Posted on 02 December 2011.
Editor’s Note: 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.
Los Angeles, CA–The air is cool and the ground is damp from a recent downpour when I pitch my tent on one of the few unclaimed patches of dirt on the southwest lawn of Los Angeles City Hall. It’s just two weeks since the movement took root here and this is prime real estate, a couple hundred feet from the steps of the nightly General Assembly of Occupy Los Angeles. I stomp my last stake in the ground as night falls and the lights on the plaza steps come on like some kind of tribal hearth. It’s the nightly call to gather and conspire to change the world. Jimmy, a sixty-year-old schizophrenic I recognize from Skid Row, isn’t going to make it. He’s shuffling to an R&B classic that’s been playing in his head since he left Detroit in ’72.
I’m not going to make it either. I need to mark my territory. So I curl up in my sleeping bag and take stock of my immediate surroundings. Hollywood gangbangers are posted up on one side of me. On the other are Cliff and his mute wife. Cliff says they’re here for the free food. Drum circles carry on endlessly to the south and a tribe of feral teens makes a den directly across from me.
I check my camera gear and doze off. Sometime around 1 a.m., a body topples onto my tent and wakes me from a dreamy sleep. I crawl outside and find myself in the middle of a scene that could have been happening at a warehouse party in Pomona. A mob of twentysomethings from Nowhere, California—white hippie chicks, Venice Beach drifters, cholos, neoanarchists—are drinking, dancing, flirting, and fighting in the walkway in front of my new home. Clearly crystal meth and acid are in the mix. It doesn’t take long to see that Occupy L.A. after dark is the best party in town if you’re a disenfranchised kid on the economic margins.
But it isn’t all fun and games. As the mainstream media keeps its eyes on Oakland and New York, Los Angeles will quietly and steadily become one of the largest and longest-running occupations in the movement. Before its end, Jesse Jackson, Bill Maher, Deepak Chopra, Cornel West, and other name-brand liberals will drop by to pay their respects. The fifty-eight-day occupation will hold numerous teach-ins, workshops, marches, rallies, and acts of community outreach. The Day of Action march on November 17 will bring more than 2,000 protesters into the streets of downtown, and the block party on November 27 will bring thousands more to City Hall. Occupy L.A. pressure will also help stir Councilman Richard Alarcón’s responsible-banking ordinance from its two-year coma.
After a few hours of fitful sleep, I take a stroll around the neoclassical/art deco mash-up that is L.A.’s City Hall. Inside, a weak mayor tries to preside over council-member-run fiefdoms in what often plays like a sloppy political sitcom compared to the one-man show in Michael Bloomberg’s bloodless New York. Around here, consensus is always hard to come by, whether you’re indoors or out.
Walking the grounds, I see how the tent clusters have formed. The music tribe takes the south lawn; the meditation tent and people’s library are on the north; an artist colony of sorts is forming at the northwest corner; some other less identifiable contingencies form on the west. The east is no-man’s land sprinkled with freelancers that include marijuana reformers. Throughout, people are hard at work in places like the media tent, the wellness tent, the welcome tents.
Then there’s Chris, a scrappy young guy from Louisiana who is camping in the Bike Scum tent. Chris is not an activist in the traditional sense. He doesn’t attend the General Assembly. He isn’t on any committees or a member of any affinity groups. He doesn’t go to the teach-ins or work groups, nor does he listen to any of the G.A. guest speakers who come to show solidarity. He’s just out of prison and he’s getting ready for the crackdown.
“I’m here to fight,” he says, twirling a rock wrapped in a long, leather strap. “I love it.”
Journal entry—October 9, 2011
This is a place of cultural violence and bad breath; patrician manners gone missing. This is the revolution. The anarchists, the advocates, the activists, the militants, the socialists, the communists, Skid Row psych patients, off-season burning men, the gangsters, the enraged, the curious, and the middle-class parents who bring their children to the frontline of the American class war for a lesson in the price of democracy.
