Walking through the Occupy LA encampment the other day, I stopped to listen to a small meeting being held on the north side of city hall. A dozen or more occupiers were discussing how and when to serve food.
A couple of people wanted to post serving hours for the free food. There was intense discussion of varieties of food. One person was a vegan, another, wanting protein, was not. And, naturally, there was the question of who would cook or serve, and whether their assignments should be posted.
“Interesting, isn’t it?” said my friend Art Goldberg, a lawyer who has been protesting since his Berkeley Free Speech Movement days and probably even when he was in elementary school. Goldberg had just finished talking to the group on the best and most humane way to treat the mentally ill in the encampment. He said he stops by Occupy LA every day during breaks in a trial in the nearby courthouse.
“If you’re interested in food service,” I replied, rather sarcastically, indicating that the group’s discussion hadn’t grabbed my attention. He said he thought if I had concentrated more, I would have seen the dialogue wasn’t just about serving food .If I had listened carefully, I would have heard the dynamics of Occupy LA played out on a few levels.
I saw what he meant a few minutes later when a young woman came over to us to thank Goldberg for his remarks on the mentally ill. She had been one of those discussing food. Goldberg talked to her about the need to post schedules and to work out differences that had been evident in the discussion.
The problem, she said, was that there were two very strong women involved in food—one cooking and the other serving. The young woman said she both cooks and serves. It sounded as though she was trying to mediate, to understand both sides. As she explained the food situation, I saw that the discussion at the meeting was really about leadership and bringing people together. She was intelligent, personable and mature. I could see her in a few years leading a movement in the neighborhood, city, state or national level, mediating, compromising, and building coalitions.
That’s one of the important points about the Occupy movements. Leaders will emerge from them, just as Art Goldberg’s sister, Jackie Goldberg, emerged from the Free Speech Movement to become a teacher, a school board member, a legislator and a Los Angeles City Council member.
What looks like a disorganized mess is, in many respects, a training ground for those who will join the next generation of leaders. They are receiving practical lessons in subjects ranging from getting agreement on a food-serving schedule to dealing with difficult people to organizing protests against what originally brought them together—income inequality and rapacious financial institutions.