Tuesday, November 22, 2011

People’s Mic Poetry: Reflections on Occupy Los Angeles, Nov. 18-20

So much has happened with the Occupy Movement in the past week, from the most banal to the almost transcendent. The mood on the ground at Occupy Los Angeles (OLA) seems to change from day to day from exuberance to dejection. Alma and I have actually taken to watching each weeknight’s General Assembly (GA) of OLA via Livestream\Ustream broadcasts. Although we cannot participate directly or vote on proposals, the streams typically have a chat window where we can chat with the person doing the video streaming and others who are watching, thereby participating in an interactive spectator’s gallery of sorts.
On the mundane level, the person who had lent his Public Address equipment to OLA has since recovered it. And thus last week each GA had to be conducted using the so-called “People’s Mic,” a call and repetition system where the speaker says 4-6 words and then waits while the assembled crowd repeats the words back. Ironically, this retreat to low tech has produced an eerie and oddly moving echo effect that defies precise description. There have been several times during this past week where I swore to myself that I was hearing a new American poetry, of simple plain-spoken eloquence, willing itself into existence before my very eyes and ears. (So strong is this poetic effect that I have written my first poem in 20 years.)

Friday night’s GA (Nov. 18) was no exception. The Occupiers assembled on the broad plaza of the South steps after at least 47 of them had been arrested at the previous day’s “Day of Action” against the banks and financial sector. Many of those arrested had been bailed out or released on their own recognizance by the time of Friday’s GA. But at least 2 – one with outstanding warrants and a second who would only identify himself to the Los Angeles Police Department as “John Doe” -- still remained behind bars.

How can this not be poetry? One of the Occupiers regales the crowd with the story of his confrontation with LAPD at the Bank of America plaza in the heart of the financial district (on the ironically named ‘Hope Street’). “We had,” this Occupier said, “about 45 minutes to conduct a Teach-In of the police before we were arrested. I said to the line of cops, ‘Would you rather have pizza with us or shoot tear gas at us?’” As he regaled the crowd on Friday night, this Occupier said he saw one policeman in line smile. The police officer who smiled had coincidentally an Italian-sounding surname “Maldonado” and the Occupier continued to joke with him about how much he would rather have a pizza than shoot tear gas. By the end of the exchange, Maldonado was openly laughing and several others in the line of riot cops had started smiling and laughing also.

This occupier’s point was that dialogue and interaction with the ‘person’ who wields the baton humanized the showdown and caused the cops to see the protesters as human beings with the result that his group of 5-6 protesters who were subsequently arrested for trespassing on BofA property were not brutalized. And my point to you is that, had I not seen and heard this anecdote regaled with cadence and response\repetition with my own ears and eyes, I could never have stated plainly that this IS a new American poetry. Both my wife and I were in tears by the end at the absolute pathos and the music in the words. Indescribable in prose.

More poetry. A different Occupier asked a cop directly: “What will you tell your grandchildren when they ask which side of the line you stood on?” This Occupier, another scruffy-looking young man, told those assembled that he saw the officer begin to weep before the arrests started, such that that officer’s supervising sergeant had to come over to pat the officer’s back and reassure him everything would be all right.

And you want to know a secret? I have only detailed the tiniest tip of the iceberg. These anecdotes, poetic in themselves and even more so in the telling, came fast and furious at the Friday night GA. (Thursday night's GA was also replete with these accounts of latter-day heroism in the face of overwhelming police power.)

Alma and I returned on Saturday as heavy storms started to move into the Southern California region. We found the tents still standing. The colder temperatures we’ve had recently may have driven down the number of encamped Occupiers a little bit, but the energy of those who remained more than compensated for any who had departed. We arrived at about 4:00 p.m., shortly after a huge Health Fair had wound up. This Health Fair had taken over the block of Temple St. to the immediate east of City Hall with various mental and physical health specialists brought in to assist anyone at the camp who desired their assistance. I think there were also some Social Workers there to help any of the homeless who were encamped at OLA transition into more permanent quarters if they were so inclined.

