Occupy LA: Perhaps Not So Inspirational After All

More from Ruth Bonnet

Invigorated by my experience visiting #OWS in New York a few weeks ago, I was greatly looking forward to the Global Day of Action back in Los Angeles.  For the record, I am not a professional protester, although I started going on Gay Pride marches in the ‘70s, because I felt a connection with the cause, despite the fact that I happen to be straight (don’t judge me: I was born this way).

My last rally attendance was in New York on a bitter winter day in 2003, marching in opposition to the war in Iraq. Much good that did us, but in retrospect, I think our positions were vindicated. Hindsight, right?

Like many people, the only time I go downtown is for jury duty or the occasional cultural event.  Yes, I’m that much of a rabble-rouser.  But I was determined to show up for the Global Day of Action and, invigorated by scenes from demonstrations held all over the world, I set off, not knowing what to expect.

When I got to Pershing Square, around 10 AM, I figured I must have made a mistake.  There were 40 people milling around aimlessly looking at each other, one eyebrow up inquisitively, as if to say, “Are you in charge here?”  Of course, the whole point of #OWS is that no one is in charge, which works well in the tiny plaza of what is now referred to as Liberty Square (because no one, including myself, can remember the name or spelling of the actual park, as if it’s some Icelandic volcano).

The rumor was that other people had gathered at City Hall and were walking towards Pershing Square. This confused me greatly, and here, ladies and gentlemen, is problem #1:

Forget the oft-repeated mantra from the media that Occupy Wall Street has no coherent message: they have no coherent directions.  The Left has always been miserably disorganized.  The reason the Right is so organized (apart from the millions poured into the movement by the people over whom we were protesting) is that they’re….so damn organized.  The Nazis’ record keeping was superb. I would have fit right in had I not been Jewish.  That would have rather stymied my career, I think.

In this case, different websites had given out different information about time and place–it was almost as if the Koch brothers had paid a lackey to hack into them and mess with our minds.  I, for example, expected to gather at 10AM, and march at 10:30AM from Pershing Square to City Hall. Others had been informed to meet at City Hall at noon.  Good lord.

And here we have problem #2: the journey between these two locations is no more than a five minute bus ride during weekday rush hour. It took over an hour for discombobulated Los Angelenos to stumble from one place to another. It reminded me of the captain in “Wall-E,” trying to rise up against the machine.  One foot in front of the other. No car. Trying… to… can do it!  People in Southern California aren’t used to walking. Slap an iPod on them and put them in designer sneakers, and watch them jog, sure. Work that elliptical machine, yes. But use it as a form of transportation? Not so much.

Problem #3:  the human microphone is a tremendous idea in New York, where it’s illegal to use a bullhorn without a permit and the #OSW crowd have thought of an ingenious way around it.  If you haven’t seen it, it works like this:

  1. The speaker says a few lines (usually one or two sentences);
  2. The people closest to the speaker repeat those lines for others to hear;
  3. To make sure that loud clapping does not complicate the repetition of the speakers’ words, the audience raises and waves their hands in the air when they would usually applaud.

Apart from the fact that waving hands in the air makes you look like a plonker, it’s a great tool (you should pardon the pun, those of you who know what plonker means).  However, bullhorns were not only allowed in downtown Los Angeles, they worked very well.  Through the bullhorn, I found out why people from multiple backgrounds had decided to attend.  However, a woman from a group who shall henceforth be referred to as Radicals Without Borders thought it would be a much better idea to use the human mic. “Mic Check!” she screamed. “Mic Check!” everyone yelled back, and I swear I thought I was at Nurenberg.

Every heartbreaking story was then turned into a farce.  “The bank foreclosed on my home,” a woman said “THE BANK FORECLOSED ON MY HOME!” the crowd replied. Instead of feeling the woman’s pain, it made us all part of some robotic Isley Brothers group singing “Shout,” whose lyrics, ironically enough, actually tell you to throw your hands up.

While the human mic worked in the plaza, which is slightly bigger than my yard but a hell of a lot smaller than a football field, the tiny crowd around the speaker was growing as people flopped into it from their strenuous hike from City Hall.  You can certainly human-mic yourself into hoarseness if you were 20 feet back, but after that, you’re trying to repeat something you’re not sure you’ve heard correctly. “Blessed are the cheesemongers?”

Problem #4:  we love to preach to the choir, don’t we?  A young woman told us that she was proud to say that she had taken her money out of the bank and opened a Credit Union account. I have to say, this is actually a brilliant idea; I am going to do it, and I hope you do: if you really want to screw the banks, just take your money from where their mouths are, and put it back into your local community.  Forget the hand waving: this provoked real applause. But she should have stopped there because, invigorated by the wave of approval, she went on to say (in broken sentences, because every phrase had to be laboriously echoed by the crowd) that we can all be healthy by eating healthy food and foregoing junk food. The crowd went wild.

Wait a minute.  This wild crowd comprised over-educated liberals, who know that eating junk food is bad for you.  But  they should also know that if you live in a crappy neighborhood on food stamps, that’s pretty much all you’ve got, and it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than fresh fruit and vegetables.  Earnest young people preaching to other idealists. I felt terribly old.

Eventually we began to march.  Well, not so much march as amble.  And we stopped for a while at every red light because you might be an anarchist, but you simply don’t jaywalk in LA.

By the time we were close to city hall, the crowd had swelled to estimated 5,000 people, but the march got virtually no news coverage at all, because it was peaceful (mainly because people were confused, I think).  I did enjoy seeing Jewish Labor Movement banners right next to Palestinians’ Rights banners.  People actually put their other agendas away for a few hours.

My personal favorite moment was watching the crowed yell and scream at the Bank of America building.  This was a Saturday, so I doubt that anyone was there.  Had it been a branch, I would have felt for the bank clerks because, let’s be honest, they’re in the 99% too, and probably hating life, but they need the paycheck and the health insurance. Have some empathy, people.  I don’t intend to scream at the clerk at Wells Fargo as I withdraw my $53.24 later this week.

The difference from the original #OSW was palpable.  My husband later opined that New Yorkers all operated on coke, and Los Angeleans were pot-smokers, too lazy to get out of bed, and too baked to care.  I think it has more to do with the East Coast cities’ angry energy, on which I thrive, versus the laid-back “Dude – you’ll get there, don’t worry” laid-back attitude of the West Coast.

I did meet some wonderful people though:

I left around 1 o’clock, desperate for an iced latte.  Revolution cannot be won without caffeine, you know.

As I rode off into the distance, I saw faltering protesters with signs and maps still trying to find their way.  I hope it’s not a metaphor for the movement.  However, an 89-year-old grandmother visited her son over the weekend in Manhattan and #OSW was the first place she wanted to go.  That bodes well, surely…

So I guess the takeaway from this is that the 99% still needs people to help organize it, and focus the message.

Ruth Bonnet is an administrative professional by day, moonlights as a singer in piano bars, and is an occasional Slurve correspondent.



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