Frontline observations: conversations with 3 occupiers
It is Oct. 1 and Occupy Los Angeles is celebrating its first year in existence.
Roughly 200 people have assembled in Pershing Square and are planning to march through downtown. The temperature is near 100 degrees and an aggressive trimming of the park’s trees provides little shade for anyone. Although a protest is planned, the day is more a celebration of having survived mounting police repression and a year’s worth of criticism from the media and public.
Any anniversary is cause for reflection, and Occupy LA’s is no different. The wizards within media outlets have meditated over the movement, judging it and wondering its efficacy.
“The movement has yet to have a broad tangible effect, leaving some to wonder whether it will fizzle,” wrote the Los Angeles Times recently.
Occupier Heidi Sulzdorf wonders, too. Sitting on a concrete bench, wearing a multi-colored wicker hat and Blondie T-shirt, she is mulling over what the occupy movement has become.
“I guess I’m just shocked that after having such a big outpouring at the beginning of Occupy that what we actually watch, over the course of Occupy, was not the movement growing by numbers,” she says.
She was present on Sept. 17, 2011 when activists in LA were hosting a “Day of Rage” protest in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. A week later, she was on City Hall’s lawn in one of OLA’s earliest protests. By then a seedling version of OLA was growing and there was talk of an imminent occupation.
A week after that, when a few thousand people showed up at City Hall to protest economic inequality, corporate-influence in politics, as well as the government’s largesse for Wall Street financiers, it was more than anyone had expected. Sulzdorf was front and center at general assemblies and dealing with the growing pains of a movement in its infancy.
For those seriously attempting to make the world cleaner, safer and more peaceful, Wall Street is the source of one obstacle or another. Never should there have been a more common cause. And for a while, it seemed that way. Democrats, communists, socialists, anarchists, Ron Paul Republicans and libertarians came together under one big tent to protest the state of everything. In those early days of the occupation, it felt as though anything positive was possible.
But something funny happened along the way.
“The whole point was to get as many people — ‘the 99 percent,’ that was literally the catch phrase — and what we ended up doing were these Bolshevik-style purges of our membership instead,” says Sulzdorf. “We were more willing to watch members go than really engage in conversation.”
Later in the day, as things were beginning to cool down, Allan Eaton sits down as occupiers are getting ready to serve food. His arms are resting on the back of the concrete bench and his position exposes his T-shirt, which reads: “Bankers Behind Bars,” but he is most recognized for having a shirt that says, “Unfuck the World.”
Eaton, too, is unhappy that many were pushed out of OLA for differences in opinion or ideology.
“One thing that I saw at the very beginning that I miss was just the pure simplicity of everyone disagreeing, but agreeing that we needed to work together,” he says. “There was a point in time when Occupy first started … we all got together, and sure we didn’t agree on the same things, but what it came down to [is that] we all took to the streets together and marched because we knew we needed to do something.”
Eaton attended Occupy Wall Street in its first five days. When he came back to California, he found his way to OLA through reading an article in LA Activist. He has been with OLA since the first day of its occupation of City Hall.
A line for food begins to form and Eaton points out his friend who is nearby to drive his point home further.
“Look at my buddy here, Kevin Patten,” he says. “This guy is like a huge … what? … libertarian … Republican … Ron Paul supporter …”
“Yeah,” says Patten, who carries a robust physical presence. There is something about his energy that says he is ready to go on another march despite the sweltering heat of the day.
“Yeah, I’m glad he’s still here,” says Eaton. “If he wasn’t dedicated, he would have been ran off months ago.”
“Well, I only come down for selected events, because I don’t live in LA.”
“I guess what I’m getting at is how … I miss how there used to be a connection between all sorts of backgrounds, all sorts of people that would come together and discuss their differences to try and move forward and work together, and then march together at the end of the day.”
“That’s well put. I absolutely agree,” says Patten.
On the other hand, it probably isn’t too surprising that some purging occurred. When OLA got onto the grounds of City Hall, the alphabet soup of activist organizations came out of the woodwork. In those early days, while the encampment was abuzz with delicious dissidence, one organization attempted to “influence” OLA, but others just saw it as trying to take over the movement for their own reasons. They were quickly called out at a general assembly meeting and not much long afterward had a non-existent presence at the encampment.