At 5:30, I dutifully returned to the Facilitation Committee (FC). Here, though, I got a bit of a reality check. One of the FC regulars, a sober and taciturn young man in a navy pea coat named David, said he did not think we would be able to have a GA that night because there were not enough people present to administer it. He pointed specifically to the question of who would moderate it. “You,” he said pointing to me, “are the only person here who have ever moderated a GA before. And you can’t do it alone tonight, because there is a very contentious proposal to come before the GA.” David did not consider himself yet well-versed enough to moderate the GA because there are now new rules as to who can moderate. I apparently have been grand-fathered in because I moderated before these rules came into existence. The main rule is that you must moderate 2 meetings of FC before you can moderate a GA. I have never moderated a meeting of FC but I did moderate the GA on November 13.

David’s worries prove premature, as enough people (experienced and otherwise) trickle in late to FC that we eventually have enough people to run the GA. David is moderating this FC and I am ‘stacking’ it (basically, a stacker keeps the queue of speakers on any given topic). Caroline and Anthony, two long-time regulars, agree to moderate GA. Two more long-time regulars, Dele and Colin, agree to stack the GA. Two new-comers (Greg and Christian) agree to ‘shadow-stack’ (assist the stackers). Mitchell, stolid and unflappable (and whom I remember from last Sunday’s FC), agrees to be timekeeper. And I volunteer to serve as ‘shadow moderator,’ a role I have already served.

Roles for the GA established, we next turn our attention to the “Order of the Day.” The hot topic is this contentious proposal of who is authorized to speak on behalf of the GA to outside groups and individuals (like the LAPD or city administration, for example) when the GA is not in session. This proposal has been kicked around and presented several times under various names, each time being tabled because of strong objections. Tonight will prove no different. Over the past few weeks, various OLA individuals and groups have allegedly been talking and negotiating on OLA’s behalf with city officials and with the LAPD without first being authorized by GA to do so. Or at least it is rumored that such is happening. The back-biting and acrimony have reached the point where members on the City Liaison committee, officially charged by GA with negotiating with the city, now routinely refuse to speak in front of GA for fear of being attacked verbally and physically.

This fear of physical attack has caused Alma to worry a good deal about GA moderation, to the extent we had agreed that I would not moderate GA again until the GA was made more secure for speakers and FC members running it. Mitchell allays those fears somewhat but stokes new ones by pointing out that LAPD has so many undercover cops on site that there would be no violence allowed to reach that point. A crucial dialectic exposes itself though: too much order (undercover LAPD cops) vs. not enough order (mayhem and violence at the GA). I have to say that currently the scale tilts toward the latter, not the former. But Mitchell may be right. He camps at the site and has a far more nuanced perspective on dynamics than do Alma and I.
While FC establishes its Order of the Day, a few light rain drops begin to fall. Alma and I have come equipped, each of us wears at least 4 layers of clothing on our upper body and Alma sports her long lined trench coat while I am wearing my winter coat with hood. We had brought our umbrella with us also, and Alma opens it up. However, even though Alma is wearing boots, her feet refuse to stay warm on the cold concrete of City Hall.

The GA will commence with routine procedural matters followed by a 15-20 minute discussion of the topic of ‘Leadership in a Leaderless Movement.’ A last minute suggestion by Greg has FC decide (with some adverse consequences to continuity) to put the contentious Proposal before Committee Announcements. The motives for so doing are laudable. It is cold and threatens to rain and the idea is to have the proposal discussed by as many folks as possible before cold and rain (if it comes) drive them away. The downside, which I only realize after the fact, is that Committee spokespeople may not feel a burning desire to hang around for the outcome of the contentious proposal discussion. But that is for later.

