Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Our Family Occupies Los Angeles for a Night (Part Two)

              The main event of every evening at Occupy LA is the general assembly meeting, and we didn’t want to miss it so we hustled the kids with their t-shirts back to the tent for some dinner. That’s where we were planning to meet our friends who had brought their son for the overnight as well. Striding down the sidewalk, past the humpy landscape of canvas abodes, I congratulated myself for turning a civics lesson into a fun sleepover as well. Of course, looking around, I was reminded that I wasn’t the first person to think of it.
            As we waited for the big meeting and our friends, Pat and I talked to the kids about why we were spending the night there. They had certainly heard talk about the 99% from the radio shows we listened to. We had also talked to them about the financial crisis and the fact that the two parties governing our nation had widely disparate views on how to solve it.
            Sitting on canvas chairs in front of our tent, we attempted to give this particular action a context that they could understand.
“So, because the two parties can’t agree, they can’t get anything done about the financial crisis,” Pat said, ripping off a hunk of French bread I had bought especially for that evening. Even though we were at a bare-bones populist action, there was no reason to eat like it.
            “So that’s why we’re here? Because the government can’t fix it?” asked Spencer, sipping on his box of chocolate milk. I know what contributes to a successful sleepover.
            “Well, we think that the government can fix a lot of things. Like a plumber fixes the toilet. Daddy and I can’t fix the toilet. That’s why we need a plumber.”
            Pat and the boys stared blankly at me. Why, I wondered? The metaphor was solid.
            Pat leaned forward to catch the boys’ attention, “Don’t think about the plumber. What mom is saying is that we believe that there are some things the government should handle and that’s one of the reasons we’re here. When the government isn’t paying attention to what the people want, the people have to get their attention in creative ways.”
            Pat tends to have more confidence in the children’s ability to grasp big concepts than I do, and I probably lowball their ability to comprehend because my own is a bit shaky. But as we heard the noise of folks gathering on the other side of the building, Pat and I persisted in telling the kids about taxation, privatization, unnecessary wars, entitlements, and social safety nets.
            “And what’s happening now,” Pat said, “is that money being taken away from the poor and the middle class; from our schools and from agencies that protect our environment because the banks and corporations don’t think it’s important to pay their fair share of taxes.”
            “And,” I piped in, “because some people think that paying for wars is more important than helping to create jobs so we can feed our families.” I threw a look to Pat. Better than the plumber?
            “That’s not fair,” said Spencer.
            Bingo, I thought. If he hadn’t understood the specifics, at least he had grasped the inequities.
            “What do you think, Murphy?” I turned to my baby. At seven, Murphy already has a sharp mind and a sophisticated sense of empathy. 
“Can I play with Daddy’s phone?” he replied.
            “No” Pat and I both replied in unison.
            Fortunately, our friends arrived so the phone became a non-issue. The boys happily engaged their pal and we poured his parents a cup of wine, offered them some cheese, and leaned back in our chairs to look at the sky.
            By seven-thirty it was totally dark and we walked over the General Assembly. About two-hundred people had gathered. They sat on the ground or stood at the back in groups listening to committee leaders who stood on the steps, talking through a microphone. Speakers went through housekeeping issues, security concerns, and the all important hand gestures that occupiers would use to vote on pretty much everything. The kids flopped around, enjoying the hand-gestures, particularly the one for “I don’t understand” – a circular motion in front of the face like you’re washing a window. I foresaw months of the kids using this gesture whenever I asked them to clean their room.
            Much of the rest of the meeting was spent connecting Los Angeles to other occupy movements nationwide. We voted on sending money to Oakland and a bus of occupiers to San Diego. Organizers also took some time announcing specific upcoming marches and actions. The boys would watch for a while, then chase each other around.
            Later, as I lay in our tent, I wondered what my sons would take away from this venture. Certainly, I hoped that they grasped some of the deep concerns that were propelling people – citizens -- to camp in the middle of our city. But more than that, I hoped that they felt connected those citizens. I didn’t want them to grow up thinking that it was someone else’s job to fix things.
            And, in the end, if none of those messages had sunk in – even if Spence and Murph had been more preoccupied with the tent and their friend – I hoped that the cumulative effect of attending marches and rallies would start to make participation a habit. As I told them when I tucked them into their sleeping bags that night, “The first and most important thing you can do is to show up.”
It turns out that this is as true for peaceful revolution as it is for getting free donuts.
The boyz listen to Pat's explanation of why we were there
At the General Assembly

Sending messages of support to Oakland

Waking up in the tent the next morning

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Our Family Occupies Los Angeles for a Night (Part One)

