“There’s something happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”
First of all, let’s talk about the smell. It’s real, and it’s powerful. As I waited for the light to change, crossing Main Street on First toward City Hall, the smell began to waft over to me. It was a thick mixture of unwashed skin, week old garbage, and the sickly sweet odor of shit. As I entered the park it became overpowering. I wasn’t sure how long I could take it. The smell acts as a guardian at the gates of Occupy L.A., testing the mettle of all intruders.
There were dozens of tents in the park, layered in rows like sowed crops. There was a noticeable diversity in the style and sizes of tents. Even here, among the occupiers, there is a class separation. Some tents are big enough for two people, and inside you can make out the shapes of blankets and pillows. These tents look cozy and inviting, and there are messages of hope and peace scrawled on the outside. Living in these structures would be more of an adventure than a hardship.
Then there were tents so tiny I couldn’t imagine how a grown person could possibly lie down in them. I realized that they were child-size tents, purchased because it was the only shelter that person could afford. Whoever owned that tent would have to sleep curled into a ball like a child, huddled against the ever-increasing cold of winter. Only true desperation could lead someone to be willing to stand such conditions. That’s when it hit me that Occupy L.A. isn’t a camp out. It’s not about “Trustifarians” spending their parent’s money while playing Che Guevara, it’s the Hooverville of the new millennium.
Hooverville was the name given to the shanty towns which sprang up during the Great Depression, named after President Herbert Hoover, whose disastrous policies were blamed for creating the crisis. It would be difficult to apply such an easy name to the tent cities of the Occupy movement. Every president for the last 30 years, from Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, and yes, even liberal heroes Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, has played some role in the economic cluster-fuck which has deposited the poor onto the lawn at City Hall.
The occupiers, those who have set up the tents and are constantly there, seem to represent the bottom 1% of the 99%. Most of the people in the park are young, hopeful but listless. Many of the rest of the occupiers have clearly been homeless for some time. They wander the park, avoiding eye contact, and stare territorially at anyone who looks at their tent. These are the people who have had everything, even much of their basic humanity, taken from them by a life lived on a constant state of alert. They prowl the park like beaten animals, eyes down and back raised.
The rain hasn’t helped. I visited the camp in the afternoon. It had rained the night before, and continued into the morning. The ground around the tents was muddy and wasted. I wondered if the mood would have been brighter during a calmer autumn day, which are usually beautiful in Los Angeles. The realities of weather, both in Los Angeles and at every Occupation around the country, have added a new desperation to the proceedings. This movement now seems like something that you literally have to be willing to put your life at risk for. So far, people are digging in, asking for help, and receiving it.
There was a sense that everyone in the camp had a part to play, but it was ill-defined, like a society in its infancy. One man I spoke to was making screen-printed t-shirts of the leaders of past protest movements: Malcolm X, Gandhi, and Dr. Cornell West. The only person I ran into who was panhandling said he was asking for “dollars for back flips.” I obliged, and he completed two back flips in place. It felt more like Venice Beach than a referendum on the American political process.
All of this can give credence to the right wing’s dismissal of the movement as “dirty hippies”, or a Marxist attempt to overthrow the government. There is some truth to what many more seasoned activists have claimed, that the movement has to dress nice, put on a suit, and put a polite face and spokesman to play the media game. As it currently exists, Occupy L.A. is a literal and ideological mess.
But, that opinion reflects an old world thinking about political parties and power structures. This movement is beyond comprehension, as much about evolution as revolution. This movement carries potential to create lasting change which has not been seen in American society, maybe ever. One of the reasons that socialist forms of protest have never taken hold in America is that America has never been as aware of its class barriers as the residents of Europe in the 19th century, or Russia in the 20th.
But after the disasters of Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 economic collapse, and with each generation promised a heavier burden of debt than the one before it, those class division are becoming clearer. It will ultimately take the middle class’s involvement to create broad social change, and they’re only just now beginning to see the truth behind the occupiers’ message. The middle class is not represented in the tent city, but they are there at City Hall, checking out the scene and determining if it is right for them or not.
In the center of the park there is large tarp covering a row of folding seats which serves as a makeshift lecture hall. Here you find more of the middle class supporters of the movement, listening to speakers educate them about various subjects, from the history of the economic collapse of 2008 to the devastating effect of corporate farms on small farmers and public health. This part of the occupation seems much more scholarly and comfortable, but it also seems more like the visitors are being talked at, rather than engaging with the issues directly. It felt too academic, and not in keeping with the “every voice matters” spirit of the movement. Placing the speakers behind microphones seemed to give them a power that held the audience silent.
I have been a vocal supporter of the Occupy movement since its beginning stages, but I do admit that, at least on the day I visited, I was a bit disappointed that there wasn’t more interaction, more conversation. There seems to be little outreach to visitors, perhaps fostered by the fear of infiltration be agent provocateurs, which has already been reported in Wall Street’s Zuccotti Park and the Oakland protests.
The only literature I was handed came from two guys walking by wearing the Guy Fawkes masks of Anonymous. The handouts laid out what the banking system had done, and gave a list of the bailouts each bank had received and the amount of taxes they paid each year. It was solid information, but I felt there needed to be more of that kind of thing. The whole vibe of the occupation was not very welcoming or inclusive. In fact, it could have been more than a little intimidating to someone a little further up the 99% chain than I, or not used to the homeless or mentally ill.
The day after my visit I listened to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. In his opening monologue Maron addressed the protest. Speaking of the homeless and the “freaks”, Maron said: “They need to be there. They need to become some sort of anarchist collective tourist attraction in order for people to realize that they mean business and that it’s a real deal, and then other people get on board and maybe some justice can come out of this. Living wages, more support for unions, maybe some punishment of the banking system, who knows? But don’t judge the freaks, because someone needs to do the camping.”
Maron’s right. The presence of the homeless there on the yard in front of the gorgeous marble facade of City Hall is a constant, important reminder of the consequences of the wealth gap in America. This is exactly why New York mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the police to trash the encampment in Zucotti park the other night. The movement needs occupiers to strengthen their message. Their presence, their smell, and their haunted faces give witness to their struggle, and force the world to take notice.