CityWatch, Oct 7, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 80
RETHINKING LA - The Occupy Wall Street movement has gone viral, spreading across the country as people of all walks gather in their respective cities to protest corporate greed, social inequity, corporate personhood, and a host of other issues that reflect the spectrum of discontent with the status quo.
Occupy LA is approaching the end of its first week on the north lawn of LA’s City Hall and in that short time they have incurred the wrath of the most deadly of movement enemies, benign neglect.
Protesters in New York have been pepper sprayed, arrested, and restricted by ordinance from using amplified sound while Occupy LA has competed with the trial of Michael Jackson’s doctor for media coverage.
Protesters in Seattle have braved the chilly weather without tents, shivering in the cold rain as the police confiscated their supplies and arrested those who resisted the ban on blankets, sleeping bags, and “lounging” behavior.
Protesters in Los Angeles have been quietly accommodated by law enforcement, cheerily visited by City Hall staff, welcomed into Council Chambers, and gifted with a City Council Resolution of Passive Support that memorializes the many issues that prompt Occupy LA to exert their 1st Amendment rights.
City Council President Garcetti was joined by Councilmembers Alarcon and Rosendahl in a brief tour of the Occupy LA camp, an expedition that was prompted by earlier public comments in City Council pointing out the contrast between the theoretical debate on the council floor and the reality on the streets.
To their credit, they came, they saw, and they postured.
(Note: The LA Council will consider a Resolution of Support for Occupy LA on Tuesday, authored by Alarcon and Rosendahl.)
As for the residual impact on Occupy LA, they still move their tents from the lawn to the sidewalk each night in deference to the Los Angeles Municipal Code restriction on camping in city parks, a classification that applies to the lawns surrounding City Hall.
LA’s City Council is missing out on a big opportunity by not embracing Occupy LA and bringing them inside, after all, there is so much City Hall could learn from the movement. Typically, the twin enemies of a protest are limited resources and resistance, challenges that either crush a movement or refine it into an effective organization.
City Hall could take a lesson from Occupy LA in the following areas:
Media - Occupy LA established a Media tent on the north lawn and the events are livestreamed via internet, allowing viewers to interact at all hours with each other and with members of Occupy LA.
The ongoing narrative and dialogue is complemented by the full spectrum of social media and dissemination of content is comprehensive. Contrast this with City Hall’s continued reliance on physical posting of notices in a city of 485 square miles and the gap between what Occupy LA has done in less than a week and what City Hall fumbles on a regular basis.
Education - Within days, Occupy LA had structured classes on the issues so that participants could move beyond experiences and slogans and into the substance of the agenda, whether economic, legal, environmental, social, or strategic. The open air classrooms offer proponents the opportunity to clarify their message and audience members an opportunity to engage in dialogue. Contrast this with City Hall and the ongoing confusion that reigns supreme on issues that include the budget, water & power, transportation, infrastructure, code enforcement, public safety, and the delivery of city services.
Communication - New York authorities have enforced a ban on amplified sound under threat of 30 day jail terms so the Occupy Wall Street protesters rose to the challenge by employing the human microphone. A speaker yells “mic check” and the crowd repeats the words, the speaker continues and the crowd repeats the words, resulting in a public address system that is creative, participatory, effective, and triumphant, a small victory that edifies as well as ensures an attentive audience.
Contrast this with City Hall and the degrading experience of public comment before an inattentive City Council that endures commentary as a necessary evil.
Healthcare - It’s not an afterthought or a response to a crisis, it’s a basic human need. Occupy LA has it covered and that includes the range of elements that contribute to health including shelter from the elements, sanitation and bathroom facilities, wash stations, good nutrition, and social needs.
Occupy LA has it all while the City of LA still acts as if it deserves a commendation from the United Nations for placing portable toilets on the streets and allowing homeless to sleep on sidewalks. (but not in cars, that’s prohibited by LAMC 85.02)
Public Participation - At Occupy LA, if you show up, you’re a member. If you speak up, you will be heard. The General Assembly meets every evening and the proceedings are broadcast via internet, allowing for commentary from the viewing audience.
