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What It Means to Occupy Los Angeles 


Los Angeles

All across Los Angeles you’ll find small, quiet occupations, clusters of tents sheltered by overpasses or erected in communities that emerge in the twilight and disappear at dawn. Most have been there for years, in places like Watts and Skid Row, a fact of life for much of Los Angeles south and east of City Hall.

Last night, the newest one, the biggest and noisiest, was offered a building, housing, and a farm. Occupy Los Angeles, just a little over 50 days old, has rattled the bars of City Hall, the building it surrounds, so emphatically that the monolith that is the City has rocked. Yesterday, the City signaled a buy-out deal to OccupyLA in exchange for removing the part of the encampment from City Hall’s south lawn.

Many of Los Angeles’s long-term advocates for social and economic change are trying to figure out what just happened. City Hall politicians played “divide and conquer” on a much bigger scale than deciding who gets to stay and who gets to leave the encampment. Community activists have whispered that the Occupy Wall Street movement across the United States is driven by people formerly of privilege, mostly white and with dashed expectations of a middle-class life. The City has forced Occupy Los Angeles to address that challenge, and where the movement goes next depends in great part on their next move.

Occupy Los Angeles, ensconced on the north and south lawns of Los Angeles’s City Hall, is the nation’s largest encampment associated with the ubiquitous Occupy Wall Street movement since Occupy Wall Street NYC in Zuccotti Park was dismantled in a police raid a week ago.

Although without a defining set of demands, Occupy Wall Street participants cite social justice, political accountability, and economic realignment as reasons to claim possession of land and visibility. The police raid on Zuccotti Park triggered a week of coordinated police incursions into Occupy encampments across the country, dismantling the sites and displacing the protesters. Except in Los Angeles.

Since before its inception OccupyLA has been unique in that it negotiated its encampment with City officials before the protesters took up residence on the City Hall lawn. Most in OccupyLA have asserted that the police belong with the occupiers as members of the 99% and have avoided encounters with police that might signal hostility. With the exception of an unexpected clash with police on Thursday morning and a nonviolent civil disobedience action that resulted in planned arrests Thursday night, OccupyLA as a whole has had no significant conflicts with LAPD.

Occupiers have come to know and chat with the uniformed police who stroll across the grounds in pairs. OccupyLA’s City Liaison committee has continued conversations with police and City officials, and after weeks of rumors, they announced an exchange offered by the City to the occupiers that would cede the most visible part of the lawn for some security for the occupiers. But it’s not that neat, and it’s not that easy. Dealings with City Hall never are.

First, there is the farmland. A couple of weeks ago, LAPD demanded the removal of garden boxes that some occupiers had carried to the lawn to grow food, apparently signaling to the City some interest among the occupiers in farming. And mind you, this is not a garden. A garden would be ambiguous; a Farm has special resonance in Los Angeles.But elected city officials have a more self-serving motive in offering a farm to the occupiers.

Just last week, at the behest of mayoral candidate Jan Perry, the City Council sold off land promised for a soccer field at the site of the former South Central Farm. In doing so, they most likely paved the way to turn the former urban gem into another pollution-pumping, gray and cold, low-wage manufacturing site. The grassroots blowback has been harsh on Mayor Villaraigosa who is busy defining himself as the green mayor of the Million Trees program, and, after he hit a taxicab while riding his bicycle, the champion of bike lanes. And it’s been harsher on LA City Councilwoman and mayoral candidate Jan Perry, who’s tying her election campaign to developers for the money, even as she paints herself to voters as the advocate for healthy eating and green space.

So, instead of paving the way to restore the South Central Farm for the low-income and predominantly African-American, Mexican, Salvadoran, and Chicano residents of the Central Alameda neighborhood, instead of leaving them even two and a half acres for a soccer field, Villaraigosa and Perry offer farmland to the predominantly white, until recently mostly middle-class occupiers of City Hall, people widely perceived as the symbolic children of Westside liberals. The offer itself will undoubtedly get more attention and add more to the environmental credibility of the two elected officials than the nail in the coffin of the South Central Farm ever will.

Then there is the building. The City’s offer includes 10,000 sq. ft. across from City Hall for a dollar a year. The offer  on the table is, almost assuredly, tied up with the City’s frantic divestiture of its Community Redevelopment Agency money before the state Supreme Court rules in January on the legality of the governor’s plan to redirect CRA funds from developers to schools and public safety.

