The State of the Occupation
Occupy L.A. gathered at Fort Hernandez.
PHOTO BY NANETTE GONZALES
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.
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.
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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.
When the Weekly first met Brito, back in 2011, he introduced himself as a former union official. He was 38 and unemployed.
"Now I just rabble-rouse for a living," he said.
It was the first week of October, and Brito was standing on the lawn outside L.A. City Hall. Nearly 100 tents had sprouted up in the previous few days, the beginnings of the Occupy L.A. encampment. That they hadn't been immediately driven off by LAPD was largely thanks to Brito. As the unofficial "police liaison," he had worked with the cops to get permission to camp out. He was asked how long they would they stay.
"As long as it takes," he said. "We've been portrayed as protesters. But the occupation is more than that. We're a movement. We're creating a new society."
Brito seemed to be a leader of that society, though he was careful not to describe himself that way. Because the Occupy movement was proudly leaderless, it was dangerous to be thought of as a leader.
Brito figured that out early on. He rarely spoke at general assemblies, the nightly meetings where the occupiers hashed out their business. Yet, because he seemed to know what was going on, reporters had a way of finding him and quoting him.
"I find Mario's self-promotion abhorrent," one person wrote on an Occupy website. Addressing him directly, she wrote, "We are not here to serve as your résumé enhancer or your springboard to something 'bigger' and more lucrative."
A few weeks later, an Occupier named Evan Kashinsky confided that Brito was getting out of control.
"When you're an effective leader — he can't help it," Kashinsky said. "He's trying to get things done. But behaving the way he has has reduced his own power."
Kashinsky and a group of 25 friends had come up with something called "the King Koopa Initiative," named for Mario's nemesis in the Nintendo game. If Brito ever said anything at a general assembly — no matter what it was — one of them would cross their arms and block it.
"He has his point of view, and his ideology," Kashinsky said. "But we don't want any specific ideas or group to move forward, unless it's based on consensus."
Brito's ideology was that of a labor organizer. He had sat across the table from management to hash out contracts on behalf of construction workers. He brought the same approach to the occupation of City Hall, forming a tie with Councilman Richard Alarcon.
In the early days of the occupation, Alarcon drafted a resolution supporting Occupy L.A., and pressured Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to allow the occupation to stay.
"It was hard to say who the leaders were," Alarcon says now, though he came to think of Brito as one of the "vanguards" of the group. "I always thought Mario truly had a desire to strike some positive agreements with the city."
While the encampment was a powerful symbol, it was also a logistical nightmare. Just keeping the Port-a-Potties operating was a major drain on resources, not to mention providing food for the local homeless population and keeping the peace within the camp.
"They wore out their welcome," Alarcon says.
At that point, Villaraigosa was willing to make a deal — at least, initially. If Occupy would leave peacefully, the city would make available discounted office space, so the movement could continue to have a base of operations.
To some within Occupy L.A., that was heresy. But to Brito, it sounded like a good deal. Protests come in waves, and sometimes, they leave a residue of nonprofits to continue their work after the passion burns out.
Brito knew that some would never leave the encampment voluntarily. But maybe some would, and he wanted to get the best deal he could for them.
"It was a great game of poker," Brito says. "We played like we had a full house, and in reality we had a pair of twos."
From the beginning, a central tension within Occupy L.A. was how to relate to existing power structures. On one side were those seeking engagement: with the cops, City Hall, labor, the Democratic Party. On the other were those who thought Occupy was more powerful if it remained aloof. There was no right answer to that question, and it came up all the time.
To take one of a hundred examples, more recently, a group came to the general assembly at Pershing Square with a proposal to endorse a privacy-protection measure that had passed the state Legislature. The proposers explained that privacy was important to the movement. After all, hadn't everyone who'd been arrested had their phone wiped by the police? They asked for consensus.
Among a group of about 45 people, almost all twinkled their fingers above their heads in agreement. One young man, however, was unconvinced. Occupy should not be participating in electoral politics, he said. He crossed his arms — a "hard block." The procedure called for further discussion, and so they went another round. The dissenter dug in. Another "temperature check." Another hard block. Another round of discussion. As the debate continued, people drifted away and they lost the quorum. With that, all further business — including a proposal to participate in a Labor Day march — was tabled.
Those who wanted to take action found it was easier if they formed splinter groups. The most successful of those has been Occupy Fights Foreclosures. That group meets each Thursday and Sunday at a Denny's near Union Station.
That group's objectives are more narrowly focused than the often sprawling agenda of the larger movement. But even here, struggles arise over how to engage with established power.
