The End of the Beginning

Los Angeles was different. No tear gas here: our elected representatives wanted us to be comfortable.

By Ben EhrenreichDecember 13, 2011

    The End of the Beginning

    OH, THE FICKLE HEARTS of elected officials. Like hummingbirds, only not pretty. To call a mayor or a city councilman slippery is to insult every smooth, wet stone that has ever graced a streambed. To call them faithless is an offense to all adulterers. To call them liars is, well, too banal. Would you scold an anteater for eating all the ants? Better to trust the wind. Which, at the moment, stings of tear gas and pepper spray drifting south from Oakland and Davis and west from Denver, New York, Rome, Athens, Cairo, Qalandiya, Hama, and Sanaa.

    Los Angeles, though, was different. No tear gas here: our elected representatives wanted us to be comfortable. That was the idea, anyway. It was a bit frustrating for those of us who felt that if it meant anything at all, "occupying" would have to entail some degree of actual confrontation, would mean taking things the authorities would never freely give, would mean placing oneself openly at odds with a system bent on destroying or selling off everything we value about ourselves and one another. ("We are not protesting," wrote Egyptian activists in an October 24 letter of solidarity to the American movement. "Who is there to protest to? What could we ask them for that they could grant?") The local authorities made this difficult. They wanted so badly to be our friends! They provided port-a-potties and ponchos. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's smile was bright enough to light 1,000 General Assembly meetings, even if they dragged past midnight every night.

    Let it be remembered that early in October, in the springtime of L.A.'s occupation, City Council President Eric Garcetti toured the encampment, telling the occupiers, "This is your City Hall ... Stay as long as you need." (In recent days, he has made himself scarce.) Councilman Bill Rosendahl was out there hugging activists. The full council unanimously approved a resolution asserting that "our economic system can only be called broken," went on to lay out the gory and vicious details of that brokenness in more than a dozen paragraphs, and concluded by declaring that "the City of Los Angeles hereby stands in SUPPORT for the continuation of the peaceful and vibrant exercise in First Amendment Rights carried out by 'Occupy Los Angeles.'" Even Councilwoman Jan Perry, who has for a decade been working to shove the homeless off of downtown streets, signed on.

    If the politicians here were as nice as nice can be, L.A.'s occupiers were — from a law enforcement standpoint, at least — model citizens. From the beginning, activists discussed the terms of their very presence with the city and the police. When an LAPD commander told them they could pitch tents during the day but would have to move to the sidewalk at night, they rolled up their sleeping bags each night and obeyed. When a few days later the mayor's office told them not to bother anymore, that they could stay in the park at night, they stayed. In a blog post, a dissenting occupier writing under the name Federica Lorca called it "an occupation by permission."

    Even arrests were coordinated with the police. Remember the occupiers who were arrested on November 17 after setting up tents in the so-called "Bank of America Plaza" downtown? That was a breakaway group, acting on their own, bless them, in an act of symbolic resistance that had the advantage of proximity to a symbol: a bank. The official, General Assembly-approved action had occurred earlier that day, when 23 activists sat down on the asphalt at the intersection of Figueroa and Fourth streets and waited for police to cart them off. The unions had been granted a permit for that march, had told the LAPD where and when they would sit down and how many would be arrested. It was civil enough, but it was not disobedience so much as stage play, a bizarre, orchestrated rite with real cops as grudging extras.

    All their zeal to accommodate the police (who are, some occupiers insist on reminding us, "part of the 99 percent" — as good an argument as any for refining that category) in the end made little difference. Less than three weeks into the occupation, Villaraigosa began to fret about the lawn, the trees, the sprinklers. On October 26, the day of the first police assault on the Oakland occupation, Bill Rosendahl let slip that L.A.'s occupiers had "made their statement" and that it was "time to go," and then pretended he had said no such thing. A mayoral aide told reporters that the activists "don't have an invitation to stay indefinitely," though, in fact, they did. Soon hundreds were being arrested around the country, not only in New York and Oakland but in Denver, Austin, Portland, Fresno, Atlanta, San Diego, Honolulu, Orlando, Richmond. The list goes on. The tide, it seemed, had turned.

    What changed? L.A.'s occupiers were as cooperative as they always had been, enduring more visits from city health inspectors than most businesses will see in a century. "Our economic system" — let's be forthright and call it capitalism — was every bit as "broken" in mid-November as it was in early October. And it was hard to believe — hard to even consider without retching a little — that the mayor who had been laying off city workers and slashing budgets for the past two years was losing sleep over the lawn. On the morning before the police raid on City Hall Park, Villaraigosa told reporters that it was the children at the camp that he was concerned about. A good line. Everybody loves kids. They are even better than lawns.

