There are times when I really hate Los Angeles. Locked in traffic on the 405 during rush hour, going to a bar or restaurant filled with hipster posers, watching the drivel that passes for local TV news. You can now add to that catalog going to Occupy Los Angeles (OLA) events at Pershing Square downtown. Oh, not because of the occupiers, a valiant group of Children’s Crusaders and ancient 60s hippies, the only groups left in our society with the guts to say the emperor has no clothes. No, I hate going to Occupy Los Angeles events because the Los Angeles Police Department are, well, pigs. Yeah, the waste of taxpayer dollars involved in the ongoing petty harassment of Occupiers, well it finally starts to get to you. You realize there’s a machine out there, a grinder up of anything decent and human. You might have told yourself the LAPD are simply working class stiffs, 99%ers forced to enforce the will and whim of the 1%ers. You might have said that, until you saw what they did on Saturday. And the LAPD had to retreat, cowardly vermin that they are. But not before they had revealed themselves as the class traitors they are. Every taxpayer in Los Angeles should be seriously pissed off that his or her tax dollars are being wasted.
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Alma and I had received an invitation via FaceBook to attend a ‘themed General Assembly’ on Saturday afternoon at Pershing Square. Although OLA has regular Gas on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, it holds a themed GA on Saturdays. The theme for the May 12 GA was ‘Alternatives to Capitalism.’ It sounded like it would be an interesting event and, as both Alma and I fashion ourselves Socialists, seemed like an event right up our alley.
For non-Angelenos, Pershing Square is a one-block urban park in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, located about mid-way between City Hall and the financial district on Bunker Hill. Mostly paved concrete with a couple grassy patches, Pershing Square hosts some really cool urban art, as well as a collection point for the derelicts and cast-offs of post-modern capitalism. Since November, Pershing Square has served as Occupy Los Angeles’ site for its GAs, now that the camp at City Hall has been violently destroyed by the LAPD.
We arrived right about 1 p.m. and parked in the underground parking structure. When we reached the surface, a group of about 75-100 activists was already there. Tables were set up offering food and various publications and clothing. This was a faint echo of the vibrant barter scene at the original OLA, but it is important to note that no money changes hands at these tables. Goods and services are freely offered and nothing is asked in return. (I always admired OLA’s valiant efforts to feed all comers at its pre-raid City Hall location, in the face of Public Health Department obstructions and more mouths than food.)
The GA began with a few ritualistic invocations offered by Karoline and Elena, the two moderators. Esteban kicked off the GA proper with a brief reading of a definition of capitalism as an economic system where the means of production are privately owned for personal profit. And then the GA was asked to do breakout groups on various questions like whether bosses should be able to terminate workers and whether the current system could be fixed. (I played Devil’s Advocate and answered ‘yes’ to both questions, for the purposes of stimulating debate.)
Various speakers then addressed the GA on the topics of dialectical materialism, on what was wrong with the current system and what if anything should replace it. It was interesting hearing the various socialist and communist organizations’ speakers. I personally overheard representatives from the Freedom Socialist Party, the International Communist Workers’ Party, the International Socialist Organization and the Revolutionary Communist Party (the latter a group I had a passing acquaintance with back in 2004-5). There is as much doctrinal disagreement among these various factions as there is between the Democrats and Republicans. As one example, the ICWP does not believe in evolving from capitalism through socialism to communism but instead jumping straight to communism and abolishing money, whereas the Freedom Socialist Party seems to follow more closely the traditional Western European Socialist tradition of a gradual evolution from capitalism to socialism to communism. When I spoke briefly, I said that the new system needs to be founded on the principle of organizing itself to meet people’s needs rather than satisfying people’s greed, a message that was warmly received probably because I kept it vague as to specifics. I did mention one specific need that capitalism has failed to meet, hunger and used it to take a few shots at the Republican assholes and bullies who would cut children off nutrition assistance in the interest of balancing their budget, while not raising taxes on the rich or cutting the military budget.
