A stroll through Occupy Los Angeles

October 27, 2011

This week, authorities in cities across the country began evicting the protesters that have gathered locally in support of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement.

The Occupy Los Angeles protest, which has taken over the entire park surrounding Los Angeles City Hall, could be next: Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told the L.A. Times on Wednesday that the protest “could not continue indefinitely.”

Anticipating that the crackdown taking place in Oakland, Atlanta and other cities wasn’t far off, I took a walk through the encampment on Tuesday morning, Oct. 25, to take stock of what is there, while it still is there. Talking to some of the occupiers, I came away with a few thoughts.

Occupy L.A., like the movement as a whole, is most clear in its generalized outrage at the inequitable distribution of wealth in the country. “We are the 99 percent,” many protesters’ signs read, expressing their frustration at the situation distilled in a Congressional Budget Office report released on Wednesday that showed that over the past 30 years, the top one percent of Americans have seen their incomes grow 275 percent, while the rest of the country’s earners have only experienced a growth of 65 percent.

But beyond that central plank, it’s hard to discern what the rest of the occupiers’ platform includes. The L.A. Weekly just published a long piece in which reporter Gene Maddaus entertained exactly this question.

Occupy L.A. is populated by Democrats, libertarians, socialists and anarchists — not to mention 9/11 Truthers, Oath Keepers, End the Fedders, sound-money guys, and a sizable contingent of homeless and mentally ill people looking for free food. What do they have in common? How can they grow into a powerful political force?

Against a backdrop where consensus is hard to find, the occupiers whose demands are clear stand out—and they mostly represent preexisting advocacy groups.

Within minutes of my arrival, Carlos Marroquin, a housing advocate who runs the website NoToHousingCrime.org, sought me out to give me a tour of the camp. The tour started at the very large marquee tent that his group had set up two days earlier to help counsel homeowners who had been victims of housing fraud. About 20 people had signed their guest book in that time.

The occupiers don’t much like the media—even the ones who are working with members of the media.

Gia Trimble, a volunteer who was trying to keep the remnants of an early morning shower from dripping into Occupy L.A.’s heavily wired media tent, put it simply. “At the end of the day, the media is a big part of the whole one percent,” she said.

Some of that frustration with the media may be due to reporters asking—repeatedly, and mostly without getting answers—what the Occupy protests are aiming to achieve. But many occupiers seem, at least for now, quite willing to continue, despite the outside world’s inability to understand their goals.

Patience is at the heart of the occupation model, protester Ryan Rice, 26, told me while he cleaned his teeth with a small disposable plastic brush on Tuesday morning.

“At some point, everyone on the planet will know why we are out here,” Rice said.

Rice, who had been involved in Occupy L.A. from the very beginning, said he had withdrawn from Chapman University where he was studying political science to join the protest. “I told my professors that I will return when the university is free,” he said.

Last: If the Occupy protests are harboring anti-Semites, they were in hiding when I visited Occupy L.A.

Jews, on the other hand, are easy to find. During Sukkot, the Festival of Booths, my colleague Ryan Torok reported on the Sukkah that was built at Occupy L.A. According to Josh Dunn, a 33-year-old protester from Palm Springs who was raised Jewish, the sukkah “has been the single way in which the religious community of Los Angeles has taken part in what we’re doing here.”

Dunn, who studied art at UCLA as an undergraduate and now runs the website TribalCommunistParty.org, said he was disappointed to see the lack of organized religious support for Occupy L.A.

Since he arrived nine days earlier, Dunn had been bedding down at “medical marijuana hill,” a space around the southwest corner of the Occupy L.A. encampment.

“They’re the most organized part of the entire camp,” Dunn said, smoking a hand-rolled tobacco cigarette. “By necessity, for years and years, they’ve had to remain organized.”

But, Dunn said, it would be a mistake to see the rest of Occupy L.A. as a near anarchy.

“Don’t let the chaotic surface confuse you,” he said, “because running through this entire camp are veins of collective agreement that still do manage to pull this movement in a genuine direction.”

The veins of agreement have been enough to establish organizations in the encampment. At the People’s Collective University on the east side of city hall, Max Funk, who shut down his successful startup in Silicon Valley in 2008 to devote himself to researching market equilibrium, was preparing to teach an economics class. A meal was being prepared at the nearby food tent, and people were perusing the books on offer at the library.

But true to Dunn’s observation, the only spiritual presence I saw at Occupy L.A.—aside from the uninhabited Sukkah frame—was a single tent with a sign that said, “Meditation Temple; No shoes, Silence please. Free Yoga @ 5 pm.”

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