The exact location is still undisclosed, as are most of the details of the City’s offer to the occupiers, but a likely site is the mostly-vacant Parker Center, the former headquarters of LAPD, now used mostly for its jail and communications facilities. Parker Center is also where protesters who attempted to set up tents at the Bank of America plaza on Thursday were booked. In spite of that, OccupyLA is renowned for its cordial working relationship with LAPD, and a neighborly arrangement between the police and at least some of the Occupying protesters, perhaps, not a contradiction.

And there is the offer of housing for the homeless now encamped on the south lawn of City Hall. In the geography of the encampment, the south lawn is perceived as the residence of the homeless, the drug users, and the stoners, all sources of friction for the activists on the north lawn. The City is asking for its front lawn back, and it’s willing to let the north lawn campers remain, at least for now. In exchange, the City is offering to open up new shelter for the homeless who will be displaced. The effort to fracture the 99% along existing seams of class and political tension is transparent. What’s not so evident is that if the City can establish that  it has provided 1,250 new beds in low-income housing since 2007, they get out from under a 9th Circuit order that allows sleeping on the sidewalk. That would leave the City free to resume citing and arresting those who do sleep outside or even sit on the sidewalk, the infamous practice Perry was fond of for cleaning up Skid Row in her district. As recently as 2010, Perry was railing against feeding people on the street. The entwinement of the protesters and the homeless, and the City’s insistence on not feeding people in public spaces, already has led to the closing of kitchen facilities at City Hall encampment.

Ironically, the court order allowing the homeless to sleep on the sidewalks is the basis for the occupiers’ encampment now going on at City Hall. Allowing the City to relocate the people on the south lawn to new low-income housing could precipitate the eventual end of the OccupyLA encampment at City Hall.

Back at the encampment, the occupiers are in the throes of debate about persistent key organizational questions, issues that the City’s offer are forcing to resolution. The determinedly direct and horizontal democracy of the Occupation, in which everyone is heard and everyone has equal weight, is being tested by the City’s insistence in dealing with a designated group. The line between those perceived as activists and those perceived as needing assistance turns out not to be as clear cut as the line between the north and south lawns. The impetus to cooperate with the police to avoid violence, long a mantra in this Occupation, has morphed into a corollary that, among the more confrontational of the occupiers, now looks like a blanket acquiescence to authority. On one hand, the deal is being hailed as a victory for the 99% and the power of OccupyLA and its tactics. On the other, it’s being denounced as a set up. And if there’s such a thing as a third hand, a large contingent of occupiers want to ask the City for more, up to and including the wholesale resignation of the mayor and city council.

And in the community, calls are already going out among grassroots groups for their own deals for 10,000 square feet in a city building and farmland, and people who’ve worked for low-income housing for years are shaking their heads. Wittingly or not, even before the deal has been consummated, the offer itself is throwing into bright relief the economic and racial divisions that simmer in Los Angeles. It remains to be seen whether those calling themselves the 99%, there on the City Hall lawn, can figure out how they can transcend the history of fissures that is Los Angeles.

Thus far, the inertia of OccupyLA has left it out of the Occupy Wall Street limelight. That may change in the next few days, as the largest standing encampment determines what course it and the Occupy Wall Street movement will take. Can the Los Angeles occupiers navigate their way and the movement though the seas churned by more experienced politicos, or will they inadvertently crash up against the complexities of realpolitik and real tensions in Los Angeles? The Los Angeles Times is already marshaling public support for the City’s offer.

STOP PRESS

At Tuesday night’s  General Assembly, the people roundly rejected the City’s offer.  A number of reasons were cited, but it seemed to me that chief among them was rejecting the whole idea of City Hall  setting the terms of settlement.

It was reported that in meetings held since city officials made their original proposal, they have thought better of some or all of it.  Negotiators reported that the terms were a lot less sure than they were yesterday.  It was also reported that the City gave the occupiers until Monday to vacate. I’m not clear if the expectation to vacate was for just the south lawn or for the entire occupation.  In either case, people clearly anticipated a confrontation on Monday.  I missed the very end of the GA, but unless there was a hard block, the City’s offer was rejected.

LESLIE RADFORD is an adjunct professor of communications and a freelance journalist living in Los Angeles.  She can be reached at LRadford@RadioJustice.net.

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