jared moderates the FC meeting and I agree to be his ‘Stacker’ (the person who keeps track of which order people speak) for contentious issues. When the meeting begins, word has reached the camp that Villaraigosa has set Monday, November 28, at 12:01 a.m. as the point after which the park will be closed and those who remain in violation of the law.

Much of tonight’s GA will focus on the impending raid, specifically preparations by a newly-formed ‘Raid Committee’ and legal work by the Legal Committee. But the GA’s Order of the Day contains some routine administrative business and some contentious issues as well. One contentious proposal of note is being brought by an individual who wishes the GA to dissolve the CLC for its failure to report back to the GA in a timely manner its secret negotiations with the city. This all has the whiff of “inside baseball”  to me but, according to some accounts, the CLC was stacked with members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and paranoia runs rampant at the camp that CLC may be negotiating terms that best benefit SEIU but not the camp as a whole.

During Friday’s GA, I am struck by a new seriousness of purpose and a sense of stubborn determination that has seized the Occupiers. Gone are the annoying and disruptive drum circles, the crowd is orderly and respectful of the semi-circle in which GA speakers and FC staff work and the break-out groups on the topic of raid preparations produce some awesome ideas. My little raid prevention breakout group is tasked with two items: 1) what a press release going out that night should say and 2) what we can do to defend the camp against the raid.

For task number 1, our breakout group ‘consenses’ (a neologism I believe that has been coined by the OWS movement) around stating that political figures who fail to act to stop the raid will pay a huge political price and that OLA’s wide support in the larger community, although currently dormant, will become active in the event. For task number 2, there are many great ideas. Alma suggests mobilizing visual documentarians like photographers to capture images of names and badge numbers of LAPD officers. Mike suggests we form scouting parties to venture 2-3 blocks out to see whether we can identify staging areas for the raid and report them back to the Raid Committee by cellphone in real time. Spenser suggests that we all use social networking tools to mobilize mass numbers to populate the camp, thereby giving authorities pause. And I, the student of military history, suggest that we thing out avenues of retreat and a base camp where OLA can regroup and recover.

The breakout group names me its spokesperson and I give a fiery 2-minute speech worthy, I hope, of Eugene Debs. The roar of the crowd in support and the waving jazz fingers seem to suggest I am not doing half-bad.

The contentious proposal to dissolve CLC ends up not producing the heat we predicted, because its author, John, decides to table it in the interest of freeing up more time for raid preparation. And the GA consenes around a proposal by a legal person to file for an injunction electronically in federal court over the holiday weekend, even though we do not have as yet the exact text of the injunction being sought. This is the spirit of individual and joint self-sacrifice that marks this movement. People routinely leave their egos behind in sacrificing to the needs of the collective. However, there is still more than enough ego to go around, as Saturday’s GA will show.

Morale at the camp remains quite high. Of the 600 tents that populated the grounds of City Hall at OLA’s height, I estimate that at least 500 remain. A few empty spaces exist now, the bare earth testimony to the tents that stood there for almost two months. Alma and I return on Saturday, November 26, bearing two 5-gallon jugs of water and some toilet paper, items for which demand is unquenchable. The folks at the Welcome and Food tents warmly welcome our donations.

Alma and I have taken to getting our daily exercise by walking the perimeter of the City Hall block several times and taking in the various sensory delights and nightmares. In the latter category surely must rank the Porta-Potties, groups of which exists in three locations. You can smell them before you see them and they are, as might be expected, not a paragon of hygiene. I remark to Alma after using one to take a leak that it felt as though I were entering the anteroom of Dante’s Inferno.

Such petit-bourgeois considerations aside, the visual stimulations are still too numerous to catalogue, from the sign-making corner at Temple and Spring where a group of Occupiers generate signs on multiple topics to the silk screen press, where T-shirts emblazoned with the 99% logo are free for the taking. Everywhere, people are talking, to one another individually, in small groups and committees and in a larger, informal “People’s Assembly,” a sort of round-robin open mike. When I stop to think about it, the amount of political discourse going on inside the boundaries of this city block probably outweighs any other locale in the city.

At 5:30, I return to FC where I again stack, this time for Esteban. This night has a crowded agenda with 7-8 proposals to come before the GA, some of them of an ‘emergency’ status. Normal proposals are required to wait through a 24-hour public comment period before being considered by GA, but emergency proposals (those deemed by FC to legitimately be time-sensitive) do not face the 24-hour requirement.

One of the early backers of OLA, Councilman Bill Rosendahl, also has asked to address the GA and FC is asked to find a time slot where he can safely speak. Rosendahl has been receiving death threats in the past week as his backpedaling on support for OLA has enraged some of his constituents. (For the record, Rosendahl is my councilperson and I have left numerous voice messages with his staff and received not one call back.) So the first 60 minutes of Saturday’s FC are devoted to trying to find a specific spot in the agenda where Rosendahl can speak. (According to the person bringing the suggestion, Rosendahl will only speak at a designated time because of the death threats. This smells like rubbish to me but, because I am against stacking FC, I keep my opinions for the most part to myself.