At a recent meeting, Carlos Marroquin noted that some members of the group were planning to present demands to a county housing official that week. That came as news to others in the group, and some pushed back when Marroquin acknowledged that he had already sent an email to the official.
"What is horizontal and democratic about language going to the county without us being able to read it?" asked Matt Ward, another key member of the group. "This is so fast. ... Why are we meeting with some reformist fucks who have no interest in earnestly helping us?"
Marroquin noted that Occupy Fights Foreclosures had pressured state lawmakers to pass the Homeowners' Bill of Rights earlier in the summer. The group had threatened to stage an action outside the home of a key state senator, who ended up supporting the bill. That showed that engagement with the system could work.
"We're not agreeing with their agenda," Marroquin argued. "This is our agenda."
That same debate, between revolution and reform, was at the heart of the intense battle in October over whether to accept Villaraigosa's offer in exchange for peaceful decampment from City Hall.
"What drew a lot of people to the Occupy movement," says Jared Iorio, who facilitated many of the meetings, "was that we didn't ask permission to protest from the people we were protesting. We weren't going to profit from leverage we had with people we disagreed so strongly with."
The Occupy general assemblies sought consensus on a proposal to halt the negotiations, but Brito and his fellow liaisons refused to stop.
"The liaisons blocked it, knowing that 99 percent of the people there did not want that to happen," Iorio says. "That kind of destroyed Mario's credibility."
Over a recent lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Pacoima, Brito says he was in a difficult spot. "In this movement, you're not going to make everyone happy. I almost get how it is to be a politician."
The Occupiers who opposed the negotiations insisted on attending the talks with City Hall. When they made the proposed terms public so they could be debated by the full encampment, Villaraigosa's office withdrew the offer.
After a series of lengthy general assemblies and working-group meetings, Occupy L.A. issued a 1,000-word rejection of the offer.
"We will continue to occupy this space, in solidarity with our global movement, until the forces of the few are forced to capitulate to the power of the people," they wrote. They also listed 10 grievances, ranging from foreclosures and the absence of a world-class transit system to pension and wage cuts for city workers and inadequate care for the homeless.
A week later, LAPD swarmed the encampment in a nighttime raid and arrested 300 people. During the raid, Brito says he was trying to move undocumented immigrants out of the camp so they would not be deported. But after he got outside the police perimeter, he could not get back inside.
Several Occupiers saw him chatting with police, which they took to be a sign of collusion.
"That was the end of Mario," Iorio says.
It also was the end of Occupy L.A. as a unified enterprise. Some campers went to a nearby church. Others went to parks. Most went home, returning only for general assemblies on the City Hall steps.
Brito, who had been camping on the north lawn of City Hall, went home and took some time to get his life back together. For a while, he had Occupiers sleeping on his couch. Then, like many others, he went back to work on his vision for a second phase of Occupy. He organized a demonstration at an immigration office under the banner of Occupy ICE. He took a staff job with Good Jobs L.A. — an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, which had coordinated demonstrations with Occupy.
Others worked on foreclosures, homelessness or on fighting their charges in court. But tensions within the group continued. At one court appearance, Brito got into a shouting match with another Occupy member. On another occasion, there was a physical altercation. Brito's critics say that he attacked another Occupier and put him in a headlock, while Brito and his supporters say that he grabbed the man's arms to defend himself.
Scott Shuster says Brito was targeted early on by a group he calls the "Riverside Anarchists," whose objective was to "vilify anyone with a skill set."
"He showed up the first day and made peace with the cops. The second day he made peace with City Hall. He was the darling of the media, even if he didn't want to be," Shuster says. "So they asked him to step back, and he did. But that didn't end the scapegoating and objectification. He became the example of the patriarchy, or the police, or the labor unions. He became the scapegoat for everything."
Occupy L.A. came out of hibernation on May 1 with a series of demonstrations across the city, culminating in a rally at Pershing Square. Some considered it a success, while others were disappointed that only a few thousand people showed up.
Brito was working with immigrants-rights groups that day, trying to coordinate with other protests led by Occupy L.A. But he was not welcomed by his former comrades. Instead, several YouTube videos show him being chased out of Pershing Square by an angry mob.
"Get out of here! You're a liar!" they yelled.
"Mario Brito has to run away from the crowd," said a cameraman narrating the pursuit. "As everyone calls him out! He's trying to put himself in a political politician position! That's why you're running away!" To a bystander, the cameraman cried, "Watch out, he's gonna hurt you! He puts people in headlocks! That's what he does all day!"
