For those who haven't yet had the time or energy to observe an “Occupy” protest first hand, the pre-packaged opinions from the media follow predictable patterns. The right, leery of a counter-Tea Party that could turn the pattern of their latest success against them, have been busy filming hours of tattooed bongo drummer B-roll and the wild pontification of the most clueless arts major types they can find. The left, hoping to score points with real voters and address the overarching theme of the pissed off 99%, have been scrambling to ingratiate themselves. I arrived at the grounds of Los Angeles City Hall as most everyone else did, with this basic dichotomy rattling around in my head.
As is so often the case, the reality was a mix of both. The downtown didn't look any different as we approached. Homeless people deftly forded across lanes of traffic. The sidewalks lay coated in their customary layer of trash and bird feces. A handful of people were making a killing on parking fees. I half walked, half ran down to 200 North Spring Street, recorder in hand, pockets stuffed with note cards and pens.
What I found encamped on the lawns of the main building was a motley collection of humanity, something in between a protest movement and a Grateful Dead concert. Tents, posters, and signs were crowded together in a colorful assault on the eyes. Those who were camping out mingled with the photographers, journalists, and curious onlookers who simply came to read signs and walk around. The composition of the protestors was diverse, to say the least. People from wildly varying walks of life met as equals. There was little official structure. Volunteers ran a media booth, a first aid tent, and a main tent where day activities were advertised, such as a “seminar on racial inequity,” or “the role of organizing and the 99%.” When I politely tried to find out who was “in charge,” who set the agenda at the meetings, I was just as politely rebuffed, with seemingly endless variations on “this is a leaderless movement, you get out what you put in.” With several workers-union signs on display and a cadre of experienced organizers wandering around, this didn't seem to be the whole truth, but it was a fair enough answer, considering the very informal nature of participation.
The mood was relaxed. People laughed, drifted, sang, and talked politics with complete strangers. Occasionally I got a strong whiff of marijuana. There was a collection of pumpkins carved to look like prominent neoconservatives, a display devoted to the crisis in Syria, and a “kids village” where children were being kept under a watchful eye. It was awkward at first, but the atmosphere proved infectious and I soon found myself opening up. The most stimulating interview I conducted, though, was not with the bongo drummers or the ideologues, but with a charming old woman by the name of Anastasia Stewart:
“What made you personally decide to come down here?”
“Well, I've always been an activist, but they talked about it on KPFK. I like that there aren't any political parties, that its taking our democracy back, I think its way past due.”
“What did you used to do?”
“Well, I'm still working part time because I have to, but I've been a college professor, taught special ed, been a social worker, I've done a lot of things.”
“When you got here, what did you find?”
“It restored my faith in human nature and hope.”
“People have been so respectful, whether people agreed or not, they've been caring... it's... it's the way it ought to be."
“Now that the movements gone global, what do you think of that?”
“I think it's great. I think it's way past due, its kind of like teaching, its seed planting, and hopefully it'll sprout some change.”
“Where do you think this [protest] is going, eventually?”
“I can see boycotts down the road, I can see all kinds of things happening, maybe not right away.”
“What's the police presence been like?”
“They have been wonderful. They've supported us, we've supported them, because we're peaceful, we follow the rules, LA city council even voted to support us.”
“So no confrontations, or anything?”
“Not here. Other places, but I think we worked hard on both sides to maintain that. Now that... may end one day, but so far they've been great. They're part of the 99% too you know, precious few that aren't.”
“If you had to pick three issues or so, and ignore the rest, what would they be?”
“I think we have to get money out of politics, and back to more parties being able to be paid and have their say. I think we need to get rid of the electoral college, we've outgrown that a long time ago. I think we have to stop sending our moneys to wars and overseas, we have too many needs here. And I think we do need to take care of our veterans. We'll ship them out, but we won't take care of them when they come home."
“You mentioned that there's no real political parties here-”
“I didn't say there's no goals, there's a big difference.”
“So what end of the political spectrum would you say this is on?”
“I think it's wide open to anyone.”
“Will you be out here in the future?”
I took one last circle around the hall. It was getting hotter and the sunscreen was coming out. A few police units stood in the shade on the east end, and corroborated Anastasia's account of a peaceful protest. A fresh delivery of pizza arrived while I was leaving. On the way out, I passed several more people with cameras around their necks, making the pilgrimage of discovery, like I had.