Fortunately, I do not have to utter my opinions as there are plenty of people at FC who share my reservations about Rosendahl’s getting special privileges, merely because of his earlier record of supporting OLA. While it is true that OLA has granted special consideration to other ‘celebrities’ in the past, like Deepak Chopra and Russell Simmons, each time we knew what the person wanted to say to GA. In this case, we have only the vaguest representations of what Rosendahl will say. Supposedly, he will tell us a way that we can stay in the camp without being raided. This is the carrot dangled before the GA, that a savior from the political class will descend from Mount Olympus to rescue OLA from the storm clouds that are roiling its horizon.

There are enough folks present who refuse to take the bait, though, and who insist that Rosendahl wait his turn, just as any regular citizen would. The debate goes round and round, back and forth, and many newcomers to FC express frustration that the matter takes so long to resolve. The discussion (and the 60 minutes spent discussing it) is rendered moot when Rosendahl or his representative calls to inform us that he is withdrawing his offer. My bullshit detector is in the red zone now, as Rosendahl’s withdrawal mirrors the withdrawal of the offer by the city a couple days earlier. (My misgivings prove entirely well-founded when Rosendahl appears at the People’s Assembly the next day to tell OLA that it must leave.)

We next take up emergency proposals, including one to designate the National Lawyers’ Guild our sole legal representative. This has been occasioned by rumors that the federal injunction, filed by someone working with the Legal Team, has brought OLA’s relationship with the NLG into question. Why is this important and an ‘emergency’? Because various Occupiers plan to get arrested during the raid by committing civil disobedience. Indeed, much of the raid planning has involved splitting Occupiers into those who plan to get arrested and those who do not. However, people planning to get arrested need to have relative assurance that they will have legal representation so locking down the NLG’s status is considered of crucial importance. Much time is spent debating where this proposal should appear in the Order of the Day. We finally consense around making it the first of the emergency proposals, a decision that will again prove moot, as the person making the proposal is nowhere to be found when his time comes to present it to the GA.

Indeed, tonight’s FC is showing cracks in the process of proposal-making and agenda setting. One can get a proposal onto the agenda with no requirement that the person making the proposal actually be there to present it. FC wastes a lot of time debating how to order proposals, only to see the supposed proposer fail to show up. I guess this is part of the nitty gritty of politics, but it strikes me as amateurish. (I will get a chance to exact a measure of revenge on Sunday. So much for ego vanishing before the needs of the collective.)

Not every proposal on the agenda is of an ‘emergency’ or even ‘policy’ nature. Anthony, a genial and a bit scruffy young man, has authored a routine common-sense proposal to require committees to report back to the GA twice per week or risk being terminated by the GA is on the agenda. (As of this writing, the OLA GA had authorized some 40 committees.) This is common sense, because many committees are not functioning. If they are functioning, they  seldom regularly report back. At its most malignant, committees like the CLC are conducting business crucial to OLA but reporting back only sporadically if at all. This measure will impose a reporting requirement upon any committee.

But when this proposal comes before GA, it quickly becomes apparent that it is anything but routine. Despite Anthony pointing out the absurdity of a Volunteer Committee wit no volunteers, several people hard block the proposal for various procedural grounds, such as who will be monitoring the committee report backs and how often committees will be required to report back. Anthony is willing to accept some friendly amendments that make his proposal language more specific, but hard blocks remain for reasons that are unclear to me but probably have to do with certain committees feeling threatened and on the defensive.

