Jewish Journal

Occupy L.A. raises more questions than it answers

by Jonah Lowenfeld

Posted on Nov. 2, 2011 at 4:19 pm

People demonstrate in front of a Bank of America as Occupy Los Angeles protesters march in the Protest Against Corporate Greed on their International Day of Action in Los Angeles, California October 15, 2011. Occupy LA is part of the Occupy Wall Street movement that began in New York last month with a few people and expanded to protest marches and camps across the US and abroad.  Photo by David McNew/Reuters

People demonstrate in front of a Bank of America as Occupy Los Angeles protesters march in the Protest Against Corporate Greed on their International Day of Action in Los Angeles, California October 15, 2011. Occupy LA is part of the Occupy Wall Street movement that began in New York last month with a few people and expanded to protest marches and camps across the US and abroad. Photo by David McNew/Reuters

From the very beginning of the Occupy Wall Street movement, people wanted to know why.

Why did a group of protesters calling themselves “the 99 percent” take up residence in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan on Sept. 17?

Why were so many people galvanized by the Occupy Wall Street protest, and why have similar encampments since sprung up in more than 100 cities across the country?

And now that authorities in some cities have begun forcibly removing the protesters, why are the Occupy Los Angeles protesters so determined to hold their ground in the park surrounding Los Angeles City Hall — especially considering that they haven’t yet agreed on what they wish to achieve?

Last week, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa hinted that the end of Occupy L.A. might be near, telling the Los Angeles Times that the protest “cannot continue indefinitely.” But as of press time on Nov. 1, the encampment was still very much in operation.

And even if authorities somehow do clear the park of the hundreds of protesters and their scores of tents, basic questions about this still-evolving movement likely will remain unanswered for many.

Who are these local occupiers? What drove them to take up residence in the tent city downtown? And could the Occupy Wall Street movement really impact the future of the country?

For the perplexed, or the simply curious, here are a few observations.

Occupy L.A., like the Occupy Wall Street movement as a whole, is most clear in its generalized outrage at the inequitable distribution of wealth in the country.

Every evening at 7:30 p.m., Occupy L.A. holds a General Assembly (G.A.) meeting. A recent one began with a call and response:

“Who are we?” a young man asked.

“The 99 percent!” the occupiers responded.

The inchoate frustration of the vast majority of the American population at the current economic troubles is what drives the Occupy movement, and the occupiers — the “99 percenters,” as they call themselves — are united in opposition to the excess gains in wealth of America’s super-elite, the top 1 percent.

These days, statistical evidence of the yawning gap between the super-rich and everyone else is easy to come by. A Congressional Budget Office report released on Oct. 26 showed that over the past 30 years, the incomes of the top 1 percent of Americans grew by 275 percent, while everyone else experienced growth of just 65 percent.

The evidence of economic hardship is also easy to see among the occupiers, many of whom are unemployed. Emilio Arreola, 25, has been involved in Occupy L.A. since its beginning in late September at Pershing Square downtown. Arreola has been unemployed since leaving the Navy two years ago. His tent is his only residence.

“I went out and got all five of my forklift licenses, I’m working on my CDL [Commercial Driver License], and it’s just so horribly hard to get a job,” Arreola said.

Beyond their dissatisfaction with the current economic system, it is hard to discern what the Occupy Wall Street movement is trying to achieve — because the members of this leaderless movement themselves have not yet decided on goals.

Like the protests that swept through the Arab world this spring, the movement proudly proclaims itself a leaderless uprising. But unlike, say, the protests that toppled former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the Occupy Wall Street movement has not yet targeted a single agreed-upon villain or united behind any clear goals.

Emilio Arreola, 25, leads the team of about a dozen Peacekeepers who patrol the Occupy L.A. encampment outside City Hall. A U.S. Navy veteran, Arreola has been unemployed since he was discharged two years ago. He attended the first Occupy L.A. General Assembly meeting on Sept. 27 and was immediately attracted to the movement’s central message. “I heard what people were saying and I fell in love,” Arreola said. Photo by Jonah Lowenfeld

As a result, the ideologically diverse crowd that gathers each day at Occupy L.A. has, so far, failed to push ahead with any particular demands.

“Occupy L.A. is populated by Democrats, libertarians, socialists and anarchists,” Gene Maddaus wrote recently in the LA Weekly, “not to mention 9/11 Truthers, Oath Keepers, End the Fedders, sound-money guys, and a sizable contingent of homeless and mentally ill people looking for free food.”

At a recent G.A. meeting, a few “End the Fedders” pushed for Occupy L.A. to call for the repeal of the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, which created the country’s central bank and granted it authority to print money.

This proposal, which has been promoted by Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, did not sit well with the speakers who followed. One dismissed it as too complicated, another declared it too controversial, a third suggested it might be better if Occupy L.A. promoted the adoption of a new, completely electronic currency instead. Ultimately, no action was taken on the proposal.

The occupiers are determined to stay in City Hall Park for as long as it takes them to achieve their (as-yet-undefined) goals.

Bob Vanech, wearing khakis and a dress shirt, hardly looks the part of an “Occupy” protester. This self-described ex-Wall Street businessman serves on Occupy L.A.’s Demands Committee, and on Oct. 29 he once again came downtown to the site from his home in Venice, bringing with him his 15-year-old son.

Vanech said he believes Occupy L.A. will soon issue “demands of our local politicians.”

On Oct. 12, Los Angeles’ City Council approved a resolution supporting the First Amendment rights of the occupiers, but Vanech, who was once a contestant on a politically themed reality TV show on Showtime, said he and other members of the committee plan to see how far that support extends.