We amble over to the south steps from the north steps where FC had met. My notes at this point go into overdrive: FUCKING DRUM CIRCLE. ASSHOLES. BRINGING AIR HORNS NEXT TIME. What this refers to is that on the plaza in front of the south steps a group of drummers are banging away on their various percussion implements while surrounded by a small group of dancing Dionysians (as I refer to them). It is broadly understood that GA will commence and is now commencing. Do the drummers stop? No. They are surrounded by perhaps 10 Occupiers but they keep banging away, to the point where those on the steps like Alma cannot hear the speakers even though prodigious use of the people’s mic attempts to be heard over the drums. I silently resolve, in full accord with David’s suggestion, that tomorrow night I will bring one of those compressed-air gadgets they use at sporting events. I think they’re called air horns.

I am really pissed off at this display of self-indulgent expression. Although the drummers claim they want ‘respect,’ Alma suggests that what they really want is ‘control’ and ‘attention.’ The drummers keep up this display for about 45 minutes and are only stopped when Mother Nature decides to do some serious drumming of Her own, in the form of rain (thereby giving concrete form to the aphorism that every cloud has a silver lining.) Drummers pack up their instruments and head for the shelter of their tents. Good riddance to bad rubbish, I’m thinking. Assholes.

By the time the drummers have been silenced, we have started the 15-minute Leadership discussion in small groups of 8-10 people. My group features an awesome range of opinions. I fail to make note of more than 1-2 specifically because I am busy coordinating shadow moderation with mods and stackers and shadow stackers. In my group, Julia notes that any leader needs to be subject to recall. When it is my turn to speak, I second Julia’s point and talk about the value of ‘checks and balances’ on any accretion of power. A disruptor in our group keeps interrupting and gets contentious when called upon it.

And now the contentious proposal. For the edification of those who cannot attend an Occupy in person, I am pasting in the entire text of the proposal as originally written:

–Proposal to make a public statement and hold a press conference– (Proposal for Transparent and Responsible Communication)
Why: The General Assembly is the only body that speaks and makes decisions for the OLA movement as a whole. The General Assembly has already agreed that no individual or group has the right or responsibility to negotiate or contract for, or speak on behalf of OLA as a whole, without the explicit consent of the General Assembly. The public, including the public servants, should be notified of this reality.
What: The General Assembly of OLA should issue the following public statement—
1) The General Assembly is the only body that speaks and makes decisions for the OLA movement as a whole. This assertion includes the idea that anyone, especially those in a public servant class largely bought off and, at this point, deeply disloyal to the spirit of their oaths and to the lives, liberties and general welfare of We the People (i.e. Police, Mayor, City Council, FBI, President, Congress etc.), that seeks to gather, understand or engender a decision for action or statement from the OLA movement as a group should seek it through the open General Assembly process.
All individuals or groups involved in OLA are inherently still free within their autonomous rights to speak and act as they so choose with and to anyone or any institution. However, this shall serve as notice that any communication or agreement with an individual or group shall not be recognized to represent OLA as a whole, unless it has been given the explicit consent of the General Assembly.
2) Those seeking to communicate directly with, inform, influence or negotiate with the OLA movement must understand that the legitimate, dignified and proper way to do that is through the open General Assembly process. They, including any governmental groups (i.e. the City Council, Police, Mayor, Congress, President, Homeland Security, FBI etc.) that seek to communicate with OLA are encouraged to attend the General Assembly and/or its committees and abide by its process.
We would invite and expect any publicly-employed servants who desire to communicate with the OLA movement as a whole to come be heard in our open General Assembly, just as they would ask us to come to their meetings to be heard during public comment. Our decision-making body, because of its open, deliberatively inclusive and participatory principles, no matter how rough in progress it might be, is quickly becoming a much more legitimate and lawful proceeding than the corporate-sponsored, criminal activities, fronted as public process inside many government buildings.
This is an official invitation for the publicly-employed servants to speak openly, articulately and plainly about what their desires and concerns are in all of this (i.e. what they are concerned about in terms of the City Hall lawn space, if they want to suggest or negotiate a change of form or venue for the lawful and peaceful assembly, or what kind of world they want their children to live in etc.). They, of course, have the rights, just as we all do as individuals or groups, to engage in private conversations, idea huddles, rumor mongering, media-managed messaging, implied political threats, coalition building, faction playing or any other such unsubstantiated forms of communicating about and within an open political process. However, they cannot expect this to be received as any type of official communication. It is beneath even them to approach We the People, under this assumption.
3) We assert that no one has the right, especially a public servant, to imply, threaten, initiate or participate in a use of violence (i.e. unlawful force) in response to an assembly of peaceful people. Any public servants or private individuals, including agent provocateurs, found to be engaged in implying, threatening, initiating and/or participating in a use of violence (i.e. unlawful force) against an assembly of peaceful people can and will be held responsible to the full extent of criminal and civil accountability under the laws of the State of California and the U.S. Federal government.
As former Philadelphia Police Captain Ray Lewis said recently in New York in regards to the NYPD, “You should, by law, only use force to protect someone’s life or to protect them from being bodily injured OK? If you’re not protecting somebody’s life or protecting them from bodily injury, there’s no need to use force.”
4) City Hall, Police, and other local Governmental agencies, whether in collusion with so-called ‘Homeland Security’ or not, have said that they want to “help” us find an exit strategy. What is really going on here is that We the People are lawfully and peaceably assembled in public space, seeking, at minimum, a full redress of grievances for the government’s criminal mistreatment of the people and fraudulent allocation of fiduciary responsibilities. Additionally, We the People, are in the process of opening a window of opportunity (i.e. an exit strategy) for our public servants who desire a way out of the cesspools and sinkholes of criminality and other high corruption that we have allowed our governments to become.
We hope that all people occupy the ethical depths and creative horizons of their hearts and minds, and come join with their fellow companions of good faith assembled here in the open. Together we can cooperate to lawfully and peacefully arrest the ongoing corruption and criminality, and rebuild our homes, communities, states, nations and world.
The public statement outlined in the “What” section of this proposal shall be read, in its entirety, into the public comments section of a City Council meeting within one week. Additionally, a paper copy of the statement shall be delivered to the office of each member of City Council, the Mayor, the Los Angeles Chief of Police, the LA Times and the Central City Association of Los Angeles. If there is time and desire, this delivery can be extended to the Dept. of Homeland Security and other Federal Agencies.
OLA will organize and call a press conference as soon as possible following the passing of this proposal and read this public statement as well as other public statements consented to by the General Assembly. Additionally, other subjects can be addressed in the manner described below:
-The press conference will be moderated and introduced by Facilitation following a process similar to the General Assembly, containing a series of announcements with questions and answers for each announcement.
-The press conference will take place on the South steps, span 2-3 hours outside of normal General Assembly time (i.e. 9am-12 or 2-5pm).
-PR and Media will be responsible for notifying the press, and recording and live-streaming the press conference.
-Stagecraft will be responsible for setting the stage and any PA equipment.
-Stacks will be opened after every announcement for a few questions and answers.
-Announcements will start with General Assembly-consented public statements that have been submitted to Facilitation 24 hours in advance.
-The press conference will then proceed to announcements of General Assembly-consented actions or process, which also need to be submitted to Facilitation 24 hours in advance.
-It will then proceed to Committee announcements, 1 per each Committee, who will make it clear that they are speaking on behalf of a Committee.
-If there is time left over, stacks can open to additional questions or comments.

Because we are using People’s Mic, Jeremy uses about 5 minutes to read the entire text while the rain continues and people strain to hear. The moderators ask for Questions of Clarity and there are several (about the proposed press conference, about the tensions between polemic and. action) and several concerns disguised as questions of clarity. Jeremy and Laurie respond to them. Next come Concerns and there are several (length, tone, and press conference). Although experienced, the moderators announce they will have 3 speaking for and 3 speaking against mixed in with these Concerns, so it gets confusing as to exactly where we are in process. Anyone with a concern can speak but also we need 3 speaking for the proposal and 3 speaking against.