A proposal defining one of OLA’s objectives as ‘ending corporatism’ finds consensus, as does an emergency proposal from Dele, a soft-spoken African, to make a call to local clergy to speak in defense of OLA. The person proposing that the NLG be made OLA’s official representative is nowhere to be found and his proposal is tabled.
Sunday, November 27, the OLA camp has the feeling of high noon about it. Alma and I take our daily walk and notice that the number of empty tent sites has increased somewhat over night. OLA has been doing a good job of disseminating warning to people with outstanding warrants and questionable immigration statuses that they may not want to be on site when the raid comes. And there are a certain number of Occupiers who shy away from any contact with police for reasons only they know. However, my estimate that 500 tents remain is corroborated by a piece in the Los Angeles Times by a sometime sympathetic columnist whose numbers seem to resemble mine. On a humorous note, Alma and I have parked at a lot on 2nd and Spring St., a block down from the Times building. As we walk to OLA, I stop in at the Times to hand-deliver a copy of the first issue of the Occupied Los Angeles Times to the startled somnolent security guard manning the front entrance. The 4-page issue uses the same fonts and typeface of its parent publication and I think it only fitting that folks at the Times (currently operating in bankruptcy) understand there is a new sheriff in town.
Well, there are a few more people than normal there at 3:30, as Alma and I begin our walk. And we meet several familiar faces while walking and share contact information with them so we can stay in touch after any raid occurs. But at 5:30, when I go to FC to stack again, nothing suggests what we will be seeing during the night’s GA.
I agree to be a shadow moderator for tonight’s GA, which will be moderated by the veterans Jared and Elena. A shadow moderator functions as a page of sorts, shuttling names of people in stack from the stackers to the moderators in a timely manner so as to keep the GA flowing with few awkward breaks. It sounds simple but can get very complicated quickly when there are contentious proposals with lots of hard blocks or when the GA has many people attending who wish to speak. I am glad that I have brought 2 little notebooks with me, as I will need a lot of blank paper before the night is through.
As opposed to the previous night’s contention over Rosendahl’s appearance, tonight we are graced with the presence of anti-war activist and celebrity Ron Kovic (of Born on the Fourth of July fame) who wishes to address the GA during its opening minutes. There is quick consensus reached on this and Ron hangs around the FC quietly watching the give and take as we settle on the order of the day. Ruth is facilitating this FC and I am stacking and Ruth has a way of imposing discipline on the discussion that makes stacking a breeze. Likewise, because Jared and Elena, our moderators for tonight’s GA, have both done it many times before, we are able to settle on roles for the GA and our Order of the Day quickly.
 When the proposal to make the NLG the official representative of OLA is again fronted to FC, I remind everyone that its proposer was nowhere to be found the night previous despite the proposal being labeled an 'emergency.' I thereby move to put the NLG proposal last on the agenda but am over-ruled for what I think are compelling reasons having to do with the need for those facing arrest to be secure in their legal representation. As it happens, much of this debate proves moot also, as the Director of the LA NLG, Jim Lafferty, appears in person to state publicly his organization's full support of OLA and its arrestees.
Our breakout groups will be discussing the topic of “Why We Occupy”. But the real highlight of the GA, I think, will be the presentation by the Raid Committee and its various sub-committees (like Tactics or Bail).
I am proved wrong. The real highlight of the night’s GA is the 3—4,000 people who attend. Alma is seated on the stairs and she tells me that, as the GA begins, she can look out to see the two diagonal sidewalks that converge on the plaza full of people. The plaza itself is packed. It’s the most people I’ve ever seen at a GA, and I can see that others from FC are similarly taken aback at how we failed to anticipate the huge turnout.
But the crowd is remarkably civilized. The GA on Sunday passes three measures by consensus, incredible given the huge turnout. The Raid Committee does not fail to impress either as it discusses GA-sanctioned civil disobedience and messaging. And bail and the need for donations.
Again, though, the real highlight is the huge turnout. And the quality of the speakers. Jose, from Occupy Orange County, is here to tell us that we never needed all the material goods, we only needed each other. Elissa, from the Action Committee, tells us it is our duty to fight, it is our duty to win. Lauren, from the Peace in Action Affinity Group, asks us to look up beyond the lights on City Hall, up beyond the lights of the police chopper that sends its blinding searchlight into our midst, to the starts and to remember Martin Luther King’s statement that “The universe is on the side of justice.” Although I am shadow moderating, I find myself also weeping inexplicably at odd moments and have to bring my arm up over my eyes to compose myself.
Ron Kovic’s opening remarks set the tone for the evening. The rhapsodic quality of Kovic's remarks evoke the memory of the 56,000 who died in Vietnam on behalf of a lie and that we, the Occupy Movement, with the eyes of the world upon us, are fulfilling the unkept promises of that long-ago decade. The crowd roars its approval and Kovic backs his wheelchair out to the perimeter with all the other folks. I had brought the poem ‘America’ by Tony Hoagland to read to the crowd as a sort of elegy or valedictory, but in the end there was no need. This was raw poetry in the flesh and William Blake, Percy Shelley, Walt Whitman, W.H. Auden, Carl Sandburg, there spirits all were represented in this crowd.
Why were there 3-4,000 people that night? Charlie Beck, the LAPD police chief, now admits that this is one reason the LAPD did not raid that night. Turns out the folks in Media had put word out on Twitter of an Eviction Block Party. Apparently, that tweet was read by some 16 million world-wide. Only a small fraction of those showed up, of course, but it was enough to deter the LAPD from raiding as the clock struck midnight.

The police said the park would be closed at 12:01 and, yes, they did come en masse at midnight, especially after a contingent of protesters defiantly marched in the streets and intersections. The ranks of LAPD, attired in their riot gear, reminded me of a scene from Star Wars and imperial troopers. We bumped into their cordons on our way back to our car and had to beat a retreat and take a circuitous route to reach our car. (The irony is that LAPD Police Chief Charlie Beck said he wanted people leaving OLA ‘voluntarily.’ But when the time came, the LAPD quite rudely refused to let us leave heading southward along Spring. And their white officers kept making disparaging remarks about civil liberties and OLA.)

Finally, the LAPD did arrest 4 individuals who refused to stop blocking an intersection at 1st and Main after receiving an order to disperse. But the LAPD never entered the camp. At 8 a.m. the following Monday, the tents still stood. And there was a regular GA Monday night. Would a raid be coming? Some informed speculation was that it might happen as early as Wednesday, in the absence of an injunction. For now, though, OLA stood unscathed and unbowed.

No comments:

Post a Comment