Monday, November 14, 2011

Hunkering Down: Reflections on Occupy Los Angeles, Nov. 12-13

November in Los Angeles often witnesses temperatures that drop sharply and clear skies that suddenly give way to dark clouds and occasionally heavy rains. This November has been no exception, although the Occupy Los Angeles encampment has thus far been spared any heavy rain. Alma and I returned after a two-week absence (due to both of us having had a cold last weekend) to OLA at City Hall for extended stays on Saturday and Sunday. It was nice to be back, but a trifle bitter-sweet.

We found the camp still well attended and populated although some old familiar faces were missing (like David and Eeva or Vance). There might have been a tad bit more open space than back in the middle of October, but certainly no more than 5% of the tents have folded – the grounds of City Hall still appear jammed with Occupiers. The camp does seem a bit more insular and grimy, understandable given the changing seasonality, such that many of the light-weight tents are now covered with heavier tarps and sheet plastic. This weekend we found evidence that a nascent ‘tribalism’ we had seen initial signs of on our last visit has now taken on physical shape, in the form of several smaller pup tents now being grouped together under a single tarp that swallow and envelops them. Several OLA occupiers I spoke with expressed some reservations about this latest housing trend. “We don’t know what’s going on [under those larger tarps],” said one, an indirect allusion to the oft-repeated OLA mantra of ‘transparency.’ He said it wistfully though, almost as if he regretted that atomization of Occupiers that seems to have occurred.

At 5:30 on Saturday night, I return to the Facilitation Committee (FC). An Occupier pulling a red wagon piled high with sleeping bags and blankets stops by shortly after we convene to see if anyone needs sleep gear. One young woman jumps to her feet, announces that her sleeping bag had been stolen the night previously, and gladly accepts a rolled sleeping bag the wagon-puller pronounces “fairly new and clean.

Despite a spate of such petty thefts in recent days – cell phones seem particularly prone to being “liberated” – morale among OLA Occupiers remains remarkably high. This weekend marks the beginning of their seventh week occupying. Brian, one of the new faces at Facilitation and originally from Denver, tells me before the FC meeting begins that OLA is beginning to experience a lot of problems with drugs and alcohol being consumed on site. “Some people are here only to party 24-7,” Brian says, “and they frequently antagonize those here to advance the Movement.” This theme – of developing splits between OLA’s Apollonians and its Dionysians -- I will hear repeated in various forms throughout the weekend.

But no one I meet speaks of quitting, of giving up. If anything, people speak of their absolute determination to see this through, to see that OLA is not undermined by agents provocateurs or by a descent into decadence. Those speaking most vociferously on this tend to hail from the generation of the 60s. They feel, as do I, that we have been waiting our whole lives for this revolutionary moment and do not want to see the movement fizzle for entirely preventable reasons.

Some 15-20 Occupiers are attending FC on Saturday. We begin by establishing an “Order of the Day” for the coming night’s General Assembly (GA). The OLA GA has the habit of beginning each night’s proceedings with a  15-minute discussion period. And a suggested topic for tonight’s discussion is a purported lawsuit that has been filed against the Los Angeles Police Department and other state and municipal agencies in the name of OLA. While Elena who is facilitating the FC says she saw the Summons and Complaint earlier that morning, she does not have a copy with her, nor does Jessica, the woman who has insisted that it be discussed tonight. Why the urgency? Because OLA never authorized itself to be named as a plaintiff to any legal action. As it happens, this proposed discussion topic meshes quite nicely with a proposal on the agenda for later in the evening and so Jessica rushes off to see whether she can secure a copy of the purported lawsuit.

With the topic of the 15-minute discussion pending Jessica’s return, we move on to assign roles for the GA. With only the sketchiest of understandings of what it will entail, I volunteer to serve as a ‘Shadow Moderator’. This is a promotion of sorts for me, as before now I have only served as time-keeper for the GA. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts and minds of men? Certainly not this Shadow Moderator. But there will be plenty of time for me to discover it. For the moment, though, I am beset by a bit of stage-fright, thinking that a Shadow Moderator must be something akin to the British Shadow Prime Minister. My fear tonight, as it happens, is mis-directed. Caroline, an OLA and FC veteran who will co-moderate tonight’s GA informs me that the Shadow Moderator basically serves as a ‘page’ to the GA, shuttling names and topics from the Stacks between Stacker and Moderator. Whew!