By this point, I am feeling utterly bewildered as to exactly what is being proposed for, as he hears each Concern expressed, Jeremy agrees to modify the proposal’s language. By the end, I no longer have a clear understanding of what we will be voting on, should it come to that. Not to worry though, for Caroline informs me that we do not ‘vote,’ we merely decide. Somehow I do not take much comfort in that semantic distinction.

The moderators take a first temperature check following the section of concerns There are numerous people signaling opposition and numerous hard blocks. So we break out into small discussion groups. Our break out group (Me, attorney Frank, Shadow Stacker Greg, thin Richard) is unanimous in disagreeing with it. Frank is designated as our group’s spokesperson. Frank wants to take the proposal and reduce it to a simple two-sentence declaration: The GA is the sole legitimate spokesperson for OLA. All communications from the GA must be in writing in order to be legitimate.

Upon reconvening, each group signals its approval or disapproval through its spokesperson. Frank signals our disapproval. Other groups signal strong approval. Proposers respond to our group and others groups’ concerns by editing language of proposal on fly in the rain. By the time they are finished, my sense that I no longer feel I understand what is being proposed has grown even more pronounced Crowd seems to want to rush it through. Caroline asks for a temperature check. I and many others are using the chopping arm motion to signal our concerns. But because we haven’t hard blocked, Caroline and Anthony announce that consensus has been reached. There’s a huge outcry from the crowd at this – I and Frank and many others immediately change our gestures of concern to hard blocks and, in return, receive the crowd’s hostility for so doing.

I am asked to explain how the proposal, as modified on the fly tonight, threatens group solidarity. I say there is a principle that you don’t vote on a proposal without final language and that none of us any longer know exactly what we are voting for. (I had previously suggested proposal be tabled for wording revision for exactly this reason.) And that I will walk away from the movement if it passes such an important measure based upon vague promises of the proposer to edit the proposal subsequent to the vote.

Much anger from the crowd (but also many people making jazz fingers at my statement.) Whatever. I am prepared to walk away from OLA if this measure in its current disheveled state passes. Fortunately, I am not alone. There are many other hard blocks and the proposer eventually accedes to what I had suggested an hour earlier: to table the proposal and bring it back Sunday.

The energy of the crowd sapped by the proposal discussion and continuing rain, only a few hardy souls remain for announcements. And only a couple people remain to make announcements. The Saturday GA dissolves without much in the way of a formal adjournment. But I consider the discussion to have been incredibly valuable to all who participated, including us hard blockers.

On Sunday, I submit suggested revised proposal via online portal during the day on Sunday. Here’s my suggested revision:

Modified Language

The General Assembly (GA) of Occupy Los Angeles (OLA) is the sole body that makes decisions for OLA.
Therefore, be it noted that, as of today and henceforth, only communications in writing duly authorized and issued by the GA shall have legitimacy with any outside body or individual when GA is not in session.
Be it further noted that, at its sole discretion, the GA may from time to time authorize designated OLA groups and OLA individuals to speak on the GA’s behalf with outside groups and individuals. Only those OLA groups and OLA individuals carrying and presenting written authorization issuing from the GA shall have legitimacy to speak for OLA. All other groups and individuals speak only for themselves.
While GA is in session (nightly from approximately 7:30 – 10 p.m.), certain official communications may issue from GA by consensus of those convened.


I never get a chance to present and defend my suggested revision. The light rain of Saturday turns into a torrential downpour mid-day Sunday. Power goes out to our building and my car is trapped in our garage. When power comes back on, it continues to rain hard and is now cold and dark. Alma and I make a strategic decision to stay home and watch via GA via Livestream. We are thwarted in even that plan, as there are technical difficulties stemming from the rain that prevent broadcast of Sunday’s GA. I understand the contentious proposal again did not meet consensus but this time had only a single hard block. As I write on Tuesday (Nov. 22), I remain unclear on the future (if any) of the contentious proposal. Its concerns have been overtaken by events, which I shall attempt to cover in my next post.

At least I did not have to listen to another infernal drum circle on Sunday. Thank you, Mother Nature, for that blessing in disguise.

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