Two Months in LA's Solidarity Park
— Vanessa Carlisle
OCCUPY LOS ANGELES was the largest of the “Occupy” encampments: In the space of two months, we grew from around 50 to nearly 500 tents. Our camp developed neighborhoods, tribes, collectives, a print shop, a library, a people’s university, a wellness center, a meditation tent, a kid’s village, and all sorts of fascinating community problems to go with them. This is the particular joy and struggle of being an occupation, and not a traditional group of community organizers; the internal conflict of a commune or a family was playing out simultaneously with our movement and message-building.
Our General Assemblies are smaller than Occupy Wall Street’s but our tent city was over twice as large. We built a massive and intricate world that wrapped around City Hall and spanned over 100,000 square feet.
In the center of what we renamed Solidarity Park, a white fountain stood as a gathering place for occupiers to have committee meetings, drum circles and dialogue. When the city erected an enormous plywood box around the fountain, occupiers painted a stunningly intricate and wildly vivid mural of a purple octopus monster wearing the crest “Federal Reserve Bank” and squeezing a foreclosed home.
We transformed the visual world of downtown with our colors: bright red, green and blue tents and tarps, flowers and flags and signs and people in costume, paintings and tree houses and hundreds of faces and hands and feet ready to march.
We were also located just blocks from Skid Row, where the Los Angeles Police Department will alternately harass or ignore a large concentration of Los Angeles’ house-less population. While media reported that the encampment smelled of marijuana smoke and seemed more like a party than a political statement, we developed methods to address within our own community problems the city at large has still not fixed: poverty, addiction, violence, gangs, disenfranchisement, sexual assault.
We had an Occupiers’ Assembly to discuss camp issues and come up with community guidelines. The fact that our General Assembly functions on consensus, and not majority rule, influences everything: minority voices are encouraged, discourse among diverse opinions is fostered, and no one goes home until the last “hard block” (concern so strong it will stop consensus from moving forward) has been addressed.
LAPD and the media wanted answers and bullet points and efficiency and leaders. We offered, with few exceptions, discussion, horizontal shared leadership, transparency with the group, and slow consideration of every decision.
From Eviction to Rebuilding
Our interaction with cops until our eviction was bizarrely friendly. Now, after our “peaceful evacuation,” more Los Angeles occupiers now seem open to learning the realities of the prison industrial complex and the militarization of our police forces. We are finally talking deeply about privilege and systemic repression.
For many people, financial inequality, illegal foreclosures, corporate personhood, the corrupt banking system, and the fundamental error of allowing white-collar crimes on Wall Street to go unchecked are felt most palpably at home, in the form of law enforcement.
The logic of capitalism is everywhere, and for privileged people it can even seem sane and ethical. For occupiers, it has ceased to be so. Many occupiers who went to jail for our eviction had no plans to be one of the “arrestables,” and have been radicalized by the experience.
As one of the folks who sat down in a circle and protested until the final moments, I can recount that the night of the raid was one of the more dramatic pieces of large-scale social theater I have been part of. The LAPD emerged from City Hall via underground tunnels, in full riot gear, and surrounded us.
I watched them stomp through our encampment, break our tent poles, and destroy our community meeting spaces, our makeshift and motley and lovable new creation. They peeled us out of our circle one by one, using pressure points and twisting our joints, taunting us and keeping us cuffed for hours. When we left the jail, our home was gone.
Now I walk past the empty park, and the eight-foot fence stands in stark ugly contrast to what we had built. As we continue to meet for General Assemblies, for committees, and for actions, we find ourselves trying harder and harder to stay connected, to sustain the Occupy movement. We do this as refugees in “normal” life.
Mayor Villaraigosa sounds perfectly reasonable when he claims that the occupation was “unsustainable.” But only a capitalist cares more about the City Hall Lawn than the sixteen thousand house-less people in Los Angeles. Only a capitalist thinks a protest is a more pressing concern than corporate personhood. Only a capitalist sees a tent city as “debris” and not the stunningly beautiful, innovative, fabulous community of shared resource it was.
One night I returned to our tent and found an unfamiliar man sleeping in it. I woke him to tell him he could stay for another hour or two, but then I would need to return to sleep. He agreed. Two hours later, he was gone. The next day he returned, with a blanket that had gone missing from our tent weeks before. I thanked him. We talked for twenty minutes about what happened to him after he lost his job. He needed dental work badly and was in constant pain. He was not adjusted to being house-less and told me he hated not being able to shine his shoes.
Someday I would like to see a photo book of Occupy Signage. The 99% is nearly everyone, which means there is no normal or average 99%-er, and on a walk around camp you would see everything from “End the Fed” to “Eat the Rich” to “Love is the Answer” to “Fuck the Pigs.” “Where’s MY bailout?” “Lost my job, found an occupation.” “Throwing our bodies under the machine,” “Will work for justice,” “Stop illegal wars, which is all wars.”
Some people were devastatingly clever: “Ten years ago we had Steve Jobs, Johnny Cash, and Bob Hope. Now we have No Jobs, No Cash, and No Hope.” My other favorite: “I will believe corporations are people when Texas executes one.”
What do we do next? Everything. Take back the park, occupy foreclosed homes, stage a general strike, organize with other occupations, keep working on our objectives and demands, continue speaking at City Council, find places for our house-less to live, and so on and so on. Our cacophony and diversity is often our strength in the face of state power.
Remember three months ago when mainstream American media wouldn’t even say the word “capitalism,” much less entertain criticisms of it? I remember it as vividly as I remember the sense of love and purpose I felt in the din of the General Assembly crowd just before 1,400 LAPD officers streamed out from City Hall and pretended we had done something wrong.
January/February 2012, ATC 156