One week into my occupation and I’ve already met most of the campers, know most of their faces, some of their names, and why they are here. Mario Brito, Occupy L.A.’s liaison with the city, is a Catholic activist who in his teens got involved with the Cesar Chavez-led United Farm Workers movement. Elise Whitaker from the actions committee is a twenty-one-year-old Midwestern transplant with a lot of energy and organizing skills. She seems to magically appear wherever something’s about to jump off. Max Funk is an economist from Coachella who developed a software program he says could route all financial transactions through the U.S. Treasury, eliminating the need for banks. Anthony is an eighteen-year-old from East Los Angeles who has joined the facilitation committee.
Occupy L.A. embraces a policy of inclusion just a block from Skid Row. Among the campers, one can see the human embodiment of the issues that propel the movement: deficits in income, education, housing, health care, and mental health, the prison-industrial complex. The bursting seams of our social fabric have names and faces and are living in tents on City Hall’s lawn.
Like David, a fifteen-year-old SoCal hippie who needs to get his schizophrenic father treated. But if he does, child services will send him back to live with his grandparents in a gang-infested neighborhood. As with a lot of folks these days, David doesn’t feel like he has a lot of good options. For now, pitching a tent at Occupy is just the least-worst one.
Most mornings Juan, a former schoolteacher, can be found sweeping the south plaza at the base of the steps just outside the mayor’s office. His makeshift broom is a large piece of filthy cloth tied to a stick that he drags from one end of the camp to the other. The bank foreclosed on his home, so Occupy L.A. is a temporary safe haven. With his leathery face, rotted teeth, quirky yellow harem pants, and whatever headdress he’s got on that day, Juan routinely disrupts the General Assembly with his ranting and prancing. Juan can be loud, chaotic, annoying, or incredibly entertaining depending on the day. The wheels of direct democracy move too slowly for him and he isn’t afraid to let folks know.
“We need to find a place of our own now,” he says in a thick accent, taking a break from his housekeeping duties. While others fantasize about creating a sustainable living situation in the middle of downtown, Juan, with more real-life experience than most occupiers, understands that the camp’s days are numbered, no matter how much love Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief Charlie Beck publicly profess.
Journal entry—October 19
A constant influx of new arrivals includes an increasingly large collective of defiant outliers who take the camp hostage nightly, producing a relentless racket and making it impossible to sleep. Fatigue almost makes me reconsider my commitment to the new revolution, but not really. Truth is, I’m head over heels.
I haven’t seen Santiago all day. My tent neighbor is short in stature but has a big heart. A Salvadoran gangbanger who followed a girl to City Hall, he’s been seduced by the cause. Now he’s part of the internal peacekeeping force and says he’s had a big transformation. I ask his tentmate, the guy with the Sinaloa Cartel tattoo, if he’s seen Santiago. He says Santiago took some guy to Lamp Village, a homeless shelter on San Pedro and Fifth Street, to get cleaned up.
When he gets back, Santiago tells me he’s never heard of the Spanish “Indignant” movement or the magazine Adbusters or any of the many Occupy creation stories. He blazes a bowl of weed and says he did some horrible things after his parents died when he was a teenager, but that was all in the past. Now he’s going to become an activist. “Now I can feel, like, my heart beating. Like, now!” he says. “I wanna help people. I wanna stand up for what I believe in. I wanna take the light back to my hood and shine it on my homies.”
How he’ll make the transition from gangbanger to activist is unclear, even to him, but he says he doesn’t care. He’s twenty-three. “It’s like, fuck … what the fuck else am I doing? Shit. There is no place else. This is it. That’s obvious.”
For these kids, protest is the thing, the Occu-party is just a perk. Lacking education and experience with formal conventions, they express themselves and support the movement with what they have—their bodies. You can almost feel them sucking in the positive reinforcement like oxygen, or weed.
Later that night, as the General Assembly kicks off, I sit on the plaza steps with Temper Goldie, a delightfully aggro, cherub-faced young woman from San Diego. Goldie has HIV, hep C, and no medical insurance. She says she was pregnant with twins when the San Diego police shot and killed her first husband last year. I don’t ask why. She says she lost the babies. She’s also lost her patience with the chaos at the L.A. occupation and is heading for Oakland tomorrow. I guess she prefers a different kind of drama.
