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Occupant | Occupied Stories

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This article was originally published in Slake No. 4. To read all of the stories from that issue,purchase the issue or subscribe at shop.slake.la. The author also has a book reading next Wednesday at Book Soup in LA.

Los Angles, CA – It’s almost midnight on Tuesday, November 29, 2011, and we’re preparing ourselves for the end of the longest-running Occupy encampment in the United States. We’ve known it’s been coming since Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who had initially professed his solidarity with the movement, announced the camp was no longer “sustainable” at a late-afternoon press conference the previous Friday. On Sunday evening, thousands of supporters kept the police from entering the camp. They’re back, and for the second time now I sit with a hundred people circling a tent filled with supplies for the night. We’ve been here for hours, passing water jugs, chanting, singing, feeling our legs go numb, huddling into each other for warmth. We keep our arms linked, stay planted in the middle of the City Hall plaza—Solidarity Park to us—and listen for the news, arriving in breathless reports from fellow occupiers in the street. Helicopters swarm overhead and a cluster of media is allowed in the park behind a line of officers.

Finally, early Wednesday morning hundreds of police in riot gear stream out of City Hall (underground tunnels, it’s true!) and surround us. A voice from a speaker in a white police van declares that we are an unlawful assembly according to Los Angeles municipal code. We declare our right to peaceably assemble for redress of grievances under the First Amendment. In a few other American cities, that argument has worked to forestall police evictions.

Now, though, the cops won’t look us in the eye. They descend on my circle.

One officer digs into pressure points on my neck and back. Another officer pulls my left leg out from under me and twists my ankle. The third pulls on my arms, using pressure points to force me to let go. “The last man to touch me like this was a rapist!” I yell. Once they force me out of the circle, I go limp. They toss me onto my stomach, then turn me back over and carry me out to stand in line with others who have been arrested.

“The cameras are off you now,” the officer carrying my upper half says. “Your little statement is over. You can walk now.”

“No thanks,” I say. I never see his face.

Meanwhile, LAPD officers in hazmat suits—an unsubtle message for anyone watching the news—raze thousands of dollars of camping equipment that could have been redistributed to Skid Row. I watch them stomp on our tents, destroy our meeting spaces, break our equipment, and knock over ingenious makeshift furniture built of found objects. The news will not mention our devoted internal sanitation crew or the people who worked day and night to make sure we had Porta Potties. The media seem more interested in the political theater of officers in space suits than in understanding the stunningly beautiful, innovative community of shared resources Occupy L.A. had become.

The camp is gone in a flash and now I am one of the 292 people arrested at the “peaceful eviction” of Occupy Los Angeles. We are put in tight, plastic zip ties and loaded onto a bus at 4 a.m. When the bus starts on its way nearly an hour later, Christmas music blares from the speakers.

An elderly woman cries because her cuffs are too tight. We ask the driver to do something about it. “Maybe she should have left her eighty-year-old ass at home,” he says during a particularly reverent rendition of “Little Drummer Boy.” The girls in the back start scream-singing songs from The Rocky Horror Picture Show to drown out “Jingle Bell Rock.”

“This is weird,” I say to my friend Kayla. I hadn’t expected it to be so surreal. Bing Crosby? At this hour? In this situation?

We shift around to accommodate each other’s aching arms and stinging wrists. One woman faints from the pain. Others pee themselves after being denied bathrooms for hours. We watch the sun rise through the bus windows and demand to know where we are—too far away from downtown for any of us to speculate. The driver does not answer. We chant our solidarity with Wall Street, Tahrir Square, protesters in Syria who are all suffering more cruelty than we are. After dawn, we discover we’re at Valley Jail Section in Van Nuys, a detention center nearly thirty miles from the site of our arrest.

Los Angeles may have deployed 1,400 officers to handle the eviction, but the jails processing our arrests seem eerily understaffed. The handful of cops working the early-morning shift are not jailers, but beat cops who have no experience with the paperwork or the protocol. Property is lost. Medicine is denied. The windowless processing room is recognizably government-issue: graying wood file cabinets, metal furniture, scratched plexiglass, and corners caked with years of detritus. The jail cells are painted a soothing green, and the vinyl on the cots sticks to our skin unless we wrap ourselves in our scratchy blankets. The vegetarian option is Cheerios.

On the second day, we are allowed ten minutes outside to shower, six at a time, under two shower heads. Women who had never met are suddenly naked, scrubbing, averting their eyes and attempting to beat the clock. We put our stinking clothes back on. My stepfather is told I’m on a bus on my way to my arraignment, though I’ve been in the same holding cell since I got here. It doesn’t take long to get lost in the machine.

***

Occupy Los Angeles was one of the largest Occupy encampments in the United States. Our General Assemblies were smaller than Occupy Wall Street’s but our tent city was massive and intricate. Our organization around direct actions was and is less focused than Occupy Oakland’s. Our interaction with cops, until the eviction, was bizarrely friendly, a source of much internal conflict.

The reason for this is that for many who gathered here, the financial inequality, illegal foreclosures, corporate personhood, corrupt banking system, and Wall Street crimes are felt most palpably at home, in the form of law enforcement. The occupiers who have spent their lives as targets of police surveillance and violence (especially the communities who are used to organizing internally in East Los Angeles, South-Central, Inglewood, Skid Row, and so on), tended to have little patience for those of us who insisted on being “liaisons” to law enforcement, on working with the city officials who eventually ordered our camp to be destroyed.

The “peaceful eviction” provided a crash course in reality for many occupiers unfamiliar with the physical and psychological reality of the prison-industrial complex and militarized police forces. One of my cellies, a woman in her forties, breaks down in tears on the floor next to our exposed toilets and says, “This is it. I’m never going to be the same after this.” I still see her at marches weeks after our eventual release. She’s not going back to her safe and comfortable former life.

There are many more where she came from. Nearly six weeks after the eviction, twenty occupiers set up a small camp in the backyard of a wrongfully foreclosed home in Van Nuys. The sheriff’s deputies are surprised to find us there and come at us with their guns drawn. They put three of us in cuffs and lock out the pajama-clad homeowner, Bertha Herrera.

Herrera kept perfect records to show that her case was mishandled by the bank, but so far she’s been denied her day in court to fight for the home she’s owned for thirty-one years. I walk door-to-door in the neighborhood with her, telling her story to neighbors, and discover that six homes in a two-block radius are facing similar proceedings. Herrera tells me that without the occupiers there to help her, she would have not had the strength to fight. We are mobilizing to help the other families in her area.

The day after Herrera is kicked out of her home, I go to what would have been my arraignment at the Superior Court. No charges have been filed against me in the November 30 arrest, but the city attorney can hold on to my case for a year and file charges at any time. Many occupiers are in a similar situation. Regardless of whether this is a calculated deterrent or the result of our overwhelming the system, the effect is that we are all on an informal probation.

I’d like to sit in a room with a few of those 400 people who control most of the wealth in this country and say, “Come on, guys. Seriously. You know what you did. Fix it.” Instead, it seems that people are looking to the Occupy movement for the answers. We are less than a year old. We are a diverse and fluid crew of people with all levels of experience, education, and commitment, who are still trying to get to know each other and understand our political differences. We struggle constantly with the problems of building consensus and the joys of group decision making, and we are not moving fast, but we are going far.

-Vanessa Carlisle-

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