So, when the veteran Caroline calls FC the ‘shitty committee’ (a dryly hilarious quip that goes by so fast you would miss it if you were even momentarily distracted), she is referring to the hostility commonly directed at FC by OLA Occupiers unhappy with the substance or direction of a given discussion but not to the utter centrality of FC’s role.  One thing I notice that FC is doing correctly now is ‘thinking ahead.’ A procedural change sometime during the past two weeks requires that almost all proposals to come before the GA for consideration receive a 24-hour ‘airing-out’ period for discovery and deliberation at the Welcome Tent. (An exception remains for time-sensitive emergency proposals.) This procedural revision means that any proposal coming before the GA must acquire written form first, must answer 3 questions: “What, When and Why” and must remain at the Welcome Tent for perusal by anyone interested for 24 hours before coming before the GA. All of which is to say that FC can now look ahead to the GA the night following, at least with respect to proposals At a larger level, though, FC is now entrusted with executing a basic level of quality control over matters to come before the GA. If a proposal in writing and more than 24 hours at the Welcome Tent is under review but does not answer the three questions of ‘What, When and Why’ to its satisfaction, FC can now relegate the proposal to the appropriate committee possessing jurisdiction.. Hence, a proposal to create an anti-war Committee is bruited for Sunday’s GA and noted for inclusion on the FC agenda for Sunday. Already opinion is hardening against reifying anti-war sentiment in a committee form but Elena quickly brings such deliberations to a halt.

Jessica never does return with a copy of the purported lawsuit, so FC makes what turns out, in hindsight, to be a poor decision to allow the GA itself to decide the topic of discussion for the 15-minute discussion period. With that, FC adjourns to await the commencement of Saturday’s GA.

When GA begins, the introductory rituals (principles of solidarity, statement of non-violence, community standards and hand signals) are quickly dispensed with and, following the unity clap, co-moderators Caroline and Omar open stacks for topics to discuss during the 15-minute discussion period.

Here’s where a problem with too much participatory democracy first asserts itself, as a good 15 minutes is spent arriving at four possible topics of discussion. In other words, the Order of the Day morphs into something else entirely. With four possible topics, Caroline announces stacks are open for those who wish to discuss the first of the four. By that point, however, Occupiers interested in all four topics have already placed themselves in stack. In the failing light of evening, the stacker Shiyam and I squint at our tablets as we try in vain to maintain four separate sub-stacks and finally give in to necessity and simply compile a single aggregate stack. So the next 15 minutes are spent listening to speakers speak on a variety of different topics, not the single topic intended to galvanize the GA and forge a stronger spirit of community. Instead, think of the Saturday 15-minute opening discussion period as a glorified “Open Mic,” where each Occupier who put him- or herself on Stack can trot out his or her favorite hobbyhorse; I make a mental note to push for guided discussions when the FC next meets.

The discussion period concluded, a spate of routine Committee, Affinity Group and Individual Announcements follows. And we finally reach the Proposals section.

Trouble brews. A proposal is offered by Cody -- ‘The Resolution to Discourage Mis-Representation of Occupy Los Angeles' – that essentially mandates that no one can claim to speak officially for OLA without first obtaining the imprimatur of the GA. The intention behind the proposal is honorable and empowering to the GA. OLA does not want a person claiming to speak for OLA negotiating, for example, with the LAPD over its access to the camp, when that person has not been authorized by the GA to perform that role.

The problem is that the proposal is very loosely and generally worded. As I mentioned above, there has been a spate of petty crimes and hooliganism affecting OLA in the past couple weeks. Likewise, certain alleged petty criminals have come to OLA seeking refuge from the jurisdiction of municipal law enforcement. And some people claim membership in each group.

So objections and hard blocks quickly emerge to this proposal from Occupiers who wish to retain their ability to speak to the LAPD without the GA’s approval. Rather than table the proposal and send it back to the committee whence it originated (I still am not clear which Committee fronted the proposal), the Moderators allow the period of questions and concerns to continue unchecked. Cody remains to answer about half the questions. He suddenly disappears though, even though 15-20 Occupiers remain on Stack with questions and concerns. A host of self-appointed spokespeople in favor of the proposal starts trying to answer the questions and concerns. I make a note to push for the Proposal Presenter being mandated to remain available until all deliberations are concluded on any future presentation at our next FC.

There is an enormous amount of cross-talk, of heckling of the speakers, of a couple individuals rushing the mic and jumping stack (I know your names and who you are, you anti-democratic bastards) and of Occupiers threatening the continuation of the GA itself by their wild antics. Caroline and Omar try to maintain control. Caroline calls for two 3-minute periods of silence. But each time, those determined to block the proposal re-assert themselves. Finally, the motion as written is tabled and returned to its committee. (I subsequently learn that a concerted effort by a small group of Occupiers had determined to hard block the proposal using any means necessary.)

