Can the Occupy movement survive an onslaught of bandwagon-joining politicians?
Yesterday, the Los Angeles City Council approved a resolution supporting the Occupy L.A. tent city that has sprung up around City Hall. Yet this lethal stamp of mainstream approval was generally applauded by the Occupation forces.
People we spoke with during coverage of the Council vote and the reaction to it (among those Occupiers who were even aware of it) indicate something uniquely laid-back and Californian about Occupy L.A.:
Where Occupy Wall Street got its original burst of energy thanks to opposition from Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the New York Police Department; Occupy D.C. has a notably prickly relationship with former Marines; and Occupy Atlanta's greatest traction has come from the admirable-but-oddly-handled decision not to let a U.S. congressman speak, most of the folks we spoke with at Occupy L.A. think government — including the corrupt and embarrassing government of Los Angeles — is A-OK.
The Occupiers have settled in for a long stay, with an encampment that includes a first-aid station, a food tent, a circulating library, and a full complement of mainstream media attendants.
I would estimate the number of tents at around a hundred. There's also an interesting bifurcation in what are essentially two encampments: one at the north end of City Hall and one at the south end.
The northern encampment facing Temple Street is slightly spiffier, with most of the facilities described above and a very noticeable labor union presence. I was encouraged to find a copy of J. Neil Schulman's Alongside Night in the library, so if you think libertarians aren't getting the message out, consider yourself corrected.
The southern camp facing First Street has more of the feel of a Burning Man satellite camp set up by pioneers who never made it past Gerlach. The campers are more fragrant and dirt-tattooed, and at least a few good Angelenos were spending the warm, sunny day getting wasted.
That having been said, the Occupiers — most of whom seemed to hail from L.A., with a smattering of day trippers in from Orange and San Bernardino Counties — have things pretty well organized. A tent of bicycle advocates has a functioning rotation among tent-guarders and go-homers, allowing everybody to shower at least semi-regularly.
The potty situation in public gatherings being a source of constant reader interest, you'll be relieved to learn that there is a full complement of portable toilets. City Hall has clean restrooms and is not enforcing a shoes-must-be-worn policy during work hours, thus allowing Occupiers to do their business while the city's leaders conduct the people's business.
While almost everybody at Occupy L.A. self-identified as part of the 99 percent, most of the people we talked with are among the 12.7 percent of L.A.'s population who are currently unemployed.
Since unemployment is always the fault of the free market and never has anything to do with politicians, regulation or unions, it was unsurprising that the Occupiers and the political leadership have found common ground. Responses will be seen in an upcoming Reason.tv video, but for right now I'll just say that when we asked if they were worried about local pols trying to co-opt the movement, a surprising number of people replied that they actually wanted politicians to get more involved with the Occupiers.
Here are some local politicos and well known gadflies in action prior to the Council's vote in support of the Occupation:
And here is a picture I took a few weeks ago of Council Member Paul Koretz at picnic sponsored by a local Krishna temple.
What explains the cozy relationship between some of America's most mediocre politicians and a politically eclectic movement that is at least in part functioning as a challenge to politics as usual?
Part of it might be that state power has so far been exercised with a light touch. While the early part of the local occupation involved some now-forgotten arrests, the police are clearly taking it easy. So are the politicians. We heard quite a few compliments for the Los Angeles Police Department from the scrufty Occupiers. Thanks to some last-minute maneuvering by Council Member Bernard Parks, the support-Occupy-L.A. resolution was decoupled from a measure that would have involved some new regulation of banks, so pols could vote for it without having to make any commitment.
In fact, given the airy nature of the Occupiers' goals, it's surprising that they are getting any resistance at all. Representatives of local banks and the Chamber of Commerce showed up to speak to the Council, arguing that banks are big local charitable givers, generate a lot of tax revenue, blah blah blah. Why bother making the argument when the people on the other side are holding out to, as one Occupier told me, "arrest all of Wall Street and put them in jail"? That sounds menacing but it's pretty unlikely. Since I was a child I have been hearing that the United States is a republic in its death throes and perpetually ten minutes away from Kristallnacht, but I just don't see a massive roundup of stock brokers in our future.
Speaking of Kristallnacht, I heard two full-throated anti-Semitic rants yesterday, along with a lot of anti-bank stuff, a smattering of libertarianish commentary, one shout-out for Bill O'Reilly, and many calls for redistribution of wealth "but not socialism." When I volunteered that this last goal might be accomplished by not expanding the money supply and allowing real wealth to be distributed from spendthrifts to savers, I got a couple of nods.
It was a diverse set of views. The guy in the lower right in the picture above was a self-described "free market economist" conducting an econ class in cooperation with Occupy L.A.'s education ministry. I have to confess I had a hard time following this economist's theories, but he did produce one choice interaction.
During the Q&A section of the class, the tree-dwelling gentleman at right descended from his perch to accuse the economist of racism. It took a while to sort out what the issue was. It turned out that a black guy had asked the economist to answer some questions about the bible and the economist replied that that topic should be addressed at a seminar on theology rather than one on economics. You see the insidious bigotry? In this racist country a black man can't even ask a simple question without being put in his place by the white power structure.
Having expressed his concerns, the tree guy went back up. He also demanded that we not take his picture.
Since Occupy Wall Street heated up, journalists have been trying to discern the movement's "demands" (an open-minded approach that I just can't recall seeing in the media back when the Tea Party was in the streets). The consistent desire of Occupy L.A. seems to be for "change," but a form of change that is not political in nature. They're looking for a change in people's hearts, and this being Southern California, there's a dose of impulse-buy spiritualism in the mix. This, I think, is the fallacy of trying to discern political content in what is essentially a chance to go camping without having to leave town.