Report from Occupy LA

Erin Evans, a graduate student here at UCI, attended Occupy LA, and offers this report:

Like most activists who attended the Occupy LA protest on Saturday, October 1st, I was posting about the experience there on facebook throughout the day. Someone wrote on my “wall” the next day, “How was yesterday?” I replied, “Lots of people. Lots of good signs. Marching on the sidewalks, only. Lots of community, not so much anger. But I think things will rev up as the NY folks keep staying ground.”

We started in Pershing Square where the organizers had activists congregate and rally before marching to City Hall. Some friends of mine from the United Auto Workers, the union representing graduate students UC Irvine, were well accompanied by other unions, such as the Industrial Workers of the World. The IWW brought several large red and black flags that stood out amongst the pieces of cardboard most of us used, with slogans written in felt pens. It was a diverse group from the start, all of us mingling around looking for friends amongst the hundreds of demonstrators. It was a little surreal being around so many people from such different walks of life. Folks from Anonymous wore Guy Fawkes masks to signal their affiliation or solidarity with this otherwise clandestine, un-networked group of hackers. There were middle-aged folks with signs stating that “It’s not a crisis, It’s a scam,” and senior citizens with signs reading, “Not Too Old To Be Angry.” A very well dressed man held a sign with, “I am the 1% who supports the 99%,” and he appeared timid and nervous, for good reason. He was amongst a majority of signs slamming Capitalism. Like many mass demonstrations, the group that seemed most present was what Olbermann called “The over-educated and under-employed.” Peace punks with home made patches and mohawks.  “Hipsters” with mustaches, tight pants, deliberately messy hair, and charmingly dismissive demeanor.  People who looked like they just returned from Burning Man and were extending the affair into the protest realm. And people in themed costumes planning variations on street theater, like female reporters with death-mask face paint doing mock interviews throughout the day.

At 10:30am speakers, without megaphones, had the crowd chant instructions on remaining peaceful, remaining on the sidewalks, and remaining obedient to instructions given by organizers and police. It was difficult to hear what they were saying with so many people chatting and milling around, but most of the crowd chanted along and followed their instructions carefully along the march to City Hall. By the time we left around 11:30am there were 500-1000 people walking out of Pershing Square, on the sidewalks, only. This made the march a long and clumsy affair. (It felt like 500-1000, but I’ve read reports about it being more like 4000.)

We stopped at stoplights. We stopped for cars. At one point someone started chanting “Whose streets?! Our Streets!!” The crowd didn’t keep up with the call back, probably because it didn’t make sense. A friend walking behind me called out, “Whose sidewalks?! Our sidewalks!!” A humorous way to illuminate the frustrating irony of our obedience, especially in the face of what was happening in New York. We marched slowly and chanted peacefully down the sidewalks for about an hour towards City Hall. Once we arrived the crowd split into two entrances to the building, one on the North side and one on the West. They kept shuffling us around when thoroughfares got clogged.

There was a drum circle with dancers on the West side for most of the afternoon. A young guy with piercings gave me a sticker that said “Support Zombie Banking: Green, Selfishness, Excess, Indulgence, Gluttony” and asked me to put it on my sign. Two artists worked on an amazing painting for hours and drew wandering crowds of protesters as the picture evolved. Some people laid on the grass, some held signs for hours on end on the sidewalk, most took bottled water from volunteers, some bought food from a street vender, others left to buy food and come back. There was a massage train at one point that turned into a string of 20 people or so rubbing each other’s shoulders. Every once in a while an enthusiastic activist would hop on a bullhorn and rant for a few minutes, trying to get folks excited and chanting.

It felt like an outdoor festival, with a purpose. There was an agenda posted on the first aid booth with the afternoon of speakers and various events that seemed like a hodge-podge of activity to keep us from getting restless. At the end of the agenda it read that activists would leave City Hall, but the activists I talked to shared a common understanding that this one rule would be undoubtedly be broken. I was there with a few other grad students from UC Irvine. For most of the afternoon we sat and chatted, then got restless and decided to walk around the building to see what the police presence was like. We came across what I think was a conversation between a police liaison and an officer. “We’re expecting the crowd to stay about the same, but we moved people around the last two times you asked us to.”

The organizers, whose affiliation I couldn’t pin down concretely, were eager to keep the police placated, and the activists mobilized. That is a very, very difficult endeavor. On the opposite side of the building it looked like personnel were cleaning up after a police training of some sort. A bomb squad vehicle was in the middle of one of the blocked off streets, and on the lawn they were taking down a buffet table. They didn’t seem concerned with the protesters, which made me think they weren’t overtly there for the occupation. But it was an ominous display and, I suspect,  intentional. When we got back to the West side we sat in the grass and talked. A person in black-block (a method of disguise) sat with us and said some folks who were “more direct action oriented” were meeting later in the afternoon to plan something. I didn’t attend the meeting, but heard that some folks used chalk to write slogans on the City Hall walls. Before we left I saw two people scrubbing chalk off the side of City Hall. The leash was tight on militancy.

We talked about the Occupations in my discussion sections for an undergraduate Political Sociology course today. As most teachers know, students have sparks of exception insight that come when you’re bogged down in theory and jargon. I mentioned how the LA event seemed more symbolic than the New York event, and how that could be due to a number of factors. Maybe because there isn’t a location where the target is concentrated, as there is with Wall Street? Or perhaps because it was an event meant for solidarity, as opposed to causing affective disruption? Maybe it was something as simple as it being on a Saturday, when City Hall is closed? A student said, “Los Angeles’ bread and butter is symbolism, of course it’s gonna be a bunch of people putting on a show!”

I thought that was rather astute.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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