LOS ANGELES-Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York’s financial district face violent opposition from police and the prospect of cold weather. None of these things are an issue on the West Coast and occupiers have managed to build a massive encampment on the lawn of Los Angeles City Hall. We spent the night in Occupy L.A.’s tent city to see what happens when the protesters are allowed to construct their own microcosm of a society.
Occupy L.A. began at City Hall Park in downtown Los Angeles on October 1. The Observer arrived ten days later at about 10 p.m. as protesters gathered for their nightly General Assembly meeting on the Southwest side of City Hall Park where they discussed passing their first declaration.
It’s impossible to get a sense of just how big Occupy L.A. actually is when you first walk in. People are camped out in tents, sleeping in bags and just laying on the ground on all four sides of the park surrounding L.A.’s 454-foot tall Art Deco City Hall building. You have to take the four block walk around City Hall to get a sense of the full scope protests. We initially assumed the 50 or so tents we saw when we walked in were the full extent of Occupy L.A. Our final tally after circling the park later in the evening came to more than 250 tents.
At the assembly meeting, speakers stood on the marble steps of City Hall using microphones powered with equipment stored in nearby tents to address crowds circled around them. The declaration was proposed by a young woman named Julia Wallace who wanted Occupy L.A. to declare independence from “political parties that accept multimillion dollar donations” and to ban “electioneering.”
A thin man in a hoodie moderated the proceedings and the crowd communicated through an elaborate system of handsignals. They were unable to pass Ms. Wallace’s declaration because a handful of members of the group indicated strong opposition with “hard blocks,” crossing their arms over their chests when a vote was called. We counted about three votes to block.
Opponents of the declaration worried about precisely which activities might constitute “electioneering” and whether restrictions would make potential protesters with political affiliations feel “unwelcome.”
“They have the right to occupy with us. … We’re not trying to abolish government, we need to work with them the same way we work with LAPD,” said someone who spoke against the declaration.
The protesters seem to have cultivated a good relationship with the Los Angeles Police Department, which has its headquarters directly across the street from City Hall Park. While Occupy Wall Street and other similar protests on the East Coast have inspired mass arrests and violent opposition from authorities, Occupy L.A. has largely been left alone by local police. Aside from police helicopters flying back and forth overhead, which is a normal part of life in downtown L.A., the only visible police presence we saw at the park was a police cruiser that sat across the street.
After about a half hour of debate, the moderator announced that the microphone needed to be shut off, so the issue would have to be tabled until the next day. The group attempted to continue discussion using, “the people’s microphone,” a system of shouted call and response.
“We need to deal with the consensus model,” a speaker yelled hands.
“We need to deal with the consensus model,” repeated the crowd in unison.
“As soon as possible!” the speaker said.
“As soon as possible!” the crowd chanted back.
The General Assembly crowd quickly gave up on the “people’s microphone” and proceeded to split into several smaller groups that spent hours debating the finer points of the declaration.
By giving veto power to small minorities within the General Assembly, Occupy L.A. has created an environment will it will be very difficult to come up with a cohesive central message for the movement. Their governing body may be a model of inefficiency, but many of the protesters view it as an anecdote to the voicelessness many of them say they feel in the traditional political process and a celebration of diversity among the occupiers. That diversity is on display at Occupy L.A. Many of the tents covering every surface in City Hall Park sport flags and signs for a range of causes including “animal liberation,” “socialism,” “Troy Davis” and “shamanism.”
Problems with the General Assembly structure make it difficult for Occupy Wall Street inspired protesters around the country to craft their own narrative provide their movement with a cohesive message. Occupy L.A. may not have an strong leadership structure, but it was impossible not to be impressed with the sheer size of the city the protesters have managed to build in City Hall Park.
At about one o’clock in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, groups of people sat among the tents talking politics or playing instruments. Though young white people were predominant, protesters came from many backgrounds and walks of life, People we spoke to people who claimed to be retirees, homeless and jobless, Marine Corps vets, blue collar workers and students. The crowd was armed with the standard protest arsenal of guitars and hand drums, but in addition to the usual hippie protest accoutrements, there’s ample evidence Occupy L.A. is evolving into a fairly advanced community. Garbage stations throughout the campground offered cans for compost, recycling and regular trash underneath signs that proclaimed City Hall Park a “Zero Waste Zone.” In one corner, there were two rows of port-o-potties. A sign advertised free weekly laundry services for the protesters.
Near the center of the park, we fell into a conversation with a man named Grant who was smoking cigarettes and wearing a “Slayer” t-shirt. Grant said he was 26 years old, but he declined to give his last name.
“I don’t know if you’re a provocateur,” Grant explained.
Grant said he’d been at the protest since early planning meetings in nearby Pershing Square, or as he put it, “day one minus two.”
“Here’s my grand idea of what’s happening here. I think this is an internet meme that’s expressed itself in physical reality. There are a lot of people here who are upset. This is the internet generation, whenever they see something they latch onto it,” Grant said.
Grant said he’s not sure what Occupy L.A. can accomplish, and though he recognizes the flawed nature of the General Assembly, he respects that it’s rooted in the protesters frustration with feeling unheard in mainstream American politics.
“The G.A. is the extreme filibuster, but it’s the tool that allows everyone’s voice to be heard and that’s not happening in Washington,” Grant said.
Though he is aware of the movement’s limitations, Grant made a sweeping gesture to indicate the tents around him and described the size of Occupy L.A. as an accomplishment in itself.