Announcements about upcoming actions and other business are aired, then proposals, including one about adopting a set of community norms so we can all get a good night’s sleep.
Fat chance. Around midnight, a band with a portable P.A. system powers up in a tent cluster across from me and blasts music till dawn. A hundred hipsters show up and party down. The scene could have easily been happening at the Dragonfly on Santa Monica Boulevard on any Saturday night. The next day the wellness tent is out of condoms.
Journal entry—October 26
Kurtz upriver. I’m now three weeks in a tent and haven’t seen a mirror in days. I’m not exactly sure who people are looking at when I talk to them. Occupy L.A. is a time-release love drug, an ecstasy-and-coke cocktail with a Demerol garnish. She comes on slow and then opens you up like a randy teenager at a sixties peace rally. The morning after is another story altogether.
The occupation of City Hall is just shy of one month old. I get up early and head to Starbucks in Little Tokyo, a block east of City Hall. I haven’t been out of the camp for days and can’t stomach the stench of the few Porta Potties. On the way back to camp, I run into Commander Andrew Smith near the plaza’s south steps. Smith has been one of my LAPD sources for years, and a cover story I did on him for the L.A. Weekly in 2005 when he was captain at Central Division didn’t hurt his career. Now Smith is in charge of media relations and community affairs and is LAPD’s public face vis a vis the occupation. Smith strolls the plaza in his starched blues with a confident ease.
He tells me the department respects people’s right to protest. He reminds me that Chief Beck came up through the ranks during Rodney King and Rampart. As Smith puts it, the department wants to show that “this is not Daryl Gates’s LAPD.”
It’s not just the LAPD that wants to put its best foot forward. Activists from around the city have been spring loaded, waiting for an opportunity like this. So far, it’s symbiosis. L.A. gets to occupy in peace and the police get to show how far they’ve come since Rampart or even the MacArthur Park May Day melee in 2007.
I run into Julia Wallace in the plaza at dusk on November 3. She is gearing up for the anti-police-brutality march in solidarity with Occupy Oakland, which has been taking a beating from the cops. A social activist from Inglewood, Wallace is a member of a revolutionary organization called SU/LU (Struggles United/Luchas Unidas). She and her twin sister can often be found riding the bullhorn at the frontlines of most marches.
The plan is for an unpermitted march through the streets of the financial district. It is defiant by design. Unlike the other marches, the cops haven’t been notified. People from Occupy Oakland are here to support the protest. The crowd is a little rougher around the edges and darker in hue than the typical Occupy L.A. Not that Occupy L.A. is an Anglo affair. By my estimate it’s about 40 percent white, 35 percent Latino, and 20 percent black, with a mix of other ethnicities making up the rest. It’s also overwhelmingly male.
“We have the power! We have the numbers! There’s no amount of helicopters that can change that! Organize, occupy, strike, power!” Julia leads the charge. You can almost feel the heat rising from the pavement under the feet of 400-plus marching from City Hall to the financial district. No one is intimidated by the police officers clocking the procession. The undercurrent of rage is palpable.
Thirty minutes into the march, cops appear in large numbers. Young officers, looking like they might be questioning which side they should be on, white knuckle factory-fresh batons. Someone asks, “Why would you feel like a criminal for expressing your First Amendment rights on public property?”
Journal entry—November 3
Tonight’s march against police violence was ecstatic. The power of the people is intoxicating. My heart was banging so hard I thought it would split my ribs. I met an old friend from the seventies in the streets of L.A. tonight—me. A defiance that I’d put into a box sometime in the eighties is reasserting itself. The world is unhinging from the rusty moorings of economic, political, and corporate oppression.