In the midst of these discussions by the various attendees, the proceedings were disrupted when a phalanx of LAPD officers entered the park in wedge formation and tried to break down the various tables and tear down the erected banners. Their rationale: OLA had no permit to be selling goods and services. Well, here’s where the ‘communalist’ aspect of OLA becomes pertinent. NO MONEY WAS CHANGING HANDS. Likewise, Los Angeles has an ordinance prohibiting hanging banners from trees on city property. But the banners in question were hung from concrete pillars, not from trees.
As the phalanx first made itself known, the assembled crowd hummed the Star Wars Empire Strikes Back theme -- "Dum, dum, dum, dum da-dum, dum da-dum" and several started chanting “We are not the droids you are looking for.” As the phalanx started trying to remove the banners, the occupiers began chanting at the LAPD, “Racist, sexist, anti-gay. LAPD go away.” I was concerned that the riot squad would be summoned and heads bashed in under the pretext that we were some sort of ‘unlawful assembly’ (the same rationale used when busting up the camp in late November). The 25-30 LAPD officers were easily outnumbered by now by 10-1, as attendance at the GA had grown. While I did not see any officer unholster a firearm, I did see a few officers put their hands on their batons in a rather threatening manner. However, after some heated words between various occupiers and LAPD, the LAPD phalanx retreated back to the street the way it had come. Cost to the taxpayers for this petty harassment: easily $5,000 in wages and overtime, I’m guessing. On the plus side, no occupier was arrested and no one got his or her head bashed in.
I don’t honestly know if the politicians and LAPD leadership are aware that many of Los Angeles’ future political leaders, its current occupiers, are starting to detest the LAPD. At some point, Occupiers will hold the fate of LAPD’s budgets and pensions in its hands and LAPD will have to pray for the very charity and magnanimity it has failed to display. After so much repression, it’s an open question now whether LAPD rank and file will be able to depend on that charity and magnanimity based on its behavior.
When the GA resumed after the LAPD’s harassment had ended, a gentle soft-spoken young man with a British accent made an observation that I found incredibly empowering and liberating. Alluding to the Eastern European literary figures like Kundera and Havel, this gentleman noted that they had always written as though Stalinism was already dead, even when faced with its worst repression. He suggested that Occupy act and communicate as thought the old system is already dead and we merely await the birth of the new system that will take its place. This was said with such a quiet, soft-spoken eloquence and confidence and you had to be listening closely to catch it. But if we stop responding to the Pavlovian stimulus-response pattern offered by capitalism and start modeling the new system, whatever that system may be, the old system will start to lose its power to inflict its horrors upon us. Stirring eloquent stuff – won’t exactly pay our mortgage or keep the deputies from our door if and when BofA forecloses, but still something to think about.
The GA concluded around 4 p.m. when a papier-mache piñata of an ATM machine was attacked by blindfolded OLAers whacking at it with a stick. I was standing on the outskirts of the crowd and only vicariously experienced the catharsis as the ATM piñata withstood several hearty blows before finally disintegrating and disgorging its stash of balled-up colored tissue paper. I’m not sure what all that symbolizes but the crowd clearly got a huge kick out of destroying such a symbol of post-industrial capitalism.
That afternoon, we met many occupiers whom we had known before the raid: Karoline, Elena and Ruth, erstwhile moderators of the GA and stalwarts of the Facilitation Committee, Colin and his K-99% pit bull companion Duncan who unfailingly manned the Welcome Tent before the raid, Gary the indefatigable Labor Committee agitator, Anthony the young occupier still trying to enforce committee accountability – these reunions were like a camp meeting revival in that respect. My heart was again seized with admiration for this group that has sacrificed and suffered so much in pursuit of its dissent with the status quo and vision for a better, alternative future. It is safe to say that, for the most part, those who remain are the serious ones, the most dedicated and the most committed. Gone are the attention seekers, the latter-day Dionysians concerned with drumming their way to paradise. Those who remain constitute a hardened core of visionaries and prophets.
For everything I hate about LA, OLA gives me reason to hope and to hang in here, even when it often seems we have been largely abandoned by our government and left to fend for ourselves. The LAPD and city leaders can harass OLA, it can jail them, it can bash their heads in. But it has not silenced OLA. For how can you silence an idea whose time has come?