    Perhaps it was the "downtown business community" — the developers, the banks, the lawyers and lobbyists who answer to the famous 1 percent — that tightened the noose around our mayor's genitalia, causing his mood to swing, abruptly tempering his affection for the First Amendment. Perhaps it was that notorious conference call with the Department of Homeland Security and that cabal of mayors, cops, and other thugs that we collectively flatter with the nickname "government." Who knows? Perhaps it was the Democratic Party leadership, eager to tidy things up before election season commences in earnest, convinced that the occupiers can be put to no electoral use, that they are too grubby, unphotogenic and lumpen, too stubborn or naive to let themselves be herded into the fold of party politics as usual.

    I am only guessing. But Mayor Villaraigosa did us all a favor. His massive police raid on Occupy L.A. provided a few clarifications that will prove important as this movement moves forward, which it most certainly will. First, he could not have more powerfully confirmed Occupy's critique of the corruption of our political system. It doesn't matter if the mayor is a white, billionaire media mogul a la Bloomberg or a working-class Chicano with deep roots in the local labor movement. Oakland's Jean Quan is a "progressive" Democrat. So is Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who unleashed riot police on Philly's occupation just before the L.A. raid. (Forty-five minutes before cops swarmed the park, occupiers here were chanting, "Philly got raided, L.A. won't take it!") Race, class origins, longstanding political affiliations count for little. Party allegiance couldn't be less relevant. Look at our president, at his wars, his bailouts, his complete silence on the repression of the Occupy movement. Proximity to power causes even the most stalwart progressives to suffer strange fits of amnesia and to develop violent allergies to all forms of popular democracy outside the conventional channels. If L.A. "charted a different path," as the mayor put it, it is only because his cops crushed dissent more efficiently and elegantly than New York's or Oakland's, and without so many embarrassing YouTube videos. But they answer, as Villaraigosa does, to the same bosses.

    Second, even the most refined manners will not be rewarded. For all of Occupy L.A.'s efforts to remain in the good graces of the police and the City Council, the camp here suffered the same fate as less courteous occupations elsewhere in the country: tents slashed and destroyed, the park fenced off, the more courageous and stubborn activists dragged away, cuffed with zip ties and bused out of sight. It doesn't matter how many hoops you jump through, how many permits you apply for, how many health and safety inspections you undergo: they don't want you here. They don't want to see you, don't want to hear your voice. Nationwide, the message has been as consistent as it has been clear: there is no room for genuine political protest in the United States. The First Amendment makes for excellent PR, but should you be fool enough to take it seriously, you will eventually find yourself staring at your own reflection in the face shield of a riot cop. Whether you ask for permission or not.

    Third, the cops. Yes, they are people, too. Most of them are. They suffer the same economic dislocations as the rest of us — though their jobs, thanks to our mayor, are rather more secure. They have children, parents, siblings. You might even be related to one. But no matter how beautiful their souls may be, their job is what it always has been: to preserve order. As in the existing order. Regardless of how unjust and repugnant that order may be. This is what they do. It's what they did a century ago, a few blocks north of City Hall in La Plaza Olvera — before Olvera Street became a flauta mecca for tourists, the plaza was L.A.'s first "free speech zone" — in the so-called Christmas Riot of 1913, in which the LAPD charged an IWW gathering, killing one protester and injuring many more. It is what they were doing that Tuesday night when they swarmed like termites down City Hall's south steps and into the park. The Los Angeles Police Department is perhaps the most militarized police force on the planet. It is good at what it does. That the mayor was able to praise the "restraint" of the department's "measured approach" — 1,400 heavily armed officers assaulting a gathering of fewer than 1,000 unarmed and consistently peaceful activists — is testament only to the enormity of the violence they are capable of unleashing.

    So: stage one has ended. Someday soon, I suspect, we will thank the mayors and their cops for the gift of their shortsightedness, for pushing the movement out of the parks and forcing it into a fruitful and vibrant nomadism. Onward: to the universities, the ports, the banks, as far as our legs and our imaginations take us.

    LARB Contributor

    Ben Ehrenreich is the author of The Suitors and Ether. His next book, The Way to the Spring, which is based on his reporting from the West Bank, will be published in June by Penguin Press.


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