On October first, hundreds of people from around Los Angeles answered the call from Occupy Wall Street to start claiming public spaces to meet and decide together what to do to build an economy that meets the needs of the people in the place of capitalism. As the day progressed, a group of people with previous working relationships as organizers in various communities in Los Angeles and trusted allies gathered to collectively share thoughts and ideas about what we were witnessing and taking part in. Our first impression was that the “occupation” resembled a carnival and that it was was disorganized. What we eventually realized, however, was that the “occupation” was, in fact, very carefully organized, but for objectives we did not anticipate. Crouched under the banner of “leaderlessness” was a small circle of organizers unaware of and unapologetic for their own privileges, and fiercely intent on maintaining their grasp on power and ownership over Occupy LA.
On the first day, we convened discussion circles which dozens of people gradually joined. We called for these circles because we felt we needed to hear from each other, as attendees of the Occupation, prior to the General Assembly. Coming from an anti-authoritarian, horizontal perspective and practice, we understood that building relationships with the other participants and hearing ideas and concerns would be the basic building blocks to form a collective understanding of why we were at the Occupation in the first place and how we could participate. A 300 person General Assembly meeting cannot provide the space or opportunity for all of the participants to develop trusting relationships: this happens over time by discussing experiences and working on projects together. While we have shared our experiences from our organizing in direct action movements and our ideas for moving forward, we have also learned a lot from other participants. This is the beauty of occupations and similar actions; it is difficult not to come together as a community. But as we have pointed out, throughout the duration of the occupation, many people have felt excluded, especially those comprising the most disadvantaged segments of the “99%.”
During the General Assemblies on the first and second day of occupation, we witnessed fundamental breakdowns in the consensus process, resulting in undemocratic decision-making. This was complemented by deception, coercion, and fear-mongering by the leadership to get their way. We were troubled by actions of those in leadership positions and/or facilitators of various committees who sought to control the direction of the occupation through non-democratic decision-making regarding the relationship with the Los Angeles Police Department. Any discussions or proposals at the GA criticizing or objecting to collaboration with the police are immediately shouted down by the leadership. By obstructing any discussion of the relationship between the occupation and the police we have been prevented from making plans for strategic responses to police aggression like arrests or brutality which potentially endangers people who have issues related to criminal records, immigration status, race, or gender identity. OccupyLA has excluded the concerns of people that have long experience with the police in their neighborhoods and also in protests, and by doing this they also exclude people who could participate but feel unsafe and disrespected because of a lack of recognition by OccupyLA of their concerns.
We made several attempts to present proposals, workshops, and discussions at the General Assembly, in small groups, and in one-on-one conversations. Although the overall Occupation movement nationally aspires to use participatory democracy and the consensus process to be inclusive of the people, the efforts by the leadership to maintain informal control have prevented discussion or recognition of patriarchy, white supremacy, classism, heteronormativity, and other layers of oppression that exist in the broader society, which continue to be perpetuated within this “occupation.” Women of color in particular have been silenced. Many of us are tired of futilely trying to explain to middle class white activists that they really aren’t experiencing the same levels of oppression as people of color or the working class or underclass. The constant rhetoric of the “99%” and calls for blind “unity” have the effect of hiding inequalities and very real systems of oppression that exist beyond the “1%-99%” dichotomy and rendering invisible the struggles of a majority of the people in this city.
But the final straw for us was that a participant in OccupyLA distributed fliers at the October 4 General Assembly with the names and photos of 25 individuals associated with the Committee to End Police Brutality and accusing these participants (some of whom are part of our affinity group) of trying to highjack and destroy the movement and provoking the police. If this individual isn’t actively working for the police, he has definitely helped them through his actions. One of these fliers most likely landed in the hands of a police officer, undercover agent, or informant, and passing them out had the effect of breaking the solidarity among the participants in the occupation and sows fear and distrust in the movement. The leadership does not understand that we are not “offended” by the fliers, but feel threatened and unsafe now that this list has been circulated. We have also been hearing reports from occupations in other cities about issues similar to the ones at OccupyLA: lying, accusations of being provocateurs or cops, exclusion, and harassment. These dynamics could cause the movement to stray away from social revolution and places the occupations dangerously close to electoral recuperation by one or more political parties.
Most people who remain at the encampment are aware of some of these issues. We have felt an incredible amount of support from them as we have cried and yelled and stormed off in response to some of the incidents that have occurred over the first two weeks of the “occupation.” The more we have talked with our friends who are occupying other cities, the more we have realized that the problems we are experiencing are common across the movement. Race, class, and gender privilege should be recognized, discussed, and countered through proactive steps to create practices that spread responsibility and power among the participants like rotating facilitation of meetings of committees and General Assemblies. We must foster a culture of taking ownership of privilege by recognizing it and committing to the other participants that we will all accept the concerns of others and allow ourselves to be held accountable by each other to the principles we profess. This is how we can start to take concrete actions to dismantle the formal and informal roles where privilege can accumulate, which allows some participants to avoid accountability.
We all want to be participants in this movement. We want to share our knowledge and experience with other participants who may have never been to a protest before so that we can help them feel empowered and safe. We want to be in the streets challenging Capitalism and the government that supports it, rebuilding our communities through struggle. We don’t want to be excluded for being who we are. We don’t want to be attacked or endangered for raising concerns about transparency and strategy. We don’t want to have to be responsible for checking privileged activists on their racism, sexism, classism, and heteronormativity. This is why we, as a collective, have opted to shift our energy from Occupy LA and focus on building popular assemblies throughout the City, in order to acknowledge the organizing and community initiatives by the most marginalized communities to survive and confront this economic crisis and those who continue to demand justice but are not heard at City Hall.
We don’t want our presence to detract from the still unclear goals and strategy of the occupation. We don’t intend for this to be divisive, rather we believe that the movement needs to spread and reach more people across LA in innovative and effective ways. We are not asking anyone to pack up their tent and join us, but we believe in the autonomy of individuals to act in the ways they believe to be most strategic and effective in our communities.