How so many activist organizations who posses so many of the same dreams as the movement missed the Occupy boat remains a mystery and is a ripe source for analysis by some crusty academic. But when OLA came upon the scene, with large numbers and enough energy to power a small town, many did not support the wave of revolution and instead used the opportunity to champion their cause.
“All these people who spent so much time and energy and work and blood, sweat and tears into their issue, just wanted a huge group of people to jump onto their bandwagon too,” says Sulzdorf. “I almost wish the activists hadn’t showed up. I know that is a really shitty thing to say, but there is a part of me that wishes that anyone who ever had a part in politics in Los Angeles before had just decided not to fucking come to Occupy LA.”
“I am scared,” says Ryan Rice.
It’s early afternoon and he sits on a park bench outside the downtown public library. Occupiers stopped there along their march for a brief rest. They’ve left and the scene is serene.
Rice has been with OLA before the occupation. He has a boyish face and a gentle, cheerful presence. When he smiles at demonstrations, it seems he is getting a mischievous joy from agitating.
No, he is not afraid of his political actions. Rice is referring to the environmental future of the planet.
“I haven’t been that involved in environmental stuff,” he says, “because to me that seems like really grave and sobering. It’s almost like I’ve stayed away from that because that almost seems hopeless.”
Indeed among the many messages of occupy is the environmental current. It is indicative of the movement itself, which has a penchant for issues too big to ignore and, seemingly, too big to solve.
Sulzdorf is worried that there simply may not be enough time left to enact substantive change — for OLA or anyone else. She admits she feels like a conspiracy theorist with her apocalyptic visions, but says she is only going to the “logical conclusions of the news and information” she reads.
And who could blame her? July was the hottest month ever recorded in the U.S., beating Dust Bowl-era temperatures. Los Angeles saw record-breaking highs on the day of OLA’s anniversary. Because of widespread drought in the U.S., as well several other countries, food prices are soon expected to rise.
When it comes to the occupy movement’s message juxtaposed against their relatively small number of followers, Sulzdorf says it’s hard to see “even a germ of a hope.”
“Maybe it just takes 20 years for any social movement to develop, but we don’t have the fucking time,” she says.
“It’s the apathy, man,” says Eaton. “We got a lot of people who just don’t care, or they don’t care until it is right in front of their face. Even when it is in front of their face, they are willing to stand up and say something for a little while, but then somehow the media or the entertainment industry finds a way to distract them and get them to forget about it and pretend it never even happened.”
In a sense, what occupiers, as well as other activists, are encountering as an obstacle is the culture itself.
BBC documentarian Adam Curtis said in a series of interviews from earlier this year that, since the horrors of WWII, collectivism has been shunned, while individualism was embraced. Such an imbalanced combination can make activism extremely difficult.
At the same time, said Curtis, we have fallen into a “consumerist democracy” where politics is determined by marketing focus groups, which in turn churn out messages directed at the minds of swing voters. Thus we are left with “brand Obama” or “brand Romney,” who don’t lead or inspire, but merely manage the status quo. It leaves us, he said, with a sort of intellectual stagnation where no one can imagine an alternative.
“No one can see their way past the sort of financial version of the free market, and the culture reflects that,” he said.
A significant ingredient to such intellectual stagnation could be in how we train our economists. Richard Wolff, a professor of economics, said in the first of series of online videos that he nor his colleagues were ever taught Marxist theory. It is why, he said, so many U.S. economists of today continue to pump out rosy analyses of the current economic system, because they were literally never taught a critical interpretation of capitalism and therefore cannot think outside the box.
If our leaders and economists are resigned to the status quo, then the growing angst over economic injustice building in the country will have to be channeled somehow. Curtis theorizes a neo-populism may develop.
“The sense in America that you are isolated individuals, and that large, vested interests in Wall Street are using the system to suit their own needs, and leaving you isolated, scared, and alone—I can see a populist demagogue emerging from this,” he said.
There is no manual for activists on how to save the world. The best anyone can do is learn from the past, try new things and see if they work, while the world will carp at them for it — supporters and critics alike. Still, it is tactics — the right kind — that may bring about desired change.
