Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Welcome to Camp Sociology

In my last post, I mentioned my visit to Occupy Los Angeles and said that I would write more about it. I did so in my Claremont Courier column which comes out today and which is below.

I’ll mentioned as an addendum that I read an interesting article in the Los Angeles Times several days ago about how, for the most part, progressive Christian churches aren’t involved in this movement, especially in L.A, despite sharing many of its values and goals. As one religious scholar was quoted as asking, “Where are the Quakers?”

Also, it seems that, with the relative lack of police action and violence and even inclement weather associated with it, Occupy L.A, perhaps appropriately, is the Hollywood version of the Occupy movement. There's something pat and movie-like and not quite real about it.


“Welcome to Occupy Claremont.”

Perhaps not everyone in the Village for the Friday Night Live concert by Squeakin’ Wheels a few weeks ago appreciated this repeated barbed salutation from the band. It is likely that the commentary resonated with fans of the longtime Claremont folk group as it played in front of the City Council chamber, but I wonder if there were other passerby that evening who were shocked that Claremont could have anything to do with the boat-rocking, rabel-rousing Occupy Wall Street movement protesting economic as well as social and environmental injustice.

It was about this time, in fact, that it fully dawned on me that Claremont isn’t so far off from this phenomenon - literally. After all, Occupy L.A, which started in September on the lawns flanking Los Angeles City Hall, is just some 30 miles away. Not even that, it turns out.

As I saw several days later, it is an easy Metrolink train ride and a few blocks’ walk away. One can also include a short ride on the Red Line subway. So, really, it is a jump and a hop, or perhaps a jump, skip and hop, away to a fascinating bit of history being made.

In a bit more than an hour after leaving Claremont, I was in the colorful sea of tents that I saw on the front page of the Los Angeles Times before I left. (According to the Times story then, there were about 350 tents, with something like 700 nightly residents.) I immediately thought of the music festivals I have camped at, except that the tents were much more jammed together, and there were many more, and more pointed, signs and banners (mostly hand-made).

Yes, as an article in the next day’s Times pointed out, the lawn was quite brown, but just as notable was, unlike with occupiers in some other cities and in day-and-night contrast with what happened in Oakland last week, how welcoming a host City Hall is. I saw several police officers chatting with the occupiers in a friendly manner, and it is well-known that Mayor Villaraigosa gave out plastic ponchos when it rained last month. I also quickly noticed that, for its part, the encampment is really quite tidy. There are “zero waste” trash, recycle and compost bins in various locations.

Indeed, what struck me most was how very well organized this group is. On a monument at the center of the main encampment south of City Hall were posted a series of large-print broadsheets with detailed guidelines for conducting business and reaching consensus. Also explained was the difference between a general meeting, a committee, a workshop and an affinity group, as well as a number of hand and arm gestures to facilitate communication in a large meeting. Nearby, there was a whiteboard with a full schedule with all these meetings, plus mealtimes.

While I was there, there was a short pep talk by a comedian, Jeff Ross. (Unlike on Wall Street, where the occupiers have come up with the “human microphone,” there was amplification, and it was announced that the microphone was “solar-powered today.”) It was also announced that there would be a workshop the following day on how to make one’s own generator. In addition, during my visit, an affinity group meeting for GLBTQ (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning) folks got underway.

These protesters may not know exactly what they are saying, but they definitely know how to say it. Too bad we have seen the focus on the former rather than the latter.

I am not saying that there are no problems and that all is lovey-dovey at Occupy L.A. While I noted the peaceful atmosphere, there was some tension in the air - another thing, as with the drumming also evident during my visit, that the mainstream media unfortunately tends to focus on. It is evident that some chronically homeless/street people and an anarchist element have gotten into the mix.

I heard one occupier, apparently on security/maintenance duty, say into a walkie-talkie, “Oh, that dude! I know the one. He’s always causing trouble!”

Several times during the comedian’s spiel, there would be a shouted interruption (“Down with the capitalists!” or whatnot) and some spontaneous chanting.

And the guys with bandanas over their noses and mouths? What’s that all about? Please don’t tell me it’s supposed to make them look more serious, like they mean business.

The next day’s Times article mentioned that one woman had left the protest, feeling that it was corrupted by people who didn’t care about economic justice. “Everybody is pretty much partying it up,” she was quoted as saying. The article also said that there was tension in the encampment over drug use and drinking. I have to say that I caught a sweet whiff or two during my visit, and I hope, especially with City Hall bending over backwards to be tolerant, the protesters nipped the use of illegal substances in the bud (pun intended). Otherwise, Occupy L.A will be gone. Like that.

As I write this, it sounds like City Hall may be running out of patience, even if the occupiers keep their act straight. Whether or not Occupy L.A remains, it, along with all the other occupiers in other cities, have brought up plenty to ponder.

At one point while I was there, a man rode a bicycle around and around the center of the protest, joyously shouting, “The revolution will be televised!” Whether or not the revolution will be on T.V, it will certainly be on-line. During my visit, I saw a number of people using laptops, and I made note of the “media tent.”

It has been said over and over that the occupiers’ message is vague and unclear. I think the message is pretty clear, and I’m beginning to wonder if the media - and the rest of us - don’t want to hear it.

Another thing that has been said, awfully glibly, is that the Occupy Wall Street movement is the Tea Party of the left. At the risk of being glib myself, I would argue that there is a crucial difference: the tea partiers don’t want to pay taxes to fund services for others, and the occupiers are happy to pay taxes but want everyone to get the services the taxes fund.

At the very least, the occupiers are learning and also teaching us all dramatically what it’s like to be homeless, when having to pee or sleep can be a crime. (I saw that someone had set up a solar-powered shower tent, but why have it so close to the street?) But there’s more. This protest has become a big social experiment, challenging both its participants and the rest of us, both in its message and how it is done, to consider how a fair and decent society works or should work.

As for Occupy L.A being not so far from Claremont, it may be even closer. Soon after I arrived, a woman I didn’t know approached me with the greeting, “Rise up, Claremont!”

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