Alma subsequently points out to me that the proposal was rock solid and actually empowered the OLA GA and that those blocking it were mis-guided. Alma herself gets off one of the better quips of the evening (for my ears only): “Consensus doesn’t work when there are too many loose screws.” I honestly could not formulate an opinion on the proposal because I was too busy trying to help Shiyam police the stack and maintain order on the podium. Shiyam is a young woman whose wry expressions, continual aplomb in the face of pushy and rude occupiers and affable and genial disposition keep me from blowing my own stack (npi) at the blatant violations of process. I merely note violators and resolve to myself to address it at the next FC.

When the proposal is finally tabled after what seems hours of contention, I have two gentlemen who have been waiting in Stack to ask questions about it for 30-45 minutes. One of them, a young AA man who calls himself simply ‘O’ is razor-sharp and I quickly recognize his brilliance and sympathize with his frustration. The other, Burt, is an older white male who watches in frustration as the microphone is repeatedly hijacked and the process breaks down. I apologize to him personally for this total breach of decorum and say, “this is the first time I’ve ever seen this happen.” Burt seems unfazed, “I’ve seen it happen many times,” he dryly notes.

Susan next presents a second proposal to draft an ordinance prohibiting paid lobbyists from lobbying for city business while on city property, a push back to an ordinance being drafted (by the arch-villain CCA, I believe)  that would outlaw encampments like OLA.

This proposal has a much more civil debate, although at first temperature check, several people including myself use a hard block to prevent its passage. I am immediately accosted by a woman named Cheryl wearing a green army field jacket who demands from the floor that I defend my hard block. Mods seem amenable, so I simply point out that current law viz Citizens United recognizes that money equals speech. I am quick to announce that I think CU is ‘bad law,’ but that it strikes me that the proposed ordinance as drafted would seem to be to violate the CU decision. The occupier named ‘O’ also hard blocks on similar grounds. Gary, from Labor, hard blocks because of concerns that measure might be construed as anti-labor.

After much civil to-and-fro (during which PA is turned off to comply with OLA’s own rules governing amplified sound after 10 p.m.), Susan clarifies that the proposal merely seeks to secure GA’s blessing for its continued work on drafting the ordinance. With that clarified, “O”, Gary and I rescind our hard blocks and measure to allow continued drafting of ordinance for consideration by GA when language on several alternate drafts is complete passes by consensus.

Whew! Again, I am struck by how the beauty of the consensus process can be undermined by a few loud-mouthed individuals who are willing to violate stack, to become physically aggressive while meanwhile threatening those who attempt to push back with filing ‘assault charges’. I am spitting mad for myself, for Shiyam, for ‘O’ and for Burt and I will be making motions to censure formally two specific individuals that I witnessed violating process repeatedly and deliberately.

Sunday opens with clearer skies and warmer temperatures. Alma and I return to OLA at about 3:00 p.m. so I am there in time to attend the “Point-Person’s Coordination Committee’ Meeting *(PCC). This Committee, charged with coordinating efforts between all the various OLA committees, meets only on Sundays and Wednesdays. I attend as a self-designated point-person for FC. Good thing, as no one else from FC shows up Ideally, FC on Saturday would have designated a point person to attend but, having attended FC Saturday, I honestly do not think anyone knew we were supposed to. Indeed, I only found out about the meeting because Colin, working the Welcome Tent when I approached it, told me he had to attend. I dutifully followed him to the west steps.

After Emily, who is facilitating the PCC, has asked each of us to identify ourselves and our respective committees, I get an earful from various members over the conduct of the GA last night and the last several nights. Apparently, there is a perception out there that FC is restricting access to the microphone and refusing admission to stack. Ironically, one of the people making this latter charge herself jumped stack the previous night, but I do not have the presence of mind to remind her of this.

After a round-robin where each PPC attendee can make brief announcements, the meeting morphs gracefully into a ‘What next?’ discussion. Matt, from the Resources Committee, notes the crucial dialectic that OLA exemplifies: between those who seek ‘refuge’ (including the afore-mentioned 24-7 party contingent) and those who seek a ‘movement’ (the true believers who want OLA to focus on the financial industry and banks). There is a lot of back and forth discussion about whether OLA serves a valuable function as a shadow social-services agency or whether, in so doing, it risks wasting its energies upon the shoals of the general societal dysfunction that is 21st-century America.

