CityWatch, Nov 4, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 88
RETHINKING LA - From New York’s Wall Street to LA’s Spring Street, the Occupation movement has spread from city to city with a message of discontent, one that starts with a long list of grievances, a very long list.
Opponents have employed a variety of tactics in their efforts to rebuff the protest actions, ranging from subtle acts such as depriving campers of their shelters to outright aggressive police force that has resulted in injuries and arrests.
Through it all, the Occupy LA movement has faced the most dangerous of opponents, a local audience that ignores the City Hall encampment for the most part, paying attention only long enough to sprinkle participants with contempt for shortcomings such as odor, style, and appearance.
In some ways, the Occupy LA movement has earned its keep simply by providing the LAPD with an opportunity to stand out from the rest of the world as a police force capable of negotiating a peaceful co-existence with those intent on demonstrating on public property.
At the same time, the Occupy LA movement has revealed the petty nature of LA politics. In the early days, Mayor Villaraigosa donated ponchos (paid for with public money?) to wet campers and City Council President Eric Garcetti declared “Stay as long as you need, we're here to support you.”
The honeymoon has since ended and the Mayor has said he won't put up with the demonstration indefinitely. Meanwhile, the Council has gone back to more pressing issues such as levying liens on residents and raising the penalties for barking dogs.
Critics of the Occupy LA movement are quick to complain that the agenda lacks refinement, clarity, and cohesiveness. Fair enough, it’s a pretty unwieldy list of complaints that brought people to the lawn, one that tends to meander as the result of allowing so many people to raise their voice.
But this is hardly a valid complaint. Anyone who spends more than a few minutes listening to the disjointed protests can figure out quite quickly, it’s about economic justice. If that’s too restrictive, let’s just call it justice.
No critic has gone so far as to oppose justice, yet when the people of Occupy LA start offering examples of our collective failure to ensure economic justice, they get criticized for going on and on through a list of grievances that literally does not stop.
The Declaration of Independence was long on complaints, dozens of them, and yet light on solutions save for the idealistic commitment to doing better. It took years for the long process of warnings, reminders, appeals, and petitions for redress to result in an action and then it took another decade to agree on how to move forward as a country.
Critics also complain that those occupying the public space surrounding LA’s City Hall are full of complaints but light on solutions. Again, an accurate charge that merely acknowledges the reality of an informed problem solving process that typically begins with the identification of the problem.
Is the person that sounds the fire alarm also responsible for providing the water? Does a medical patient complaining of symptoms also have to diagnose the malady in order to get treated?
The idea that only those with answers are allowed to ask questions is simply an argument for maintaining the status quo. It’s an objection posed by those who have a vested interest in maintaining the course.
Most of all, it demonstrates a willingness to ignore the problems by focusing on the messenger instead of identifying those responsible and putting the spotlight on them.
Critics continue by pointing out that Wall Street isn’t the only guilty party, that an equal amount of blame should be levied on the regulators and on Congress. This is also an accurate appraisal that merely spreads the net of guilt to those in power everywhere, including City Hall.
This ultimately brings the responsibility full circle and demands that we all account for the circumstances that allowed for the current economic crisis, one that continues to destroy lives while the critics complain about mismatched tents and drum circles.
After all, it is the people of LA who are willing to accept an absentee Mayor who is currently busy auditioning for his next gig. It is the people of LA who allow the City Council to abdicate on their responsibilities and instead spend inordinate amounts of time on the campaign trail. It is the people of LA who ask so little from their City that when actual work gets done, it’s considered “overtime” effort.
Wall Street is an amorphous entity that is easy to focus on but the real culprit is anyone who accepts mediocrity from City Hall, from Sacramento, from Washington, and from “the system” that allows financial bullies to prey on the public.
The critics should be careful because they’re culpable, in fact we all are.
Critics charge that the damage to City Hall’s turf lawn is justification for tossing Occupy LA from the high moral ground and evicting them from the green space. While it’s true that the occupation is responsible for killing the lawn, there are some that would consider this to be an improvement to City Hall, an opportunity to break from the wasteful tradition of turf lawns in favor of a more sustainable landscape.
In fact, the debate over City Hall’s turf lawn merely puts a spotlight on the City of LA’s ongoing pattern of mediocrity.
In a city that prohibits gas powered leaf blowers, why does the City of LA continue to use them? In a water challenged state that regularly imposes water rationing, why does the City of LA water the lawn to the point that it grows mushrooms?
Occupy LA should be thanked for challenging the turf lawn status quo and for giving City Hall an opportunity to rethink its commitment to unsustainable landscaping.
The LA Times took Occupy LA to task for destroying the lawn while one of its garden writers applauded the same behavior, concluding with a wish: “May protestors camp long enough that they indeed snuff the lawn around the Los Angeles City Hall. Then, may the City Council not only thank them, but also seize the moment to remove what remains of the cynical green skirt around their high white tower.”
The City of LA is not known for its ability to create great public space or for its ability to encourage people to share public space. The three sides of City Hall with Occupy LA activity all include “City Hall Employees Only” signs.
Occupy LA is challenging the sterile nature of City Hall’s lawns, redefining public space and causing a discussion to actually take place. They should be thanked, not criticized.
Critics hold that big-picture targets such as the Federal Reserve and Global Warming are such distant targets as to become irrelevant and Quixotic in nature. This is a good point but it only illustrates the need to continue the discussion, not to shut it down.
It is incumbent on the City of LA to ask what role it plays in the larger picture. As the largest city in the most populated state in the most powerful country in the world, it seems reasonable to expect our leadership to go beyond 100 ponchos and a couple of verses of Kumbaya.
The Occupy LA movement is an incubator of discontent and while it focuses on refining its organization, its greatest contribution is the ongoing debate that is taking place in the press and in the community over its purpose, its presence, and its impact.
The City of LA is in the midst of an economic crisis of unprecedented proportions. LA is home to record levels of home foreclosures, homelessness, unemployment, and economic distress.
Yet the people in the best position to do something about it are somehow able to look past reality and instead focus on the smell of Occupy LA’s participants or on abstract discussions of the legality of an occupation of public space.
Meanwhile, the critics forget, we live in a city that is already occupied.
Los Angeles is occupied by educational failure, home to an educational system that fails to produce skilled and educated adults for LA’s workforce, resulting in the ongoing cycle of unemployment and crime.
Los Angeles is occupied by housing failure, home to record foreclosures and host to empty properties that blight communities while families go homeless.
Los Angeles is occupied by unemployment, home to record levels of people who simply can’t find a job in a market that is filled with competition from surrounding counties.
Los Angeles is occupied by an economic crisis, home to a hostile environment for small businesses that is long on obstacles and short on solutions.
Most of all, LA’s City Hall is occupied, on the inside, by people who believe that they can balance the city’s budget on the backs of the people who live here and who own businesses here. They propose to balance the city’s budget by increasing fees, fines, and penalties. They plan to collect this money by levying liens and garnishing wages.
They have no plan for increasing employment, for eradicating homelessness, for ending the home foreclosures, for producing a skilled workforce, for stimulating the economy, or for doing anything other than Occupying City Hall while LA spirals out of control.
(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net .)