The State of the Occupation | Features | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly

The State of the Occupation 

From City Hall to suburban Van Nuys: Occupy L.A. looks much different one year later

Thursday, Sep 27 2012
Occupy L.A. gathered at Fort Hernandez.


Occupy L.A. gathered at Fort Hernandez.

In late August, the Hernandez family got a notice to vacate. Their three-bedroom house had been sold at a foreclosure auction to Bank of America.

They threw an eviction party on the Saturday before they were supposed to leave, but afterward, they decided not to go.

Instead, they would occupy.

click to flip through (4) PHOTO BY NANETTE GONZALES - Occupy L.A. gathered in Pershing Square in August for "Chalkupy."
  • Occupy L.A. gathered in Pershing Square in August for "Chalkupy."

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It has been almost a year since Occupy L.A. began. Last Oct. 1, a group of protesters seized the lawn at L.A. City Hall. They defended it for two months, focusing attention on the cause of the 99 percent. Now they're defending a single house on a quiet street in Van Nuys.

Occupiers built a plywood barricade around the perimeter and decorated it with slogans such as "Housing is a human right." Some 50 activists started camping in tents on the front lawn. On the roof, they wrote "Evict Banks" in Christmas lights. They set up couches in the street, outside the plywood wall, and stationed a guard at night to watch out for the sheriffs. They call it "Fort Hernandez.

The activists broke up into committees — the Bank Negotiations Committee, the Kitchen Committee, the Outreach Committee. The latter group gathered a list of homes in foreclosure from RealtyTrac and went door to door to proselytize. They made T-shirts with the Twitter hashtag #FortHernandez. They've been holding "general assemblies" twice a day, at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., plotting strategy based on group consensus.

But if the tactics are much the same as the original Occupy, the battleground — and the stakes — have shifted.

"Our main goal is not to camp at City Hall," says 21-year-old Ulises Hernandez. "Our main goal is to organize out of everywhere."

Occupy L.A. was just one of 1,000 encampments nationwide inspired by Vancouver-based Adbusters magazine, which proposed an occupation of Wall Street. But by the time LAPD swept it off the City Hall lawn in November, that small piece of the movement had itself begun to fragment.

As Occupy L.A. marks its first anniversary, the group has torn itself into more than a dozen entities. Some are more coherent than others, but none has the force of the original encampment. A lot of people have simply dropped out.

In many ways, that is the paradoxical result of the consensus process by which the movement operated. Like left-wing movements since the 1970s, Occupy organized itself "horizontally," around group consent. A proposal would only be adopted after lengthy discussion and with unanimous approval. That gave anyone who showed up to the encampment an equal stake in the group's actions. But it also meant anyone could veto a proposal simply by crossing their arms.

"One of the brilliant things about Occupy was that it was so horizontal," says Elise Whitaker, a young activist who was a key figure in Occupy L.A. "But that was also one of its great weaknesses. There was no unified understanding of 'How do we win? What does it look like to win?' "

Anyone who tried to pull in a particular direction found someone on the other side of the issue, pulling back. Those seen as "leaders" were attacked. Anyone seeking to cooperate with outside forces, such as labor organizations or political campaigns, was accused of co-opting the movement. The result was paralysis.

"The communists and the anarchists never got along," says Scott Shuster, a union organizer who is heavily involved in Occupy. "Anything that anyone in one camp did that was getting traction, the other side would try to dismantle it."

The goals of Occupy — to the extent that they were articulated — remain as far from reality as ever. Given the setbacks Occupy L.A. has suffered, its biggest achievement is that it still exists. Unlike Occupy groups in most other cities, Occupy L.A. continues to hold general assemblies three days a week in Pershing Square — though attendance has dropped from hundreds to about 50 people on a good night.

Though Occupy aspired to break with "old left" tactics, it got bogged down in ways that veteran activists would find familiar. In her 2002 book, Freedom Is an Endless Meeting, sociologist Francesca Polletta describes struggles that afflicted "horizontal" protest movements dating back to the 1960s: "Over and over again, participatory democrats found themselves wracked by battles over decision making, battles that alienated members, halted campaigns and made some activists despair of the possibility of democratic decision making. 'It turned me into a Leninist,' said one. Groups were paralyzed as members charged unrestrained egoism and powermongering in every exercise of initiative, manipulation in every programmatic suggestion and a betrayal of democracy in every effort to get something done."

That pattern asserted itself at Occupy in the early going. No one knows that better than Mario Brito, who tried to lead a leaderless movement, and found it couldn't be done.

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