While Oakland gets ready to rumble and New York is about to get evicted, Occupy L.A. more or less does what Los Angeles does—gets shit done. Occupy L.A. will sanction more than sixty actions in fifty-eight days through an ad hoc network of committees, subcommittees, affinity groups, and occupiers holding teach-ins, workshops, marches, and rallies. There will be solidarity marches, bank transfer days, Citizens United protests, a National Action Day march with the Service Employees International Union and Good Jobs L.A., and regular appearances by high-profile progressives on the City Hall stairs. For the most part, the atmosphere remains festive and serious, accommodating but not overly indulgent.
Things are going well. Occupy L.A. is producing results. You can still bring your kids to the plaza and have a good time at the revolution, as long as you don’t let them wander out of sight. Arrests are still an anomaly.
The we-can-all-get-along vibe between the cops and the camp starts to shift when a group of fifty or so occupiers join a flash mob at the Bank of America branch on Seventh and Figueroa. There, they confront customers, chanting, “Bank of America, bad for America.” Some protesters plan to pitch a tent near the entrance. A young black guy in a mask lays down his sleeping bag and chants through a bullhorn, “Don’t forget your inner child.”
The whole action is more stunt than hostile confrontation. But when the cops show up, it is with an old-school confrontational stance. Lieutenant Paul Vernon, Central Division head of detectives, snarls, “We don’t owe you anything. We’re not doing First Amendment gestures here.”
Meanwhile, turns out Mayor Villaraigosa has been on the phone with other mayors trying to reconcile the desire to appear down with the cause with the need to appear in control of the situation. After the first Oakland clampdown, Mayor Jean Quan admits to participating in a strategy call with the mayors of seventeen other occupied cities. The crackdowns in Oakland, New York, Portland, Seattle, and Atlanta play out similarly: an overwhelming show of force, mass arrests, night-time mobilizations, the use of nonlethal projectiles, pepper spray, sound cannons, tear gas, and clubs. Los Angeles holds out, even though Villaraigosa, as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, is obviously in the loop.
Finally, November 24, Thanksgiving, cops post signs announcing that City Hall grounds will be closed at 10:30 p.m. nightly. As a compromise, the city offers Occupy an office space across the street and a patch to pitch tents at an urban farm in South Los Angeles. It feels like a weak attempt to retain some moral high ground and official affinity with the 99 percent. The gesture is refused and a press conference is scheduled for the next day.
As word circulates that the Occupy camp is getting the boot, some pack up and some climb into trees. Others prepare for violent confrontation. Santiago helps me pack up my tent. He is already thinking about moving his to the next occupation, wherever that may be.
All the usual suspects are gathered for the Friday press conference at the third-floor conference room in City Hall. Villaraigosa stands at the podium with Chief Beck at his side. Network news personalities, local affiliate reporters, and print media journalists wait patiently to be spoon fed the official line. Throughout, the media has all but refused to take the movement seriously, opting instead for lazy condescension, calling it an “endless slumber party.”
When an Occupy activist interrupts the show to read from the General Assembly minutes rejecting the city’s relocation proposal, the journalists shush him. Villaraigosa cites health violations as the reason for the eviction just moments before admitting that Department of Health has found no actual violations. The bobbleheads don’t register the inconsistency. A news babe from KTLA asks if there will be special eviction procedures for Occu-pets.
The mayor declares the 500 tents will have to vacate City Hall Park by 12:01 a.m. on the twenty-eighth. The announcement’s timing, in the vacuum of a postholiday Friday afternoon, all but ensures it won’t be contested in court. In response, the G.A. sanctions a block party for Sunday, November 27, to protest the eviction. Two thousand gather in the plaza for the assembly and the block party floods the streets until midnight. All the TV crews show up. Santiago is elated as theLAPD show up in riot gear and parade like peacocks before surprisingly backing off.
Journal entry—November 25
Quote of the day: Two young homies in hoodies enter camp from Main Street as Esai Morales is singing with a band on the south steps. “Can we get some Adele up in this bitch?” Occupy L.A. is not without humor. It just feels that way sometimes.
