Occupy L.A.'s Dilemma 

Protesters share enthusiasm and disenchantment, but need unity to survive

Thursday, Oct 27 2011

On Sept. 17, a group of protesters gathered near Olvera Street to denounce corporate greed. No more than 50 people turned out, and they were mostly drowned out by the sounds of a nearby Mexican Independence Day celebration. In a video posted on the Lowland blog, Nick Nevins, a young man with dark glasses and a thin beard, held up a handmade sign that said, "Corporations = Your Exploitation."

He had been hoping to camp out on the street, but no one else wanted to. He seemed pessimistic.

"I don't know what's going to happen because the situation is really bad, but it's been bad for a long time," he said. "I'm not sure if anything can happen here."

click to flip through (9) PHOTO BY TED SOQUI - Occupy L.A.

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The Occupy Wall Street movement had begun that day on the other side of the continent. It, too, was small at first, and mocked when it was not ignored. But it had tapped into something, and it quickly spread.

Two weeks after the humble beginning in L.A., more than 1,000 people marched through the streets of Los Angeles, chanting, "We are the 99 percent."

Since then, hundreds have been camped outside L.A. City Hall. The "occupation" of L.A. is well into its second month. No one — not even those involved — saw it coming, or knows exactly where it's going.

The idea to "occupy" Wall Street was cooked up by Adbusters, a glossy anarchist magazine. The movement took inspiration from protests in Madrid, where thousands of young people set up a tent camp in the Puerta del Sol to protest austerity measures.

But it would not have spread to Los Angeles without a handful of unknown organizers. Many of them had no political experience. Many were unemployed. They did not know each other, and many still know only each other's first names. All of them abhor the very concept of leadership. Yet they came together to do what the Democratic Party and its allies in organized labor could not: Generate some heat in the streets.

"A lot of people in the labor movement and other progressive types have been waiting for some spark they can build on. But they probably didn't have this capacity for spontaneity," says Dick Flacks, a Santa Barbara activist/sociologist. "It has to come from people no one ever heard of before."

The Occupy Wall Street movement, and its franchisees around the country and the world, have already succeeded just by showing up. That has shifted the terms of the national debate. A month or two ago, Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren represented the leftmost position on the spectrum of public debate. Now that spot is occupied by the masked anarchists of Zuccotti Park, making Warren and her ilk look moderate by comparison. That in itself is a major achievement.

It's gotten that far by breaking away from the left's Internet-based activism of the last decade. Much has been made of the movement's use of Facebook and Twitter, but those tools played only a supporting role. They're not the end point. This movement is decidedly nonvirtual. It's actual people occupying physical space, which is harder to ignore. In that respect, it's a throwback to the activism of the 1980s and '90s.

"Lots of people have been tweeting and Facebooking and emailing and writing on websites for a long time," says Eric Bauman, chair of the L.A. County Democratic Party. "Now we're seeing a physical manifestation of that anger and frustration."

The people who made that happen in L.A. come from diverse backgrounds.

Mario Brito, 38, grew up in East L.A. and was raised to admire César Chávez. At 17, he went to work for the United Farm Workers. He took a job organizing construction workers but was laid off more than two years ago.

"Now I just rabble-rouse for a living," he says.

On his Facebook page, Brito lists his interests as the L.A. Clippers and social and economic justice.

In the days after Sept. 17, he went online and started looking for a local protest.

Heidi Sulzdorf had just moved to L.A. after dropping out of a doctoral program in medieval history in Michigan. After spending seven years in a small corner of academia, she was looking for something that felt relevant. She had been watching the Wall Street protests and following the OWS Twitter feed. There, Sulzdorf saw someone urging a local meeting in L.A.

The first online "general assembly" was held on Tiny Chat. About 20 people joined in. They decided to meet in person on Sept. 23 in Pershing Square. No one knew anyone else. Some people drove up from San Diego, bringing sleeping bags. They were ready to start camping.

Those who tried to camp that night got kicked out of Pershing Square at 10:30 p.m. They went to City Hall, where they got kicked out at 3 a.m. Over the course of several meetings, the group discussed several locations — Pershing Square, Rodeo Drive — before settling on City Hall.

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