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Occupy L.A.'s Dilemma

Occupy L.A.
PHOTO BY TED SOQUI

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."

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.

"This is the heart of the city," Brito says.

They worked with the police and the city, advising them that they planned to march on Oct. 1 and camp outside City Hall. The police were resistant initially, but they came around after Councilman Richard Alarcon made a show of support.

The organizers worked to get the word out via social media. By that point, the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations had entered the mainstream consciousness, largely thanks to the New York Police Department.

The organizers were overwhelmed by the turnout. "We figured if we were successful, we'd have 500 people," Brito says.

At least twice that, maybe more, turned out. The first night, only about 100 decided to sleep at City Hall. By the end of the first week, the encampment had swelled to more than 200 tents and was still growing. By the end of the third week, the number stood at nearly 400 tents, and the encampment had spilled over into Fletcher Bowron Square and the courtyard of the Police Administration Building. It was becoming a village.

"It's extraordinarily idealistic," Sulzdorf says. "It's a little like I'm a member of a Greek city-state."

Organizers set up a food tent, a day care area, a meditation temple, a library and a medical tent, where occupiers could get first aid and basic health care supplies. (Who says this is no better than a Tea Party rally? At one meeting, a medical team member announced, "We need condoms." The Venice Family Clinic quickly came through with a donation of 2,000, of which about 100 had been distributed within a few days.)

Following the lead of Occupy Wall Street, the organizers ran their meetings from the early days with a formal, consensus-based process. The process has a long history in leftist movements, dating back to the 1970s, and it has many advantages. But in a large group — some "general assembly" meetings have had more than 600 people — it can be difficult to reach consensus.

Any one person can block the group from taking action. This makes the U.S. Senate, with its 60 percent threshold to stop a filibuster, look like a model of procedural efficiency. Small wonder, then, that three weeks into the occupation, the group was spending more time discussing its own process than anything else — a messy issue that has persisted and looms as a big threat to the L.A. movement.

This is not a new problem in left-wing politics. Since the left adopted consensus decision making as its primary means of getting things done, activists and scholars have been refining it to try to minimize its most obvious shortcomings.

First, some of the history. If your image of left-wing protest is mass demonstrations for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, then your image needs updating. History has not stood still since then, and neither has the history of protest.

The consensus process was borrowed from the Quakers, taken up in the early '70s by feminist collectives and later by anti–nuclear power demonstrators. The idea is that the group decides what to do by reaching a collective understanding rather than by voting. The theory is this reduces the power imbalances within groups and allows each member to participate as an equal.

The Clamshell Alliance, an anti-nuclear group, was a major early adopter of consensus decision making. The process has been applied and altered in subsequent movements, including, most recently, the demonstrations against globalization in the late '90s and early '00s. Those movements developed hand signals. "Twinkling" fingers — also known as "spirit fingers" or "jazz hands" — conveys support. Crossed arms indicates a "hard block" — a veto. Facilitators and "stackers" keep the process going.

Consensus can stop a lot of half-baked ideas from gaining traction. But the process has drawbacks as well.

Consider, for example, the Movement for a New Society, a leftist collective that was founded in 1971 and dissolved in 1988. Part of the reason for its undoing was its consensus process, which resulted in endless discussions. Over time, there was a bias toward inaction — because it became harder and harder to agree to anything.

"It was easier for the organization to stay the same than it was to change," says Andrew Cornell, author of Oppose and Propose, a history of the Movement for a New Society. "Consensus decision making was seen as ... a goal rather than a process."

Consensus also contributed to the stalling out of the antiglobalization movement, Cornell says. "There needs to be a balance between these things. I am concerned that too much focus will be placed on the internal conversations at the Occupy sites."

Unions are more hierarchical, and so all of this was somewhat new for Brito, the former union organizer. "I'm used to when someone has a problem, you curse each other out and then go have a beer," he says. "Here you've got to work it out."

That can be difficult when the movement itself doesn't know quite what it stands for. On the broadest level, there is a class consciousness implicit in the phrase "We are the 99 percent."

There also seems to be broad agreement on the corrosive power of money in politics. Beyond that, it's hard to get a handle on what Occupy L.A. represents.

That's been the gist of a lot of the outside criticism: Where are your demands?

To the extent that criticism is in bad faith, it can be disregarded. (As The Onion put it, "Nation Waiting for Protesters to Clearly Articulate Demands Before Ignoring Them.")

But a set of demands would help the protesters focus and make group decisions, which is essential to growth.

"Before you decide who Occupy L.A. is, it's hard to make a decision as Occupy L.A.," says C.T. Lawrence Butler, the co-founder of Food Not Bombs and the author of On Conflict and Consensus.