Monday morning, the City Hall lawn is like an empty battlefield. A few die-hards still tweaking from the block party linger in the plaza. It would have been the perfect time to raze the Occupy village, but perhaps the timing lacked drama, or news coverage. An eerie détente settles in as the movement and police regroup.
By Tuesday evening, though, a thousand people are back at the plaza steps for the General Assembly. Up-to-the-minute tweets have everyone alerted that the LAPD is staging at Dodger Stadium. News trucks line the streets; the media is fully present and sufficiently caffeinated. A pretty-boy newscaster from KTLA has a gas mask hanging from his belt. CNN tries to pull up next to City Hall, but protesters block its path and kick the van. Cops have to escort the van away. It’s CNN’s first Occupy L.A. appearance.
Journal entry—November 30
If you flatten one tent, ten more will reappear.
At 12:15 a.m., Wednesday, November 30, 500 riot-gear-clad police burst through City Hall doors and spill into the camp, passing under the Cicero quote etched in the building above the south plaza steps: He that violates his oath profanes the divinity of faith itself. Another thousand police broach the camp’s perimeter, where hundreds of occupiers link arms, chanting, “We are peaceful.”
Cops with billy clubs chase hundreds through the streets. The bomb squad, the arson unit, and cops in hazmat suits are all on the scene. The police even break out that little dune buggy thing not seen in public since the Lakers championship riot back in 2009.
Helicopter searchlights and news-crew spotlights illuminate the action. A pool of reporters surrounded by police guards watches the spectacle. The mayor stands near the patch where I’ve pitched my tent for the past two months. He wears an enigmatic grin and an LAPD windbreaker. Commander Smith and other officials are caught in the frenzy, unavailable for comment beyond what everyone already knows: it’s closing time.
After weeks serving on Occupy’s action committee, Elise Whitaker is terrified as she links arms with others in the middle of the plaza. Whitaker is arrested and will spend three days in jail, including fourteen hours in solitary confinement after protesting the treatment of another prisoner. Police will make 300 arrests. Among them is an eighty-five-year-old woman who will be forced to urinate in a plastic bag while she’s detained.
Occupiers who aren’t arrested regroup at La Placita Olvera across from Union Station. A medical tent is up and ready, but so far there are no injuries. The buzz of having played cat and mouse through the streets of downtown with the police is undeniable. It feels like rebellion.
At 5 a.m., I walk with Santiago through the aftermath. The camp is leveled. Construction crews put down concrete barriers and chain-link fencing. City Hall looks more like a prison yard than a symbol of public service.
“This is like the future of tomorrow, today, at City Hall,” says Santiago with the particular metaphorical panache of a young cholo. “And they, like, brought the bomb squad? Shit.”
Journal entry—December 1
Tents are vortexes of accelerated transformation. My place on the Westside, far from the physical nexus of Occupy, is not a sanctuary anymore. Mailbox full of bills and empty of checks. Whatever doesn’t feel real is falling away like a dried scab. Convictions that had been replaced with counterfeit aspirations are resurfacing. Today, I am packing up everything that I need. It isn’t much. Getting rid of everything that isn’t essential. I’m leaving the house I’ve been occupying for the past four years.
A few weeks after the eviction, Santiago calls from county jail. He was popped on a weapons charge but let out after three days. I guess we can’t afford to keep people locked up indefinitely anymore. I pick him up across from Union Station, where he was still occupying a tent. We go to Philippe’s. He likes the 9-cent coffee (soon to be 45 cents).
Santiago’s posteviction transformation, like my own, is not going to be easy. But he’s sticking with it. He’s been to almost every Occupy action since the encampment was shut down, including the Bank of America foreclosure protests the week after the eviction and Occupy the Port in Long Beach on December 12. He went to protest public education cuts and rising tuition at the University of California regents meeting at UC Riverside on January 19. If he can find a ride, and isn’t in jail, he’ll probably occupy Chicago on May 1, when the G8 and NATO hold summits. He definitely won’t want to miss the DNC in Charlotte in September 3. He’s now a foot soldier in the class war.
- Sam Slovik -