Julia Wallace, an Occupier who was an early critic of the police, can be seen in one video denouncing Brito for having "posed as a leader of the Occupy movement."
"He's proven himself to be a charlatan," Wallace tells the Weekly. "He's someone who tried to collude with the LAPD. He's a political opportunist and a thug."
But for many people, Brito's expulsion left a bitter taste.
"It was ugly," Elise Whitaker says. "It was really ugly the way that happened."
Brito prefers to move on. He's now working for Alarcon's campaign for state Assembly and does not want to reignite old controversies. "This process was an eye-opener in many ways," he says. "I don't think I'm anywhere near as idealistic as I was."
The offspring of Occupy have continued to stage actions. A group of about 10 people — many homeless — has been camping outside the office of the Central City Association to protest downtown gentrification. Some participants were arrested for chalking on the sidewalk, which led to a chalking protest at the Downtown L.A. Artwalk festival in July.
That protest led to a confrontation with cops in riot gear. Someone threw bottles at the police, who responded with rubber projectiles. Several people were injured. Though the Occupy protesters said they were victims of an aggressive response, some also said the action was poorly planned and made little strategic sense.
"You can't have people getting hurt without having consented to it," Whitaker says. "You can't grow public support if people are turned off and afraid of your movement."
Whitaker had been deeply involved in organizing Occupy L.A. But she'd begun to step back. She has since joined up with a group called 99 Rise, an Occupy offshoot committed to getting money out of politics.
"It was really difficult for me emotionally to disconnect from Occupy," Whitaker says. "It had been my home. ... I understand why people feel the need to hold on. But there's not much to hold on to."
Julia Wallace also has stepped back, and now is involved in groups including a "women's circle," which sprouted up to combat sexual assault and harassment at encampments. There is also a "men's circle" with the same objective, and an anti-rape group called Smashing Patriarchy. (In addition to its original hand signals, Occupy L.A. now has a "point of ovaries" — forefinger and thumb in a circle, three fingers extended — which indicates that a woman is in trouble.)
But as one cohort of Occupiers burned out and moved on, others hung in and rose to prominence. One of them was Ulises Hernandez, the 21-year-old undocumented immigrant with a GED and no previous political experience. Hernandez used to go door to door, offering to fix roofs. But when his family started fighting with Bank of America, he got political.
The Hernandez family bought their home in Van Nuys in 2005 for $546,000, through Countrywide. They put no money down. When the interest rate went up, they found themselves unable to make the payments, and unable to work out a loan modification. In September 2011, the house was sold back to the bank at auction for $270,000.
Soon after, Hernandez heard about protesters being arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge. He ended up paying a visit to the Occupy L.A. encampment.
"It felt right," he says. "There were middle-class people talking to the homeless, and homeless talking to the middle class. It was beautiful. They were trying to build a new form of society. I really did feel that. I still feel like another world is possible."
After the raid, some Occupy protesters started breaking up foreclosure sales at the Norwalk courthouse. They occupied homes, drawing media attention and, in some cases, winning a reprieve for the homeowners. Word spread, and distressed homeowners began coming to the meetings for help.
Similar home occupations took place around the country. In May, Occupy protesters were driven out of a foreclosed home in Minneapolis, only to return repeatedly. That action was cited in an Adbusters "tactical briefing," which praised what it saw as "a new model" for Occupy: "Small groups of fired-up, second-generation occupiers acting independently, swiftly and tenaciously pulling off myriad, visceral local actions, disrupting capitalist business-as-usual across the globe."
When Hernandez got his own eviction notice, Occupy San Fernando Valley relocated to his home. Media attention drew Bank of America to try to work something out with the family, although bank officials say the Hernandez family has not supplied the necessary paperwork. A month into the occupation, eviction still looms.
The cops have been by several times in response to neighborhood complaints. Three weeks into the occupation, someone phoned a tip to the Department of Children and Family Services, alerting them that children were in the home without water and electricity. A social worker showed up at midnight. (The complaint was false, and the social worker left.)
Last week, Hernandez was protesting at the local Bank of America branch when he heard that several police cars had shown up at the house. They told him to move the couches out of the street. He refused and was given a citation and told to appear in court. The family held a "foreclosure fair," serving food, playing music and face painting in front of Fort Hernandez.
It's not an office at City Hall, but it's where they want to be.
"This is not about victory," Hernandez says. "It's about showing resistance."
by Gene Maddaus
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