I let all of 2011 go by without participating in a single Occupy Wall Street action. It just seemed too hard what with the driving, the parking, the schlepping, the sitting on cold pavement, the banner waving and tiresome chanting and the risk of incarceration. It all just seemed too much for a busy mom. But I am unemployed (I write for you lovelies free of charge) and my LAUSD-educated teenagers have no college savings. I support my destitute, uninsured mother back east. Despite my WASP pedigree, my Ivy League education and my Harpers Magazine subscription, I am the 99%.
I felt I should go. I am so glad I did.
The view of downtown from the 10 freeway was apocalyptic. No fewer than eight helicopters hovered in the air like locusts. I was hoping it was press, I had a feeling it was LAPD.
The streets were strangled with police closures and traffic so I ditched my car in a pay lot at 8th and Olive and hot-footed it over to Broadway and 7th where I met the march. It turned out to be a parade and (cue Ethel Merman voice) I LOVE A PARADE!! Chinese dragons danced in the street, drummers thrummed out rhythms, whistles blew, and vendors sold hotdogs. Costumed stiltwalkers passed out fliers, children were carried on their parents' shoulders. Okay, some of those children wore t-shirts that read, “Fight the Power,” but it all seemed so festive and benign. How could anyone object to such earnest fun?
The only angst I encountered at first was a man rushing to join the march, his eight year-old son trailing behind him. “Hurry up!” he barked at his son, “stop reading!” The boy was reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Okay, maybe this wasn’t fun for everybody.
It was a left-wing hit parade, all the major groups were playing: Labor unions, Commies, Socialists, Hippies, Anarchists, education reformers, universal health care advocates, pot-smokers, Gays/Lesbians and those who maybe weren’t advocating any cause, just wanting to let their freak flags fly. They had painted faces, carried banners, wore masks and blew bubbles. I saw bright wigs and long, socked toes curling over the fronts of Birkenstocks. Brown people wore designer jeans and white people wore Mao Jackets paired with Huaraches and Guatemalan pants. It was a topsy-turvy, flashback kind of world. It seemed almost quaint.
But there was something less quaint here that looked like it had been pulled from a grainy newsreel from Selma -- lines of cops in full riot gear, truncheons held horizontally in front of their chests. The plastic zip cord handcuffs threaded through their belt loops and pepper spray canisters that bulged at their hips told us they were ready to tussle. Black and whites were lined up in neat diagonals on side streets. The cops looked as stern as the crowd looked festive.
A group of young men carried a black banner that read, “Fuck the Police.” A grim cache of cops stood behind them. Could they read it? It all depended which side you were on, I thought.
At first I was scared by the police. I walked past a long line of cops. I tested the waters by smiling at them. A couple of them smiled back at me. Okay, they were the 99% too. Then I saw a testosterone-addled sargent physically pushing his subordinates into position. It felt dicey again.
We made our way to Pershing Square for the General Assembly. The sun was setting and the glassy high rises sparkled against a cobalt sky. A Latinish-rappish band was playing and people danced. Pot smoke seasoned the cooling air, and everybody everywhere had a camera or an iPhone in their hand recording the moment for a media-saturated posterity.
The assembly began. We sat on the pavement (yes, cold, yes, gum fused to butt) and listened to the bilingual explanations of the Occupy hand gestures, and were told to introduce ourselves to the person we were sitting next to. I met Lisa from Altadena who was there “to see the future.”
The helicopters buzzing overhead drowned out the voices of the speakers and muting the message. We did a “Mic Check!” – the crowd repeating and amplifying the words of the speakers. It was explained that this was not a rally – but an autonomous, horizontal and all-inclusive movement that was about building community and enacting radical change. Toward that end we broke into small discussion groups. The suggested topic: What are the central issues confronting your community and what ideas do we have that might create change?
Our group included a librarian, a health care worker, and a postal worker. We had trouble hearing each other over a nearby drum circle which was louder than the choppers. I sizzled with annoyance. Fuck the police? Fuck the happy hippies who were drowning out positive change! We leaned into each other to hear each other speak. We discussed the challenge of overcoming isolation and the revelation of meeting your neighbor, building community by simply saying hello to a stranger, just as we were doing now. At the end of the session one member from each group was chosen to summarize our discussion for the entire assembly and that is how I ended up with a bullhorn in my hand, addressing the general assembly.
“Hi, my name is Erika and my group discussed the anxiety of meeting the person standing next to you even though nine times out of ten that person will be rightchuss.” (I was channeling Martin Luther King now, getting my oratory on.) "The only way we can build community is by reaching out to our neighbors. In a world that only wants to text what we lose is conversation. How will our kids learn to talk to each other if they don't know how to look each other in the eye, or listen? We have to open our hearts to each other! That is the first, simple step toward building a coalition and creating global change!”
Anyway, I think that’s what I said -- or some other softball, yet heartfelt stuff along those lines. It’s really all a blur now. I just know that the twinkly-fingered hand sign for “Yes! I agree!” was all around me and as I left the stage people I didn't know patted me on the back and thanked me. Somehow, this reluctant participant had become a passionate member of the Occupy LA movement.
On the way back to my car I passed a group of off-duty cops, laughing and bullshitting together. We all smiled at each other.