           “Can I pitch my tent here?” I asked a young man whom I guessed to be an organizer by the benignly authoritative manner he used with a couple of campers. These campers were ‘occupiers’, who had been bedding down around Los Angeles’ city hall for close to a month.
            “Looks like we’re trying to keep the walkway clear here,” he said, indicating what looked like a thoroughfare for foot traffic, with domed tents, three deep, on one side and service tents on the other. On the service side I saw a signs for a library, meditation area, and a People’s Collective University. “But really you can set up anywhere.”
            “I was told that this was the quieter side,” I said. “My husband and kids are going to be with me.”
            “Oh great,” he said, his face brightening, “we really want to start getting families down here.”
            “Well, here we are,” I said, stupidly, since I was only bringing my family and another for one night, not an army of families to occupy for as long as it took.
            “Great. Great,” he said. “Yeah, I guess you could say this is the quieter side. That’s how it’s turning out anyway. The general assembly starts at 7:30 on the south and that’s when it gets pretty crazy and noisy for a few hours.”
            I wanted to ask “how crazy?” but I didn’t, for fear of sounding uptight. He looked like a twenty-something hipster, I am a fifty-year-old woman who looks like she’s comfortable at an ice cream social even though I don’t know what one is.
            “Sounds like this is the right spot, then,” I said, resisting the urge to jazz up my language by calling it the right ‘hang’ or  ‘hood’. “Thanks,” I touched my eyebrow in a solidarity inspired salute and flipped out my phone to call Pat, who was circling the block with the kids in our jeep.
            As I waited on the curb, I felt the last bit of my earlier irritation with Pat fade. When he had arrived home from work that afternoon he proceeded to check e-mails and methodically go through a mental packing list while I urged for speed and spontaneity. We only had a couple of hours to get downtown and pitch the tent before it got dark. I was starving and I already wanted to devour the salami sandwich I’d packed for that evening. The boys whapped each other with pillows while Pat returned a phone call. All this while my mother-in-law jabbered on about a movie she’d seen thirty years ago starring James Garner. My mother-in-law has been living with us for a month while she searches for an apartment to move into, closer to us. My motivations for dragging my family down to occupy Los Angeles for a night range from the personal to political to parental. But mixed in there is another ignoble factor. Why not occupy LA while my mother-in-law is occupying my living room?
             Pat pulled up in the jeep and the boys tumbled out with our tent and gear. While Pat was parking, the kids and I dragged everything over to our hang. I was going to wait for Pat to return to start erecting the tent. I have managed to assemble it by myself, but Pat has a firmer grasp on mechanics and, frankly, this is an area where I have nothing to prove except my stunning ineptitude at following directions, especially ones with diagrams. Why oh why do the drawings never look anything like the real thing?
            Before Pat could join us, however, three young men descended, introduced themselves, and offered to help with the tent. Before I even managed an affirmative nod, they dragged it out of its box and started lining up the poles. Spencer and Murphy eagerly helped when the guys asked for assistance.
            “Before this, I had never put up a tent before,” a white guy with a tie-dye shirt said. “But now I’ve put up hundreds of them.”
            “I think I’ve got the first pole in,” said a handsome African American guy with a wide grin. He pulled on the pole and the rose, sagging at either side. “Is this what it’s supposed to look like?”
            I shrugged, “Without the other poles in, I can’t tell.”
            “Doesn’t matter,” he said, flashing white teeth, “if it’s wrong we can start over.”
            This was the first time I would notice the universally generous attitude that I would find consistent throughout our stay. I understand why the left has consistently sought to distance the ‘occupy’ movement from its hippie element.  There’s a fear that it lightens the movement, makes it less serious, more fringy. But at a time when “compassion is out of fashion” (as Paul Krugman recently wrote in a New York Times Op Ed), it was moving to see young people consistently opting to help us - and each other - out. I think that a return a core hippie belief that we are in this together and that we are all responsible for each other is one that the Left should embrace.
            By the time Pat appeared on the scene we had a saggy shelter, flapping precariously in the breeze.
            Pat smiled, “Did anyone look at the directions?”
            “Nah,” said tie-dye. “We knew we’d figure it out.”
            Proving that you all you need is love and a plan, Pat located the directions and significantly sped up the process so that the tent was up before sundown. Before taking off, our new pals gave us the lay of the land and offered to check in on us later.
            First we checked out the public tents. The boys were disappointed that the library didn’t have books for kids. But there were plenty of used books for older campers to grab. The People’s Collective University was an open-air tent where organizational meetings were being held as well as classes in social activism. Later that night, Pat noticed a circle of folks who also met there for purely recreational reasons. As we walked through the encampment, we were periodically offered bottles of water and baked goods. Free baked goods, I have now come to believe, are the very life’s blood of any decent rebellion. What decent mob won’t go the extra mile for glazed donuts?
            The occupiers that I saw were diverse ethnically. There did appear to be some homeless folks and certainly some barefooted, bare-chested stoners, but the majority of the occupiers appeared to be twenty-something activists. Pat and I listened to a band of them hold an organizational meeting on the steps, itemizing what they would bring to the general assembly that evening at seven-thirty. Another significant group were Iraq veterans – I met one who managed the food truck and another who was working on media relations. I also met a lawyer who used her tent only during weekend days. Sprinkled throughout the camp were occupiers of every stripe – professionals, parents, artists, and a couple of older citizens (specifically an elegant grey haired woman, with her adult daughter, who asked me about camping overnight).
            As we returned from our exploratory mission, a gentleman named Rahm sought us out, “My buddy is this rad artist who does these t-shirts…” he pointed to his own, “and we’d like to give all of you one. We really want to encourage families like you to come down here.”
            Cool, I thought. Revolution swag. We found Tony B Conscious on the east side of city hall spray-painting his Basquiat inspired t-shirts.  He fist-bumped the kids and they bounced around picking out their very own wearable art. Mr. Conscious even spray-painted a fresh t-shirt for Pat. As it turned out the shirts weren’t as free as Rahm had led us to believe. But for a five dollar “paint donation” each, we would walk away from our overnight just a little hipper than we arrived.

in Part 2 I attend the general meeting, camp overnight, and am asked by a young person if this was what it was like in the 60s!
Murphy eyes the sweet bread in front of our tent

The boys next to the Library (the People's Collective University is behind them)

The view from our tent

T-shirts, courtesy of Tony B Conscious