Big Tent

November 12, 2011   •   By Sonali Kolhatkar

IT TOOK LOS ANGELES EXACTLY 15 days to spawn a solidarity protest after New Yorkers began camping out in Zuccotti Park in mid-September. Within a month, Occupy L.A. quadrupled its presence on the grassy lawns surrounding City Hall. Despite complaints about damaged grass and expenditures on police presence, there is no end in sight to Occupy L.A. A sea of hundreds of colorful tents has transformed downtown Los Angeles into a local epicenter of the economic discontent being replicated in the remotest corners of the nation. However, the occupation in L.A. has a character and life of its own.

On the one hand, the movement uses the same methods of participatory democracy and decision-making adopted in New York, and decries the same general state of affairs affecting 99% of Americans. Yet unlike New York, Oakland, and many other Occupy sites, L.A. thus far has had little friction with city police or local elected officials. The movement here faces other challenges: The encampment's proximity to Skid Row has brought a relatively unique set of problems for the protesters. Also, a minority of "partiers" threatens to derail the revolutionary spirit the majority of these protestors share.

Angelenos have plenty of reasons to protest. Rampant unemployment and the foreclosure epidemic have hit Los Angeles worse than much of the country. Nearly 20% of the city's residents live below the poverty line, compared with 14% statewide and 15% nationwide. The poverty rate among children is a whopping 28%. Single mothers head nearly half of impoverished Angeleno families. This September, the unemployment rate in L.A. County hit a high of 12% compared to 9% nationwide. On any given night, there are 82,000 homeless people in L.A. County. The September 2011 home foreclosure rate in Los Angeles was nearly 2.5 times greater than the national rate. Additionally, blacks and Latinos among LA's highly diverse population are three times more likely to be exposed to foreclosure than whites.

Occupy L.A. is a manifestation of this rampant inequality and suffering in the heart of the city's business district. Bankers and corporate executives are forced daily to walk past signs like "We Work, They Profit" and "Hungry? Eat a Banker." Mark Lippman, a veteran activist in L.A., told me, "What we're here for is not to support any party or candidate. It's to get real, meaningful change that's going to affect our lives because these are our lives we're talking about here." Similarly, for 21-year-old Elise Whitaker, one of many first-time activists, this movement has provided an outlet for youth like her who feel their futures have been betrayed. "I realized very quickly that this is the movement of our generation," she said.

As the tent city grows, a community has sprouted, igniting human interaction in ways that are often anathema to Los Angeles's sprawl. Occupy L.A. supports a "Kids Village," a "Welcome Center" with an "Activities Board," at least two medic stations, daily meals, and even a supply center where people can take and leave clothes, blankets, and more. The atmosphere has been mainly peaceful, although there were some incidents in early November that derailed the calm. One camper reportedly set someone's clothes on fire, while another allegedly hit someone with a tent pole. A third person was caught dumping paint on a historic fountain at City Hall. All three protesters were arrested and the fountain was barricaded. Occupy L.A.'s Media Relations activist, Liz Savage, shared with me her concern that "we have to do a better job of policing ourselves."

Savage also complained: "We have a gentleman who has decided to take it upon himself to bring Skid Row here... all he's doing is coming here and causing trouble." However, she maintains that Occupy L.A. activists embrace many of the transients now living among them. During my visits to the encampment, the transition from a predominantly educated and activist tent city, into an amalgam of protesters and the dispossessed, is palpable. Who can blame L.A.'s homeless for finding sanctuary among campers who have, so far at least, been given a pass by the LAPD and elected officials?

For years, Skid Row residents have endured mass and arbitrary arrests, property seizures, and persistent harassment by police. "It's a sad thing," Barbara Ehrenreich, whose best-selling book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America was recently republished in its tenth anniversary edition, told me in an interview. "If you're in a group that has political signs and the help of lawyers, you're in a better position than if you're a homeless person who has been forced to live on the streets." Nonetheless, she adds: "Most of the Occupiers are realizing that the homeless are part of the 99% ... and are making common cause with them." Sharing a common space may create deeper empathy among protesters for the day-to-day struggles of L.A.'s transients as the mingled groups enjoy a respite from police persecution.

Thus far, the LAPD remains more than cordial towards the Occupy movement, bucking the ugly trend of arrests, evictions, raids, and violence seen in New York, Oakland, Atlanta, Denver, and dozens of other cities across the nation. Mario Brito, a lead activist in Occupy L.A., embraces a position reflected by a majority of campers, that it is better to assume the LAPD's best intentions based on their current restraint. In a debate over the role of the police, Brito explained, "If we're going to have a combative relationship when it's not necessary and force the closure of our movement prematurely, it doesn't serve anybody's interests but the capitalists'." But a willingness to give the cops the benefit of the doubt has put activists like Mario at odds with a small minority who see the authorities as part of the reason to protest. Alejandra Cruz, an activist representing an anti-police faction countered, "I believe that New York has been so successful not because they acquiesced to the whims of the police but because they stood up to them."

The campers may find out what it means to defy the LAPD in the near future if the rumblings of complaints from the Mayor's office over health, safety, and landscaping become more pronounced. A recent Los Angeles Times editorial decried damage to the "majestic fig trees" outside City Hall, which an Occupy L.A. blog entry characterized as "this century's 'Let them eat cake' statement."

In the meantime, what threatens to unravel the local movement is not so much outside pressure as internal irreverence. An initiative by several Occupy L.A. activists has sprung up to address the growing number of "partiers" in their midst. "We have a minority of people who think this is a festival," said Liz Savage, who is also a member of the 'More Revolution, Less Party' initiative, "but this is not a party." Her seriousness was reflected in a sign I saw facing the sidewalk: "This is not a music festival, this is not a picnic, this is not a tourist attraction, this is not a party. This is a movement: Join us or get lost."

Alex Everett, who has camped out at Occupy L.A. from the start, distills the likely motivation of the movement into a simple statement: he compares the current era to the Gilded Age of the late 1800s, when "money essentially bought politics, and there was no representation of the people." Ultimately, the encampment outside of L.A.'s City Hall may simply, and perhaps most powerfully, represent the notion of democracy in physical and symbolic terms; a reminder to those in power that ordinary Americans outnumber wealthy elites by 99 to 1. The collective realization of that ratio is already the movement's greatest victory.