A friend brings Rice a cup of coffee. A cigarette is lit. The conversation has been bleak, but he does not give in to despair. He turns his attention to action.
“We need to convince people first that change is possible,” he says. “Everyone knows the problem of capitalism, and it’s not trying to defend itself any longer, because it can’t. What we need to do, I think, is inspire the possibility of an alternative.”
The concept of inspiration appears in Eaton’s conversation too. He mentions the group 99Rise, a group working to get corporate money out of politics, as an example. A few days prior, he had observed a protest conducted by the group.
“It was something that wouldn’t even have happened if it hadn’t have been for this movement,” says Eaton. “They call themselves ‘99Rise.’ It’s a take-off of the ’99 percent’ and they are going up against these banks.
“I guess that’s where a lot of my hope lies, in knowing that there is going to be groups … I mean, I didn’t even recognize a single one of those people. They were not Occupy LA people at all. It was just this entire group that I’ve never even seen before going out to protest a bank, and they went in there knowing and willing to get arrested.”
The truth is Occupy has been recklessly spreading its seed for a year now and has no idea how many bastard children it has created. Another group that bears a genetic resemblance to the occupy movement is Occupy Democracy-Pasadena. They met last month at a retirement home, to discuss getting a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United.
It was a room full of old folks who came to hear from attorneys and Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA) about how to get corporate money out of our elections. Yet they are not affiliated with Occupy, just inspired by the movement’s moxie.
Perhaps this is what the occupy movement has been about all along, something that sets an example to other Americans that they don’t have to accept everything that is foisted upon them, that they too can dream, dissent and change their country. In a sense, it is an attempt to shift from a culture of indifference to a culture of responsiveness.
Some media outlets and critics wanted Occupy to get serious, enter the world of status quo politics and follow the lead of the tea party movement. Former Students for a Democratic Society leader Todd Gitlin holds this position.
“If you’re trying to recruit people, you have to show them you can win something, and you can’t win anything without engaging the political system,” he told the Times.
This sentiment was mirrored in LA Progressive recently when Cynthia Alvarez wrote that even though Occupy provides a valuable voice of dissent toward economic injustice, they cannot “become a viable fighting force capable of the positive, complex, constructive action required to reform society,” because of the group’s “opposition to leadership and written rules.”
However, it is hard to imagine an anti-status quo movement attempting to support status quo politics. It is, after all, a movement borne out of the notion that deep substantive change must occur within society. Anything less would be hypocrisy.
After a year of demonstrating, seeing his comrades get arrested, often unjustly, seeing his movement kicked around by outright lies in the news media and being vilified by everyone from the national security state to downtown art gallery owners, Rice still has his Cheshire grin intact. He knows that things are pretty damn near hopeless, but that doesn’t stop him.
“I identify as an anarchist, because I think it is as pre-figurative as an ideology as you can get, being that what you are doing today is revolutionary,” says Rice. “You are participating in it, because it is visceral, ya’ know? Having a ‘really free market,’ having a horizontal discussion, they are in and of themselves acts of protest.
“So, to me the world is changing. Whether or not it is in time, I don’t think matters, because we should all still be fighting.”
Sulzdorf has darker ruminations than Rice or Eaton, though she herself is far from miserable. It is detectable in her ability to laugh at some of her most sour statements. She had high hopes for Occupy, but now is confronting a long path to radical change, despite the necessity for society to act quickly.
“I think at the beginning we were very exuberant that public consciousness would be awakened, that there would be this cascade, that the spectacle would be even more impactful than it was,” she says. “That hope, for me at least, has been sort of dampened. I think it is a longer, much more troubled road that we have to walk to get to some sort of resolution to these cultural crises.”
Eaton remains the most hopeful out of the three. It appears to be part of his relaxed being. He pushes no agenda, but merely sees the direction of things and wants to lend his support to the greater good.
“I might sound at times disappointed or disheartened,” he says, “but bottom line is I wouldn’t still be making an effort to be out here as much as I try to get out here and stay involved as much as possible if I felt that failure was ahead.
“I can’t accept defeat. I won’t, and know the rest of these people aren’t going to accept defeat either. You just got to keep hoping that that awakening is coming.”