A festival, a rebellion, an awakening
A night in a tent on the lawn at City Hall opens a window on Occupy L.A., a nascent movement protesting war, corporate greed and other ills.
Lauren Rock of Los Angeles dances with dozens of other demonstrators as a band called the Mowglis performs on the steps of City Hall for people participating in Occupy L.A. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
"Are you aware that the sprinklers come on at night?" a fellow camper asked as I drove my tent stakes into the ground.
The media haven't known quite what to make of the demonstrators who've taken to the streets in Los Angeles, New York and elsewhere. The occupiers have been knocked for not having a clear message, and they've been called the tea party of the left. But I wasn't quite willing to write them all off because they weren't able to speak in sound bites.
Photos: 'Occupy' protests
That's why I decided to spend a night with Occupy Los Angeles on the grass skirt outside L.A. City Hall. And after an evening of observation and conversation, I can tell you this:
Occupy L.A. is a festival, a rebellion, an awakening, complete with a mess tent, economics classes, a silk screen printing shop, live music, a pumpkin patch and passionate conversation.
OK, it's also a place to party on city property while the police, at least so far, look on benignly, and contact highs are easy to come by. My favorite sign:
"God Forbid We Have Sex 'N Smoke Pot. They Want Us to Grab Guns 'N Go to War!"
Will it grow into a cohesive movement? Who knows.
What I found was a collection of disaffected souls that included socialists and capitalists, atheists and religious zealots, youngsters and codgers. They have a lot of different targets, but most seem to be antiwar ("Drop Tuition, Not Bombs"), and they believe the middle-class and the poor are being crushed by scheming profiteers on Wall Street and in Washington.
After that, it gets a bit mushy; this isn't yet anywhere near as focused as the civil rights movement or as fiery as the antiwar protests of the '60s, and it may never come close. But it's a badly needed spark, and GOP presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Herman Cain added more fuel to the fire by back-handing the occupiers, with Cain calling them un-American.
"Corporate profits are at record highs. Mortgage foreclosures are at record highs," one young man was saying to another, summarizing what for him is a snapshot of the 99% getting shafted by the 1%, in a country where commercial banks have already spent nearly $33 million this year on lobbying.
A lot of the rhetoric I heard wasn't that succinct, particularly at the evening General Assembly, a nightly open-mike discussion of policy and purpose.
"Are they still on this topic? I've been gone an hour and they were talking about this when I left," a middle-aged woman from Pacific Palisades asked me when she heard speakers debating the proper show of support for the fired employees at the remodeled Hotel Bel-Air.
Among the seemingly endless questions:
Should they call the former employees "workers" or "people"? How should they word their official position on the hotel workers? And should they officially stand with labor on principle or consider the recommendation of a dissenter who said, "Unions are just as corrupt as corporations."
Of course they should stand with the workers, an exasperated young woman responded. The workers are the 99% who are ruled and oppressed by the 1% in American society, and that's exactly with whom Occupy L.A. must stand.
Kwazi Nkrumah, a longtime activist and one of the organizers of Occupy L.A., acknowledges that the process of talking out issues can be tedious — at one point he took the microphone to announce that in the future, official positions on certain topics would be hammered out by a supercommittee rather than being endlessly discussed. But he's pleased overall with how things are going.