Contrast this with the City Council’s ongoing debate over neighborhood councils, the definition of a stakeholder, the rules and regulations for participation, ethics training, and vetting and it’s evident, Occupy LA could teach City Hall a thing or two about engaging the public, treating them with respect, and creating a rewarding experience.
Funding - Within hours of establishing an online presence, Occupy LA had created a funding strategy that included several mechanisms for participation, from establishing a mailing address so that supplies could be shipped to a downtown location, to runners who would pick up donations, to online contributions of money, to organized and scheduled deliveries that ensure consistent support.
Contrast that with the City of LA’s inability to process permit fees by phone or online or in person unless you’re willing to trek downtown on a Friday and wait in line. Hands down, Occupy LA could teach City Hall a thing or two about how to handle money.
Food - Occupy LA addresses the problem of limited resources by seeking out solutions that have more than one application. Even the delivery of pizza goes beyond simple immediate sustenance and provides diners with more cardboard for signage. Creating signs turns into an art project for kids who are learning silkscreening, all of which turns the lawn into gallery space.
Contrast this with City Hall’s contempt for the public as they engage in marathon sessions with no concern for the public’s need for sustenance, all as the Council enjoys catered lunches in Council Chambers while the public sits under “no food or beverage” signs.
Security - Occupy LA is aware of the potential for disorder and it responds to the opportunity by creating order that prevents problems, not by displaying force but by giving respect, lots of respect. City Hall keeps the front doors locked and does more to create a “fortress mentality” than the State Capitol, clearly articulating that the people of LA are not to be trusted. Occupy LA has strategies for diffusing tension and avoiding disorder, without resorting to force. The techniques work and the LAPD is responding with similar strategies of non-resistance.
Urban Planning - The Occupy LA microcosm demonstrates a sensitivity to the many elements of a “whole community” including great public space for gathering, protected areas for childcare, pockets for the different elements of the human experience including arts and culture, political dialogue, education, supplies, foodservice, active zones and passive zones, all of which communicate respect for the human experience. Contrast this with the cavalier approach of City Hall where the people of LA are treated as a burden that has the audacity to demand facilities that work, a budget that is balanced, and the delivery of city services.
Occupy LA has accomplished a great deal in less than a week, demonstrating that they have admirable organizational skills and a knack for herding cats that is the essence of a successful movement.
At the same time, they have been criticized for not having a cohesive platform as if the ability to raise an alarm is limited to those who also posses the solution. This is like requiring all medical patients to know the cure before they can complain of the symptom or that all malpractice suits be limited to victims who have medical degrees. Occupy LA is on the right track, they’ve raised the alarm, and the murmur of dissatisfaction is gathering momentum.
Another criticism leveled at Occupy LA is that the numbers aren’t inspiring, as if there is a threshold for validity that comes with participation. The only problem with this is that it is not historical, all movements start off in bits and pieces, some fail and some gather steam, but they all start somewhere.
In hindsight, there will be great debate over the tipping point, the moment at which a complaint resonated and turned into a demand, the place at which a simple campsite turned into the beginning of a journey, the point at which people looked to the left and to the right and realized that there was significant common ground and it was littered with broken promises and squandered potential.
The most significant criticism comes from the pragmatists on the sidelines who contend that Occupy LA will fail because the participants haven’t suffered enough and haven’t encountered significant oppression.
Apparently, the naysayers feel that righteous indignation is insufficient fuel for a call to action, a position that does more to justify their lack of action than to condemn Occupy LA, leaving them on the sidelines as part of the problem, not the solution.
To contend that Occupy LA deserves a place in City Hall simply because they get sleeping bags shipped overnight, pizza delivered regularly, and keep the toilet paper stocked is overly-simplistic. Running the largest City in the most populated State in the most powerful Country in the world takes much, much more. It takes leadership and a willingness to stand up.
That’s where Occupy LA comes through, with a clear voice of contempt for the status quo, demonstrating the individual leadership that is coalescing into collective leadership, willing to stand up and scream
(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net .)