When the LAPD stormed into Los Angeles City Hall Park after midnight my first reaction was fear.
They flooded into the park without warning through the doors of City Hall, a massive masked army in riot gear, batons raised.
Where was our order to disperse?
The raid was just the latest deterioration in the city government’s relationship with Occupy. First they welcomed us with open arms, the City Council invited us to stay, the police stood by with commendable restraint. Then, six weeks in, City officials launched a propaganda campaign stressing the problems of the encampment. The campaign was designed to erode public support, making it imperative that they move in.
I was in the park that night in solidarity with a movement for which I have great hopes, and somesgivings. Partly, it’s me. I’m not by nature a joiner. I spent years as a newspaper reporter and editor, doing my best to conceal my biases and not take sides. By temperament as well as training, it’s natural for me to see both sides of an issue and poke holes in arguments, rather than come up with solutions. I’m better at asking questions than having to come up with answers.
But after eight years of disastrous policies during the Bush era, and severe disappointment with President Obama and the Democrats’ embrace of Wall Street, weak financial reform and tepid leadership in focusing on the main problems facing the economy – unemployment, foreclosure, widening income disparity and attacks on the middle class – I was more than ready for a movement that wanted to focus on those problems.
My wife and I visited Zucotti Square a week into Occupy Wall Street and were buoyed by people of all ages who had showed up from all over the country to figure out how to work together to deal with the issues. When I first head the human mic, in which the crowd repeats everything that a speaker says, phrase by phrase, I thought I had stumbled into a street theater performance. It took me a few minutes to realize that this was a meeting, the general assembly.
The next night, back home in downtown Los Angeles, we walked our dog Billie through the park at City Hall. Occupy needs to be happening here, I said, and it should be at City Hall.
A bunch of activists I didn’t know at the time was way ahead of me: they had been organizing for a couple of weeks. That very night, when we got home from our walk, the announcement that Occupy LA would begin the following day appeared on my Facebook page.
The next morning a thousand people marched from Pershing Square to City Hall, and a hundred of them set up tents.
I have a schizophrenic relationship to Occupy. The charms of the General Assembly have eluded me. All the crazy talk—like proposals to get money from the City to build a giant flower pot, complete with giant flower, on the grounds of City Hall, in which people would live. This scheme was met by an objection— a hard block. But the objector never questioned the sanity or practicality of the proposal; rather they had ideological issues with taking money from the Man aka the City. When the talk wasn’t bonkers, it was endless. I could also see conditions at the camp were deteriorating, with more and more people camped out to party and smoke pot, not to build a new social and political movement. Sometimes the wild mess of people was bracing and inspiring, but sometimes it was just heartbreaking.
One of the first nights I was there a guy pulled up with a card table and a pot of chili and started ladling it out. It was some of the most delicious chili I ever tasted. I got inspired and started making pots of vegan lentils and black beans to take to the camp. But then I would get another whiff of the increasingly squalid conditions in the camp and want it gone. Can’t the movement just evolve to the next step in which camping out would no longer be its most visible image and most important product?
I refused to make them soup, but then my wife, Stacie Chaiken, who helped organize an interfaith clergy group at Occupy, would give me a hard time and I would go back to making soup.
I saw what the Occupy meant to her, how she understood it in a way that went beyond the encampment and the endless meetings. I saw what it meant to my friend, a special-ed teacher, who has been in despair watching the corporatization of public education. I made new friends at Occupy who had a much higher tolerance for the mess and the meetings, who found at Occupy connections to other people and pieces of themselves that had been for such a long time missing.
I fell in with a group that was meeting with City officials, initially about logistics, and then about an attempt to conclude the encampment at City Hall, with the possibility that the City might turn over a patch of land and some office space to a nonprofit created by Occupy. The discussions eventually came to naught, in part because neither the City nor our group could deliver. Controversy erupted because a faction of Occupiers who have not been involved in the talks with City officials objected to our engaging in “secret” discussions because that went against the Occupy principle of complete transparency. If the Mayor and Police Chief wanted to talk to us, they should come to the General Assembly and get on stack, meaning they should wait in line like everyone else for their turn to speak.
Maybe those who objected were right. But I strongly doubt that City and police officials would have showed up at the General Assembly to discuss issues with—and submit to the verbal slings and arrows of the Occupiers, as many of them wished. And I found the discussions with the Police and Mayor’s office a fascinating experiment, very much in keeping with the open-ended spirit of Occupy. The conversations also served to prolong the Occupation at City Hall Park long after it would have doubtless have been shut down.
The night of the raid, there were about 100 people who had decided to get arrested in acts of civil disobedience. They were all people who had been trained in non-violence. I was not one of them. When the police arrived in their shock and awe attack, I was right in the middle of the park. I scampered through the maze of tents, out of the park onto to First Street. I encountered a police line, and asked the officers—wearing helmets, carrying weapons of non-lethal destruction—how I might safely exit the perimeter. They stared at me, stone-faced.
I told the police that if there were orders being given, we couldn’t hear them. Rumors swept through the street that everyone within the perimeter were about to be arrested.
Finally I made my way up Main Street to Temple, across the Triforium and down onto Los Angeles Street. I was able to walk west on Second Street, where I found my way to the Redwood for a stiff drink before last call at 2am, where I watched the rest of the proceedings broadcast live on KTLA.
I didn’t like the way it went down that night. It was inconsistent with the LAPD’s previous restraint and with the respect the City had expressed for this important free speech movement. After I got over my initial fear, I understood why the police—in their fear of potential violence from antisocial people in the encampment— reacted in the way they did.
None of this qualifies me for the Occupy Hall of Fame. Unlike some of those I’ve met in this movement, I don’t claim to have all the answers.
I do have more questions:
Has the Occupy movement really changed the national debate, as some occupiers have claimed, or has it taken a first baby step onto the national stage? Yes, I hear the president’s populist-sounding speeches, but I have yet to hear him propose a massive jobs program or even an adequate program to address foreclosures, let alone withdraw his support from the disastrous focus on austerity instead of getting the economy going.
Is this really a movement of the 99 percent, or is it a movement of the self-selected few—activists, anarchists, bohos, hippies and others who can camp on the lawn for weeks at a time, and stand through a General Assembly?
Should the heart and soul of a movement really be that endless meeting? The General Assembly seems more like a necessary evil than a true solidarity-building exercise. How about some dancing, or singing or poetry, or praying?
Can this movement evolve beyond the symbolic taking of public space and public debate into a forum we so badly need, to including a broader spectrum of people, that can take on the bread-and-butter issues of the distressed majority?
Where is the path out of City Hall Park into the heart of the City?