What Makes Us Strong

On Thanksgiving, the police entered the encampment at Occupy LA and began hanging signs designating the park hours. The first phase of the 99 percent movement was soon coming to its inevitable conclusion. Occupy LA set up camp on October 1, 2011 in the park that surrounds the Los Angeles City Hall. However, the signs of eviction were ubiquitous before their physical appearance. Earlier in the week, negotiations with the Mayor’s office ended abruptly when occupiers walked out of a meeting with the city. Also, the raid-preparedness committee started training campers in non-violent resistance, while the Wellness Committee sought out social services for homeless families in the camp. On Black Friday, Mayor Villaraigosa convened a press conference with Police Chief Beck to announce that they were going to be enforcing the park rules against camping on Monday at 12:01am.

The response of Occupy LA to the notice of eviction was, in a word, juvenile. While this may seem like an insult, the response showed clearly that the paternalism of the Mayor and City Council was real, and Occupiers were set to rebel like a teenager. A Facebook event was created calling for an “Eviction Party” that included pizza and bands, and early on Sunday morning, City Council member Bill Rosendahl spoke. While the eviction celebrations carried on that Sunday, I obtained inside knowledge, from an “anonymous” member of the movement, that the camp was not going to be evicted until Wednesday. The tactic of the LAPD was to burn out Occupy LA until there was little fight left.

Nevertheless, the response was already in motion and Occupy LA pressed on with the party. The General Assembly held on Sunday leading up to the 12:01am Monday deadline was attended by nearly 2000 people, whereas previously attendance fluctuated around 100-300 nightly participants. Many of these people were new to the camp, but had been watching via the Internet from home. The collective effervesce of a crowd set to confront the police was invigorating and overwhelming, especially when a DJ arrived. The cops set up police lines, but made no arrests until 6am when the crowd in the streets dwindled down to a handful. By that time many occupiers had returned to their tents, and the police did not evict anyone Sunday night.

As the sun rose on Monday morning, some campers moved their tents into the trees to continue the occupation. Officers toured the encampment, shaking tents, posting signs, and removing all unattended property to keep such materials from being used to fortify the tree houses. The day passed slowly as many people slept in their tents or returned home to shower.

On Tuesday, many awoke rested and rejuvenated. Numerous trainings were held outlining a strategy for protecting several symbolic tents in the middle of park. Occupiers practiced locking arms, while others pretended to be police and tried to remove them by force. At 6pm, news helicopters began showing images of hundreds of police massing at Dodger Stadium. While Occupy LA was never officially told that the eviction was planned for that evening, this information was salient across the city.

The raid itself was a magnificent display of paramilitary operations coordinated across the LAPD, Sheriff’s office, the Mayor’s office, and local media. Police used underground tunnels to fill City Hall and then stormed out the doors into the area where Occupiers sat in three concentric circles around five tents. Other squadrons were set up around the perimeter to arrest people as they tried to leave the downtown core. The “Press Pool” were given special media passes in order to cover the event. At several points, local CBS and KTLA helicopter feeds mentioned that the LAPD asked them not to film or air clips of their staging area at Dodger Stadium, so that the LAPD could keep their “tactical advantage.” This order was extended to those in the “press pool” who were asked not to publish all the footage from the raid. This is the very opposite of a free press, which is supposed to work to give information to the people. All told, 1400 police made 300 arrests, but almost all of the charges were dropped in the subsequent days.

While the following day, the LA Times reported a relatively peaceful police action, the failure of the media to follow the story after the raid is telling. Protestors were held on $5,000 bail and charged with failure to disperse. In addition, the location of the protesters was not disclosed to lawyers or family members initially. Occupy LA and its allies presumed that the high bail and confusion in locating Occupiers was a strategy to prevent re-occupation.

Ultimately, this is an entirely different kind of policing than was seen in other cities. Mayor Villaraigosa described this: “Today, the LAPD stands as a shining example of constitutional policing.” While to the Mayor and LAPD, constitutional policing means that they will practice due diligence in preventing unreasonable arrests, searches, and seizures, the use of this term is confusing for the public that believes it is about policing the rights of the people. This misunderstanding has led to further divisions between Occupy LA and the city. Additionally, suppression of the public comes in many forms, some overt and brutal as seen at Occupy Oakland, while others are delivered via abuse of due process and intimidation, as noted by lawyers for Occupy LA arrestees.

The aftermath of the raid left Occupy LA in dire straits. None had planned on moving indoors to work out of an office. The sheer magnitude of Los Angeles has scattered the Occupiers across the city. Those on the media committee found a space, but it is very small. Other donors have offered larger spaces, but do not want these to be “open to the public.” Just like Occupiers did not have the language and concepts to explain to the police that they were never camping, there is only a vague conceptual schema to explain to these donors that this is a movement of the public. A central principle of the 99 percent movement is transparency, which is ensured by having all meetings open to anyone who wants to attend and participate. There is no process to remove anyone from the group either. As a result, Occupy LA is an expression of the public itself and is not an organization. In the meantime, homeless occupiers began sleeping in a Union-owned parking lot, but have since been evicted. City Hall, itself, is surrounded by ten-foot fences, while the nightly General Assembly is surrounded by a dozen or more police and security officials. While Occupy LA is not criminal, the idea of a robust and active public is dangerous.

This eviction from the space of the camp shows clearly that space matters immensely to the movement. Outsiders ask, “Why don’t you coordinate online? Why don’t you get an office space? Why don’t you occupy a job?” All of these questions require patient reflection and resources, yet currently Occupy LA is completely displaced, both physically and psychologically. For two months, protesters revolved their everyday lives around the orbit of the camp. Divisions between the public and private had broken down for full-time Occupiers and the park around City Hall became an island in the sun. Though Occupiers believed that the nightly General Assemblies were what glued the movement together, attendance has waned and the GA cannot always make quorum to vote on proposals.

In the coming weeks, Occupiers will be challenged to realign with everyday life in order to regain balance in the “real world” without the refuge of the camp, which had become a monumental and uniting force. The campsite had its own gravity, temporality, and rumor-driven reality. What makes this movement strong, though, is its ability to adapt, be mobile, and create alternatives during times of distress. These are anomic times that require a nomadic response.

Like Occupy Wall Street, the General Assembly of Occupy LA is currently working on an outreach strategy that will spread the movement across the city, with General Assemblies popping up like tents in public spaces. Now that the method of horizontal participatory democracy has been learned by thousands of people who came through the camp at City Hall, Occupy LA will facilitate an initial round of neighborhood assemblies and continue the work of reanimating a local civic spirit. This tactic avoids the peril of trying to defend the space of City Hall that is already fully militarized, and thus, already occupied in a different sense.

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