Occupy LA’s method for a movement

October 11, 2011

Meeting on the south steps of City Hall, Occupy LA holds its general assembly meeting on the their first night of occupation on Oct. 1. (Dan Bluemel / LA Activist)

Every day, at 7:30 p.m. in front of City Hall, dozens of “Occupy LA” protesters gather together at general assembly meetings and demonstrate the signs of the times.

It isn’t just in their cardboard signs — although the wit behind the pop culture references is usually razor sharp.

It’s in their hand signs.

Before discussing proposals, before refining their list of demands, and before announcing where the portable toilets are, a moderator (and it’s a different person every day) explains to the crowd:

“If you are in agreement or want to communicate solidarity and support for what is being said, throw your hands up in the air and wiggle your fingers.

“If you are in disagreement with what is being said, but you are willing to compromise your opinion, move forward and stand aside, wave your hand in front of your face.

“If you believe what is being proposed will undermine solidarity, threaten the movement, and you want to register a strong objection, cross your arms in front of your face to make a ‘hard block.’”

Some in the audience practice and others in the crowd gently guide the newbies in what constitutes wiggling and what’s just plain distracting. A few laugh. The moderator pauses, letting the crowd take in the information before continuing:

“I want you all to be patient, and loving, and accepting of this very hard process. We will all work together, or we will fail like we’ve failed before.

“The revolution has begun and you are all participants. You are not only participants, you are all leaders. And as leaders we all have obligations and responsibilities to each other.”

At the last statement, hundreds of fingers wiggle across the crowd.

Now in their second week, the demonstrators at Occupy LA have made their decision-making process into an art by borrowing tactics from other activist events around the country and the world.

They are a part of Occupy Wall Street, a national demonstration in which thousands are protesting economic inequality by “occupying” physical representations of financial power.

If you talk to any one of them, they’ll no doubt tell you that this is it, this is the future, this is what they’ve been waiting for. They’ll say that they’ve all but given up on community organizing before coming to one general assembly meeting.

“This is the end of apathy for Generation Y,” said one demonstrator on Occupy LA’s live-streaming video channel.

And it appears to be working. They’ve only been at it for a week but demonstrators say they’ve seen a steady increase in participation. The first night saw around 50 tents set up in front of Los Angeles City Hall. Now it’s up to 125.

They say they owe their success to the autonomous collective’s leaderless leadership. At Occupy LA, everyone’s a leader and it’s all being done by following three essential steps.


Be seen and heard

It started on Sept. 18 when a bunch of Angelenos were so inspired by the actions in New York they began to organize. And, as more started to attend meetings, they realized that they had to answer one basic question: how do you communicate and collaborate with dozens of people?

“That’s when we looked to the models in Madrid and New York,” says Heidi Sulzdorf, who has been an active organizer from the beginning.

Over the past year, rallies across the globe have challenged government authority and called for massive social reform. Perhaps the most famous occurred in Egypt, when millions took to the street and eventually overthrew a government they described as oppressive and dictatorial.

Inspired by those events, a large group of young people in Spain began protesting when their nation’s unemployment rate hit 21.3 percent – meaning almost five million were facing joblessness.

The Madrid protesters did not associate with any particular political party, but demanded a more fair system of democracy and the increase of social services.

But more than philosophy, they also devised a system of hand signals. They were so effective that the first Occupy Wall Street protesters adopted them – and so has Occupy LA.

Sulzdorf says they’re great tools for such a large crowd, and they move people to action instead of getting bogged down in specifics.

“It is a way to kind of try to make people do all the same thing,” says Sulzdorf. “Which is really important in a decentralized disorganized movement that it is at this point.”

Along with communicating the sentiments introduced at the beginning of this article, there are other signals. Two fingers in the air means that the individual would like to offer a point of clarification. A fairly popular one is a “wrap it up” motion that encourages the speaker to, well, wrap it up.

However, not everything can be reduced to gesture.

Over in New York, amplification is banned in public spaces. But that was hardly a deterrent – protesters quickly adopted a call-and-response technique in an effort to help everyone hear what’s going on.

It goes like this: A speaker has to conceptually compartmentalize whatever message they’re trying to say by speaking in phrases. After each phrase, the speaker pauses to let the general assembly repeat what was said. It’s called “the people’s mic.”

