Since the beginning of Occupy Los Angeles, bluewombat has been engaging in drive-bys, not in the “Boyz ‘n’ the Hood” sense of the term, but in the more humanitarian sense of dropping off pizzas, toothbrushes, water bottles and rain ponchos in support and solidarity. At the adult school in downtown Los Angeles where he teaches English as a Second Language, bluewombat is also the informally designated go-to guy for Occupy Los Angeles: his colleagues know that if they want clothing, toiletries or other useful stuff dropped off at Occupy Los Angeles, then Bluewombat Express is the shipper of choice.
Until today, however, bluewombat had not been on the ground at Occupy Los Angeles. Feeling that it was time for that to change, he took an hour before going into work, from about 1 to 2 p.m., to walk around OLA and do a little color commentary for his fellow Firepups.
BW started on the north lawn of City Hall, which, as media-savvy people know, was the Daily Planet building in the Superman TV series of the 1950’s. He first came to the First Aid tent, where he lucked out by running into Jonathan (who has the same first name as bluewombat!). Twenty-one, good-natured and low-keyed, in a knit cap with a few small designs painted on his face and a red cross taped onto his shirt, he offered to serve as bluewombat’s guide to OLA.
Bluewombat approached Jonathan because he was wondering if, with the incredible density of tents, there were any health problems at OLA. BW asked this gingerly, because he didn’t want to sound as if he was repeating right-wing talking points, but nonetheless felt it was a reasonable question. Jonathan said that some people had gotten colds (of course, this is not a phenomenon unique to Occupy Los Angeles), but that on the whole, there hadn’t been a lot of problems. He then spontaneously offered to show bluewombat around. This was most welcome – BW is, for lack of a better term, conventionally middle class and the main vibe at Occupy is a bit raffish and informal. To put it another way: these are, for the most part, street people.
The main person at the First Aid tent, the head honchess, was a pleasant nurse whose name bluewombat didn’t get. Jonathan has taken a CPR course and plans to take a First Aid course as well. His contribution to the health and well-being of people at the Occupation while BW was there was to pass out water bottles as we circumnavigated City Hall, going from the smallish North Lawn to the long but narrow west side of City Hall to the largest area, the South Lawn.
We first walked past the Library, a table consisting of numerous publications, most notably copies of The Nation. It looked a little messy, so bluewombat stopped to organize the magazines into neat piles; Jonathan helped with this. We then passed the Welcome Tent. BW asked the people working there if they minded his taking their picture. They didn’t, they said, so long as BW didn’t give their pictures to the Feds. BW promised not to do this. Nearby there was also the tent which appeared to serve as the Occupy commissary.
As we rounded the west side of City Hall, we passed through a cluster of Porta-Potties which were, at that moment, being cleaned out. Jonathan said that the company that cleans them out really gets the job done – they’re regular (no pun intended) and efficient. Almost too much so – a worker came shooting out of a porta-potty with his long snake-like tube for eliminating (no pun intended) all the poop from the porta-potty and almost knocked into Jonathan. One has to appreciate the forbearance of the city leaders of Los Angeles – well-coiffed, -dressed and -remunerated, they’re more accustomed to dining at the Water Grill than having an army of hippies and shitloads (no pun intended) of poop removed from their yard on a daily basis, but they have embraced – well, not exactly embraced, but green-lighted – their new neighbors. There is also a small shower tent on the south lawn – Occupy Los Angeles seems to take these matters seriously.
As the west side of City Hall opens on to the broader vistas of the South Lawn, there is, in a nod to the Halloween season, a rogues’ gallery of leading political, media and business figures represented both by photos and by the malefactors’ faces having been drawn onto pumpkins. Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Karl Rove, Timothy Geithner, Lloyd Blankfein, Bill O’Reilly and others are here.
Jonathan tells me his story. He was homeless for six months before coming to Occupy Los Angeles. He’s from Arizona. Apparently his single mother has moved around a lot, and he has been raised by her and by one of his grandmothers, who isn’t well now. There appears to be a lot of affection in his family, but not a lot of money. Jonathan suffers from dyslexia, and is in the process of applying for Social Security as a way of providing some stability for himself and being able to help support his family.
Jonathan says there are a number of tribes at Occupy Los Angeles. Bluewombat isn’t quite sure what he means by tribes – the main one he refers to are the bicyclists, who have their own area. Other affinity groups (which is what BW thinks he means) are gay/lesbian, Kids’ Village and one which has “love” in the title, but BW doesn’t remember the exact name.
When we’re on the south lawn, we run across a circle of people sitting around lunching on peanut butter, Nutella and sandwiches. They’re young and old, white and black, and, let’s face it, they’re a bit scruffy. Jonathan introduces bluewombat to them as someone who has been providing donations. One of them sticks his hand out to thank BW; the hand is blackened and dirty and bluewombat doesn’t know where it’s been. BW faces a moral dilemma: he doesn’t really want to shake the guy’s hand, but he doesn’t want to be rude or incur the disapproval of the group. He shakes the guy’s hand and hopes for the best.
Jonathan points out OLA’s “printing lab,” where they will emblazon t-shirts with the message of your choice. Nearby is Kids’ Village, presumably the family-friendly area, with grade-school-like colored strips of paper attached to a tree with messages ranging from “Remember the rags before riches” to “More bunnies!” In another nearby tree, there’s a hammock for anyone who’s temporarily wearied of either protesting or the difficult life on the streets.
Other signs: “This is not a tourist attraction. Either join or get out!” And there’s a large American flag created out of small boards occupying a good part of a small hillock on the south lawn, covered with the political slogans that come naturally to us 99 percenters.
Back on the west side of City Hall, we pass a large tent with a high clearance and a lot of writing on it. “This is where the tough guys hang out,” Jonathan tells BW. BW, not being a tough guy, doesn’t ask for an introduction.
There’s a lot of spirit and camaraderie at Occupy Los Angeles, but – and bluewombat is not the first to point this out – it has the feeling of a Hooverville, albeit a well-organized one with the vibes of the counterculture and political progressivism. BW guesses that a good percentage of those camped out here would ordinarily be homeless. While there are middle-class visitors here, it is not primarily a middle-class place, although who knows how many of the people here used to be in the middle class. BW, who has not camped out since he was in his college’s hiking club 40(!) years ago, felt a bit out of his element, but he also felt welcome, and encourages others to come down.
Just before bluewombat left, a colleague of Jonathan’s came up to him and told him there was going to be a delegation going to Occupy San Diego. The trip would last a day or so; Jonathan signed up for it. As an ESL teacher, bluewombat knows that OLA also sent a delegation of about 100 people up the hill to Occupy LAUSD (the Los Angeles Unified School District) the other night, and that it had the salutary effect of causing the school district police, who were apparently hassling the occupiers, to back off.
It’s good that there is this cross-fertilization going on between the different Occupies. At the same time, to use philosophical jargon, while Occupy Los Angeles and the other Occupies may be necessary, they aren’t sufficient. The Occupies – even ones like Los Angeles, where local authorities are well-disposed toward the occupiers – have the feeling of “Free Speech Zones.” But, in bluewombat’s opinion, something more needs to grow out of them because, as currently constituted, they’re no more than a thorn in the side of the powers that be. They are worthwhile reminders of the severe economic inequality that has been building in our society and their “We Are the 99 Percent” motto vastly outshines any sloganeering to come out of the Democratic Party in recent memory.
But BW doesn’t see how Occupy is going to bring about any structural changes in America in and of itself. Bluewombat hopes that the Occupy movement lives long and prospers, but he also feels it’s not too early to start thinking about what the next step to bring about these changes might be.