A case in point was the debate over whether Occupy L.A. protesters would attend a union rally at the Hotel Bel-Air. On the 10th day of the movement, Unite Here Local 11 asked for support in protesting the hotel's decision not to rehire union workers who had been laid off during renovations.

If Occupy L.A. had a clear sense of where it stood on labor issues, it would have been an easy call. Instead, it became a two-hour debate over whether unions are representatives of the 99 percent, or whether they're too corrupt and coopted.

A generational divide surfaced. Some older occupiers had spent a lifetime in the labor movement, standing up for workers and fighting corporate greed. If Occupy L.A. wasn't for that, then why were they here?

But some of the younger occupiers were mindful that unions had been losing that fight for 30 years. The Occupy movement was a new thing. It was a chance for a clean slate — a chance to win. Why take on the burdens of labor's defeats?

The debate went on for two hours on the south steps of L.A. City Hall. A hotel worker told her story and drew a show of support — "twinkling." But a couple people also displayed "hard blocks."

After much negotiation, the protesters appeared to reach consensus. They would not support Unite Here — only the workers who lost their jobs.

But that wasn't good enough, and more blocks sprouted up. The moderator tried to move on, but the objectors would not quiet down and would not leave.

Brito could only shake his head. "It shouldn't be like this," he said.

He had been sleeping outside City Hall for 10 days, leaving only long enough to take the train back home to shower. If Occupy couldn't muster a straightforward statement of support for some housekeepers, then it was hard to see what the point was.

The meeting broke up at about 10:15 p.m., when the sprinklers came on. Suddenly the occupiers were running to keep their tents from getting soaked. An angry spirit lingered over the protesters who stayed.

As the crowd dribbled away, Brito cupped his hands to his mouth and screamed, "Mic check!"

A group formed around him, chanting with him, repeating his words. It was "the people's mic" — a way of being heard without a bullhorn.

"We are not listening to each other!" he shouted, and the crowd chanted every line, amplifying his words for others to hear.

"Some people are using their block to prevent something based on their ideology! Other people are not listening to the minority! Both of us need to listen to each other! I don't know what the answer is! We never agreed to 100 percent consensus! Maybe it's time to change back to 90 percent consensus! I fear we're destroying ourselves because we're using the fucking mic! Instead of using the people's mic! You're my brothers and my sisters, and I love you all!"

He hugged one of his fellow antagonists. Then came more hugging, and more debate, and more shouting, and then someone called for a drum circle.

Four days later, about 60 occupiers got on a bus and went to Bel Air to march with Unite Here. The union was happy to claim Occupy L.A.'s support, and Occupy L.A.'s extremely nuanced position on the matter was mostly lost. John Wilhelm, the union president, could barely contain his enthusiasm. For the first time in a long time, things were looking up.

"Something very, very exciting is starting to happen in America," he told the demonstrators. "I'm excited by the Occupy movement all over this country."

Brito says his own attendance was a no-brainer, noting the hotel is owned by the sultan of Brunei. "No one can argue that the sultan is not part of the 1 percent."

But who are the 99 percent? It's a harder 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?

Over several nights, the general assembly continued to debate whether it would be appropriate, in some cases, to go to a 90 percent "rough consensus." No decision had been reached by press time. The debates took up a lot of time and seemed to go nowhere; meanwhile the group was not talking about the crimes of Bank of America or how to overturn the Citizens United decision.

"There's too much bullshit going on, and we're losing people," one young man said at a G.A.

The Demands and Objectives Committee continues collecting, categorizing and sorting the group's various demands.

"The demands are coming," says Matt Rolufs, a committee member. "Nothing says there's a time limit for this."

Indeed, some folks are talking about being camped outside City Hall for years.

At this stage, it's hard not to be equivocal about the movement. On the one hand, through sacrifice of time and comfort, a relative handful of people has brought the issue of income inequality into the mainstream debate. On the other, it's been chaotic and somewhat directionless, and subject to a lot of narcissistic rambling.

The protesters themselves have experienced both sentiments.

On the north lawn, Stephen Zeigler, 41, sat outside his tent, which is covered in flags and protest signs. He's an advertising photographer, but work has been slow since the recession. He had engaged in a solitary protest earlier this year, meditating for three hours outside Bank of America.

He was inspired by the movement's initial spirit, but he was wary of it being hijacked.

"It's heartening, and frustrating," he says. "It's inspiring, and annoying." Asked what surprised him, he offers, "I didn't expect so many infiltrators."

Like who?

"Democrats."

Zeigler had pitched his tent on top of a sewer grate, and beneath it was a nest of cockroaches. That was OK, he says. His dharma name is cockroach. They're actually very clean.

"I had to pull a gnarly one off my head the other night," he says. "I said, 'Fuck you. I know we're brothers, but you're gnarly!' "


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