November 2, 2011


The Night Occupy Los Angeles Tore Itself In Two (Natasha Vargas-Cooper, October 28, 2011, The Awl)

Earlier in the day, Kat, a twenty-something blonde with a big beautiful Slavic face and dirt underneath her fingernails, convened an affinity group at the north side of City Hall to discuss adopting Occupy New York's code of conduct: no drugs, no violence, no abuse. If the affinity group could come to a consensus, then members of the group would make a formal proposal to the General Assembly recommending that the camp adopt the ground rules. About sixty people were in attendance for the afternoon meeting. Most were young, many were Chicano, there were some purposefully well-dressed young white guys in collared shirts and ironed pants who were not camping but regularly attending meetings. There were a few older people in the group with the vibe of being life-long professional activists. About six men donned the traditional anarchist garb: pulled-up hoodie, black bandana around their face, an implacable look in their eyes.

"I don't understand why people who want to smoke weed can't just go across the street to do it?" one young man in camouflage shorts and black sweatshirt said. About half the group raised their hands up and twinkled their fingers in agreement.

Another young man stood up, clearly agitated, and began pacing around the inside of the circle: "Is it alright if I stand in the middle of the circle? I don't want to be too domineering or anything. Ok, right, it's like, if you create a code of conduct, it's like you're creating a separatist doctrine. You're creating an Us and a Them. Why do you guys want to act like cops? It's the cops' job to divide us! We left society to avoid them. Why do you want to bring that s[***] here?" Kat thanked him for speaking and moved on to the next person who had signed up to talk.

Speaking slowly with a tense edge to his voice, a man in dark sunglasses asked the crowd, "What the f[***] is wrong with us? Why are we talking about this instead of figuring out how we're going to hold a vigil for the Oakland protesters who were gassed last night?" This time people started to clap. Things got increasingly more heated and more abstract--"Are you going to call coffee a drug?"--as each speaker entered the circle. Those who were in favor of the code of conduct were accused of wanting to purge outsiders and create a two-caste structure within the camp. Those who opposed the code were, indirectly, called selfish and short-sighted.

Ideological disputes on the nature of law, order, and a group's ability to self-police continued for the next two hours. At a few different moments it seemed as though the group would be swayed to recommend the code of conduct but inevitably someone (usually with a black bandana around their face) would demand to know how the camp would enforce the rules. "Who's going to take responsibility for kicking people out of the camp?" When no answer was given, the debate would kick up again, and spiral, and go off the rails.

Eventually, there was so much interruption, and rancor, Kat found herself overwhelmed and snapped at a woman who had continually tried to speak out of turn. Breaking away to have a cigarette, Kat told me that she absolutely believed a code of conduct should be passed but was certain that the issue would not even reach the General Assembly for some time. "We're having too many growing pains right now," Kat said, and exhaled smoke and tossed her hair to the side. "But I'm sure we'll figure something out," she said, with a polite smile. By the time Kat finished smoking, the group had collapsed with no clear resolution for the General Assembly that was set to take place in an hour.

The General Assembly is made up of self-selected committees charged with dealing with nearly every facet of camp life. There is a committee for food, research, demands, media, facilitation, sanitation, "zero waste "and arts. Every General Assembly meeting begins with a ten-minute update and then about two hours of reports from various committees. At the end there is an open discussion. On Wednesday, the General Assembly had invited members of the Los Angeles City Council to join the meeting, in an effort to display that the City's concerns about sanitation and waste were being addressed. A few council staffers were spotted at the designated time for the meeting. They did not stay long.

Because even by the time the General Assembly was ready to meet at 7:30 p.m., things were unraveling. A large group, made up almost entirely of men, stood in a circle denouncing the General Assembly and their efforts to "police" the camp, particularly regarding drinking or smoking weed. Anyone who spoke in favor of a code of conduct was aggressively booed. Adding to the morass were four different men looping in and out of the circle, each armed with his own megaphone, shouting their own grievances and rhetoric. When a runner from the General Assembly made the announcement that they would begin the meeting, he was thunderously shouted down, then someone yelled out "The GA is dead!" and the crowd erupted in both celebration and shock: "We don't want you or your f[***]ing procedure!" One male protester, in an army helmet and no shirt, cried out as shoving matches erupted between several groups of men. The young man who was leading the informal group yelled: "This is the People's Forum! There are no committees, there are no rules, everyone gets to speak. Get in a circle! GET IN A CIRCLE!" A majority of the crowd abided, although they were openly chastised when the circle took on non-circle shapes.

A facilitator from the General Assembly tried one last time to get the group's attention through a call-and-response tactic. He was shouted down by two men, one of whom was shouting directly in his ear. Then it was announced that there would be two minutes of drumming. The loud thumping gave way to spastic dancing and eventually some primal bellowing.

Posted by at November 2, 2011 6:17 AM

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