“We’re not going to ask for demands saying, ‘If you give us this we’ll leave,’ ” Vanech said. “We’re saying, ‘You said you support us. We’re actually going to test that support to see if it was politics or genuine support.’ ”

The protesters, for the most part, seem in no rush to clarify their aims. Ryan Rice, 26, has been part of Occupy L.A. from the beginning; he explained that the model of occupation is a strategy for social protesters with a great deal of patience.

“At some point,” Rice said, “everyone on the planet will know why we are out here.”

The occupiers don’t much like the media — even when they are working with it.

Gia Trimble, a volunteer who was trying to keep the remnants of an early morning rain shower from dripping into Occupy L.A.’s heavily wired media tent, put it simply. “At the end of the day, the media is a big part of the whole 1 percent,” she said.

Some of that frustration with the media may be due to reporters asking — repeatedly, and mostly without getting answers — what the protesters are aiming to achieve, and even voices sympathetic to a movement protesting income inequality are voicing doubts about the Occupy Wall Street movement. This week, The New York Times’ Bill Keller, The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg and the Los Angeles Times’ Steve Lopez all penned columns wondering when — or whether — the protesters might ever get beyond what Keller called “the dreamy level of John Lennon lyrics.”

“I’m beginning to think the demonstrators are all talk and no action,” Lopez wrote after spending a night with the occupiers.

Occupy L.A. is growing — but as it does, it requires an increasing amount of work just to keep going.

Despite Vanech’s suspicion that some on the City Council may not be wholeheartedly in favor of Occupy L.A., the movement enjoys a great deal more support here than similar encampments in other cities do. Occupy Oakland was violently dismantled by police on Oct. 25, an action for which that city’s mayor is still trying to atone, and, according to news reports, dozens of protesters were arrested in both Denver and Nashville on Oct. 29.

Los Angeles’ occupiers, by contrast, enjoy a cordial relationship with the Los Angeles Police Department, which has its headquarters right across the street from the encampment, and the Occupy L.A. Peacekeepers led by Arreola feel comfortable calling in the police if needed.

“We get a few incidents involving a lot of disputes between the people here, but overall, it’s fairly quiet,” LAPD Capt. David Lindsay said.

Bob Vanech, left, with a protester, first visited Occupy L.A. on Oct. 26, when the occupation was nearly four weeks old. “I’m part of the 99 percent,” Vanech said. “I have a finance degree, and I spent half my career on Wall Street. I’m not part of Wall Street corruption, and I’m getting screwed by all the corruption that’s going on, both in Washington and New York.” Photo by Jonah Lowenfeld

That’s not all. Occupy L.A. has been allowed to use gas- and solar-powered generators to run its media operations and music amplification systems. The food tent was not serving hot food this past weekend (the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health stopped the movement from serving prepared food around mid-October, according to Curbed LA), but small subgroups of occupiers — tribes with names like Bike Skum and Kids’ Village — had set up collective kitchens around stoves and hot plates.

Kyle Lesley, 30, came south to join Occupy L.A. after spending a few weeks with the occupiers in his hometown of San Francisco. There, police raids were frequent, Lesley said, and all of the Occupy S.F. media operations had to be run exclusively on battery power.

But the organizational burdens of the food and media outreach, as well as the constant stream of musicians and comedians and others dropping by to entertain the group, have taken some of the energy away from the occupation’s central goal, Lesley said.

“There’s so much effort to keep the community alive that we’re really not protesting that much,” he said.

At Occupy L.A., Jews are way easier to find than anti-Semites.

It’s far too soon to tell what political impact — if any — the Occupy Wall Street movement might have, but that hasn’t stopped Conservative media outlets from branding the protests as anti-Semitic.

The Occupy movement is leaderless and amorphous, and if any person has a message to deliver, he or she can do so without too much difficulty. There have been reports of protesters railing against “Zionist Jews” who control the Federal Reserve and/or Wall Street, but after conducting dozens of interviews with participants at Occupy L.A., I only met one person who had something anti-Jewish to say.

Deborah Smith, who was fired a little less than a year ago from her job as a real estate appraiser, felt strongly that the Jewish judge who presided over her divorce from her Jewish ex-husband discriminated against her because she was not Jewish.

“If I was prejudiced [against Jews], I wouldn’t have married one,” Smith said, in the course of a rant in which she also said that Bernie Madoff “better not be the only Jewish banker in jail, he better get a lot of f———company.”

Smith lost her home a few years ago and was sitting at the entrance to the tent where she is now living, on the west side of City Hall Park. The G.A. meeting was still going on, but she wasn’t attending.

“I am not prejudiced,” she said. “But my judge was prejudiced, and he was a Jew, and he saw that I was a shiksa, and he stuck it to me.”

The intensity of some media outlets’ focus on isolated expressions of anti-Semitic sentiment belies the degree to which Jews have themselves taken part in the protests.

Indeed, according to Josh Dunn, 33, a protester from Palm Springs who was raised Jewish and has since explored many other spiritual practices, Jewish clergy have been far more involved than clergy of any other religion.

As previously reported in this newspaper, during Sukkot, the weeklong Festival of Booths, a group of rabbis put up a sukkah in the midst of Occupy L.A. The booth was, Dunn said, “the single way in which the religious community of Los Angeles has taken part in what we’re doing here.”

Dunn, who studied art as an undergraduate at UCLA and now runs the Web site TribalCommunistParty.org, said he has been disappointed to see the lack of organized religious support for Occupy L.A.

Indeed, the only spiritual offering I witnessed at Occupy L.A. was a single tent with a sign that said, “Meditation Temple; No shoes, Silence please. Free Yoga @ 5 pm.”

The former sukkah’s frame, meanwhile, remains standing, uninhabited, at the north edge of the park, right between the tents of the Tarp Tribe and the Love Committee.

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