Occupy LA adopted the technique in the beginning, but they’ve now opted for speakers and microphones. Now that they figured out what to communicate, it’s simply a matter of what.


Consensus and solidarity

The general theme of the Occupy Wall Street movement – and all of its branches – is disgust over human greed. The main antagonist in their narrative would be the financial system as it operates today.

Broad dissatisfaction is what brought them together, but specific demands are still being devised, concocted and organized.

At each general assembly meeting, announcements are made and discussed at long length. And only when the crowd wiggles in absolute agreement – with not one crossed arm in the crowd – do they reach consensus on any issue.

Mario Brito, who has been active since the initial organizational committee, has been involved in social justice groups for at least 20 years. He says that their technique is something he hasn’t seen before.

“It’s difficult to describe it in one word,” he says. “But I think it’s important to understand that it’s a fusion between consensus and mass movements.”

At the first general assembly on Oct. 1, one of the moderators called it an “experiment of collective thought” which is the opposite of what’s currently in place — a system of “being governed by individual thought.”

However, with free speech comes fragmentation. Soon after the first meeting, volunteers started to form groups dedicated to specific needs. Now, a week later, they’ve got so many committees and activity groups, it borders on bureaucracy – and no one has a definitive number.

They are divided into two groups. The “functional” committees deal with issues of necessity – food, facilities, sanitation, waste removal, security. The “activity and thematic” groups deal with entertainment and social good. These groups range from the vague “Keepin’ It Real Committee” to the specific “Rise and Shine Committee.”

All of them come into existence through the general assembly meetings. An announcement is made – regarding a need, want, or goal – and the audience votes whether or not it would conflict with the movement. If it’s approved, volunteers join.

It’s a bumpy road. General assembly meetings usually last for at least three hours and small details are argued as each person’s views are publicly aired, one by one.

Brito hopes that this will change over time. He says that he’s “sort of glad” some are becoming frustrated with the process of pure democracy, because it will make way for a republic style and reasonable compromise.

“And have to understand that at certain points, you gotta bend so you don’t break,” he says.

And bend they have. One compromise was struck that would seem to be the antithesis of community organization – coordination with the police. Through a city liaison committee, the occupiers have talks with the powers that be and announce planned actions. Brito says that strategy has helped them see success.

“It took a lot of lobby, it took a lot of things that some of these people are theoretically opposed to – working with government,” says Brito. “But guess what, we worked with government.”

They know the risks of sleeping with the enemy. A very common subject is the threat of provocateurs or agents hired by the government to break up the group and Brito says the threat may lead to a stricter form of consensus.

“It’s perfectly structured for that type of involvement and that type of destruction,” he says. “That’s why it has to evolve.”


Spreading the word

Joe Briones works with the media committee at Occupy LA. He’s a film major at Los Angeles City College and knew from the beginning that it would need promotion.

“I found out about it that morning on Facebook,” he said. “I knew there was some kind of sense of history, so I recorded it on my iTouch and it’s turned into this.”

He was there at that first Sept. 18 meeting of 16 people. Now, thousands have flocked to City Hall.

He says it mostly spread through social media and word of mouth, but he knew what would really broadcast their message.

“I knew New York had a media team and I thought it’d be cool to kind of create one. The first day of the occupation we set up a table that said ‘Occupy LA’ media, and it just kind of went from there.”

Since the ones in the media tent are mostly “just kids in film school,” he says they’re getting a lot of support from various production offices. They’re able to transmit a live-stream video that features interviews and event coverage. Through other contacts they’ve been able to get supplies like Wi-Fi internet access, coffee, computers and even airtime.

Transit TV has agreed to give them 60 seconds for every hour of programing on televisions installed in Los Angeles’ buses.

“They came to us,” he said. “The owner of Transit TV came up, tapped me on the shoulder and said they’d like to work together.”

Briones says getting the word is essential to the movement. When they refer to the 99 percent of the population, they refer to those who are just like them – people getting ripped off by corporations, people getting victimized, people who can’t find a job and make ends meet. They’re here for them, but they need them to join.

“This movement of the 99 percent is only going to work if the 99 percent get involved,” he said.

Perhaps, this time, the revolution will be televised.

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One Response to Occupy LA’s method for a movement

  1. angel on October 15, 2011 at 10:03 am

    Can someone send me the dates and time for protest I would like to show support in los angeles

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