“When you’re standing in it, it’s normal, but this is a revolution and the people in this tower don’t know what to do,” Grant said pointing to the City Hall building.
At that moment, three men were sitting nearby smoking a homemade bong made out of a cardboard tube against one of the side walls of City Hall. Another group was using a pizza box and a flashlight to project the word “Occupy” onto the side of the building. City Hall’s stone steps were covered with chalk graffiti.
“Stop Policing Me I’m Having Fun”
“Home Sweet Home”
“We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
“I’ve got a fever and the only prescription is more cowbell.”
Though Grant was clearly energized and inspired by the crowd in City Hall Park he said there were some negative elements to Occupy L.A. including undercover police officers who’ve infiltrated the crowd.
“I try not to talk about it, it’s too much paranoia,” Grant said.
Grant also is suspicious about the neon vested volunteer security crew and the people in the media tent.
“We don’t really know what’s going on in there,” Grant said of the media tent.
As we parted ways, I heard someone make an announcement on a megaphone from the center of the square.
“There are cookies here. Occupy the cookies. Get your Obama snacks people.”
The next noise we heard was a man shouting about a stolen sleeping bag. We soon got to see the Occupy L.A. security team in action.
“They took some shit in front of all these people and they all want to say they didn’t see shit,” the man yelled.
People in the nearby crowd offered to help find a replacement sleeping bag.
“He’s been like this for five days. He always does that, but he doesn’t mean any harm,” said a girl with long black hair and a bare midriff who was dancing in circles toward the edge of the scene.
Many onlookers seemed annoyed with the man, who was growing more and more agitated.
“Dude maybe it was Bank of America that took your sleeping bag?” someone suggested.
“Why not make a friend?” asked another onlooker.
A group of young guys wearing the neon vests that indicated they were part of the security team approached the man. They looked like they wouldn’t be out of place at a comic book convention, but the security guys had some success calming the man down and they walked off together.
“We’re all on the same page here. There’s a lot of trust here and we don’t want it getting broken,” one of the security volunteers said.
We eventually found the mysterious media tent on the East side of the park. It was a pair of large tents covered in tarp filled with multiple blinking computer monitors, tables and snack foods. There was a coffee maker in the corner. Whiteboards propped against the walls displayed lists of the days scheduled events. Clark Davis was tinkering with the generator. He said he was 43 and a custom home builder. Mr. Davis said he built the media tent battery system after attending an Occupy L.A. planning meeting. He said local progressive radio stations and production companies were helped by donating equipment, but progress was still slow due to limited resources.
“Ninety percent of the people in hear didn’t know each other a week ago,” Mr. Davis said.
He introduced us to one of his new friends working on the media team, a 32-year-old graphic designer named Mario Jefferson, whom Mr. Davis described as the “publisher of the Occupy L.A. Times.”
“We’re literally growing our subculture, our subclass society here on the fly,” Mr. Jefferson said.
So far, L.A.’s Mayor and powerful City Council have decided to support Occupy L.A. and not fight their presence on the lawn. The morning after we left City Hall Park, the Council voted unanimously to support “the continuation of the peaceful and vibrant exercise in First Amendment Rights carried out by ‘Occupy Los Angeles’.” Mr.Davis said he had participated in meetings between the protesters and the Council members the prior week.
“One of the things I said is, ‘You guys have an opportunity to be on the right side of history,’” Mr. Davis said of the meeting.
Though he realizes City Hall’s support is an instrumental part of how Occupy L.A. has grown so large, he is skeptical about the reasons politicians are getting behind the occupation.
“Mayor Villaraigosa wants to be President and he wants to ride the wave of this popular movement,” Mr. Davis said.
Inside the media tent, a pair of 20 somethings named Dave and Ashley were on a laptop doing a live chatroom broadcast.
“Why don’t you just come outside here? It’s California, it’s not that cold,” Ashley told one of their viewers.
“There’s free food,” Dave added.
It was around three in the morning and Dave and Ashley had over 150 watching their broadcast. One audience member ordered them a pizza from a nearby late night spot. They said pizza donations were a common occurrence.
Back outside, Mr. Davis shared his vision for the future of Occupy L.A.’s media operation.
“The whole thing’s going solar powered, the media tent is going to be sixty feet long. Ultimately, we want to start growing vegetables. … Once we have the capacity to be what we want to be, our voice is going to get immensely louder,” Mr. Davis said.
We asked Mr. Davis if the group in the media tent was staying apprised of the General Assembly meetings so they could speak for the Occupy L.A. movement as a whole.
“All of us are made aware of what the general drift of the General Assemblies are. … It’s a slow process, I’m not necessarily too keen on the G.A.’s,” Mr. Davis said.
Shortly after four in the morning, we left City Hall Park. Two local broadcast news trucks were setting up next to the edge of the park. There was a lone police officer who identified himself as Mike Wong.
“So far, it’s been pretty peaceful, we’re all about people’s right to protests peacefully,” Officer Wong said.
After a night in the tent city, it was hard not to be impressed by the scope of the Occupy L.A. protests and the spirit behind the demonstrator’s desire to improve their society. At the same time, it’s easy to see how the movement might be unable to accomplish anything concrete. Occupy L.A. has managed to make their own community right outside City Hall, but like the rest of society, their miniature city is plagued with a flawed political process and a media that doesn’t necessarily speak for the majority. Residents of Occupy L.A. made mini utopia that isn’t immune to some of the same aspects of the outside world that protesters came there to protest.