Make no mistake about it; OLA is attempting to practice a very primitive form of communism. I have seen it first-hand with the gentleman disbursing sleep gear Saturday, with the volunteer cosmetologists dispensing haircuts to all on a first-come, first-served basis, to the Occupiers walking around with trays of sandwiches offering them to anyone without any question as to whether said Occupier were entitled. It is alternately heart-warming and bewildering. A large donation of tents and tarps had been received at Resources and a well-meaning individual had taken it upon herself to gather together some of OLA’s homeless to requisition said tents. The poor Occupier manning the Resources tent must have been terribly conflicted, as resources are supposed to be divvied up equally and not given to those who make the most strident demands. But for each PCC attendee who referred to the tent distribution as ‘theft’ from OLA, another PCC attendee would say that the homeless had an equally compelling claim upon those resources. Very little money changes hands among anyone at OLA, except for donations received at the Resources\Welcome tent. Everyone is doing everything for free. It’s really quite amazing to be liberated from the getting and spending routine, if only for a few hours.

So is OLA a ‘Movement’ or is it a Social Service agency? The question was left open but I thought the discussion itself was evidence yet again of how serious OLA and its Occupiers are. I was so deeply moved by the passion and commitment each person at PCC brought and found myself humbled in front of this spirit. I promised to take the PCC’s concerns about facilitation to FC which itself convened a short 30 minutes later.

When FC convened on Sunday night, I found myself one of only three people there who had experience as a Shadow Moderator, Caroline being the other. Because Caroline had been GA moderator Saturday night, only Candace and myself were left as possible Moderators for Sunday’s GA. So, yes, I volunteered to be a Moderator for the Sunday GA. Thankfully, Candace had moderated before. If I had stage fright on Saturday, I now had a full-blown panic. I had taught classes before but never more than a group of 15-20. And never with a requirement of consensus above all else. FC decided that the GA would begin with a 15-minute discussion in small groups on the topic of Transparency and Accountability. I was relieved that FC was designating said topic, rather than relying on the GA to decide upon one or more. And, as it happens, ‘Transparency and Accountability’ mean many different things to many different people.

GA begins at 7:30 p.m. and it is already growing dark now when it begins. I was concerned that I would be unable to read the Principles of Solidarity due to inadequate lighting and that I would violate process myself. So preoccupied was I with making sure I moderated appropriately that I left most of my anger at the previous night’s violations unmentioned. Interestingly, people on the PCC were discussing how to expel one of the two offenders I had noted and people on FC also have begun to consider disciplinary proceedings for gross violators. All of which is to say that I did not introduce my motions to censure the two Occupiers I had specifically identified.
And I suppose it’s just as well. For Sunday’s GA, I am happy to say, proceeded far more smoothly than Saturday’s. I cannot take much credit for this. Indeed, in announcing that the 15-minute discussion period would begin with occupiers breaking into small groups of 10 and selecting a ‘leader’ to speak for it, I inadvertently stepped on a semantic landmine. Turns out OLA is not big on the whole ‘leader’ thing. We are all leaders but no one is allowed to lead. That Zen paradox seems to encapsulate OLA thinking on the subject. I was quickly dis-abused of my linguistic mis-step by hecklers in the crowd who themselves were opposed to breaking into small groups.

One reason I think Sunday’s GA went so smoothly is that the stage was rearranged and designated speaking areas were taped off facing the South Steps. The result is that the Occupiers attending GA sat on the steps and the speakers and moderators spoke looking up at them, a neat replication of the ancient Greek proscenium, I imagine. It was beautifully pulled off by Michael in logistics and perfectly executed by my shadow moderator, the extremely knowledgeable Vanessa.

The one contentious proposal, for the GA to authorize the purchase of 20 gas masks for use by health and security staff in the event of a tear gas raid by law enforcement, went off smoothly, if only because the person presenting the proposal, Colin, graciously remained to answer all questions and concerns and affably accepted the friendly amendment that the 20 recipients of the masks be identified and the lowest-cost vendor be secured.

Candace was solicitous of me at all times and she and I communicated remarkably well to make sure we alternated speakers from each stack. The only thing I would change would be that the time keepers have a more obvious way to signal that times are up. Frequently, as moderators, Candace and I found ourselves having to use gentle nudges and touches on the backs of speakers to remind them that their times had expired. By and large, though, the speakers themselves were all to happy to relinquish the mic after being so nudged, a graciousness sorely lacking during Saturday’s GA.

When Sunday’s GA had concluded, several people congratulated me on how well the GA had gone and how well I had done. No doubt it was only with comparison to the bedlam that had ensued the night before, I think. And, really, I could not take hardly any credit for the GA’s success. As the moderator, I was its face perhaps (along with Candace), but it only went smoothly because so many people cared so much and worked so hard to make it happen. At the end of the GA, I collectively thanked the Occupiers and told them I hoped to return soon.

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