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What I saw at Occupy Los Angeles

Occupy Los Angeles has a website where I learned about a teach-in last Saturday (more about that below) and decided to visit. The website is quite extensive, with streaming video, etc., and I haven't browsed it all, but I was struck by the effectiveness of the Declaration of Occupation. It mirrors our Declaration of Independence in that it is not a statement of demands but a statement of grievances. If that approach was appropriate in 1776, it's appropriate now, I think.

So, I arrived at the City Hall occupation site about 2 o'clock Saturday afternoon and walked around to get a feel. It seemed small, but there was little or no empty space for additional tents, of which there were enough to accommodate probably 500-1000 people overnight. There were trash recycling and disposal areas and no litter on the grounds. There were porta-potties, but maybe not enough of them unless they are pumped several times a day. No offensive sights, sounds, odors, or behaviors. Basically, it was like an overcrowded national park campground.

There were few if any children or teens, but if you adjust for that and the fact that there didn't seem to be any European or Asian tourists, the population also looked like what I expect at a national park campground—mostly men and women in their 20s and 30s but also a pretty fair representation of middle-aged and geezers like me. It was multiracial and partly bi-lingual. Most were dressed for camping, but there were one or two people in dirty clothes I suspect were homeless. There were also quite a few well-dressed people who might have come from their jobs in banks or government offices.

It was thoroughly peaceful, with evident comity among a diversity of traditional progressive interests including but certainly not limited to signature gatherers for various legislative initiatives, anti-war people, labor unions, legalization of marijuana (prograssives?), proselytizers for new age religions, Ron Paul activists, etc., etc. And, of course, there were a fair number of people with signs returning from the morning march to local Big Bank branches to encourage people to move their accounts to community banks and credit unions.

In the library tent, there was a group of 10-12 students and a teacher sitting cross-legged on the floor; a nearby schedule announced different hour-long courses to be taught all day long. The subjects all seemed generally related to the movement's grievances. In other areas there were meetings going on, but I couldn't get close enough to pick up on the subjects. Lots of people with laptops and smaller devices pounding and clicking. Most people seemed busy at something.

There were perhaps a half dozen police cars parked on side streets, but I saw no officers in or near the crowd. There was a pair of men on bicycles wearing shirts that said "District Safety" on the back, and they carried night sticks and a variety of other paraphernalia (no guns) on their belts; I have no clue as to their jurisdiction or function. In any event, there was nothing for law enforcement to do, as I observed nothing that was even close to disorderly, unsafe, or criminal—unless you take the position their mere assembly and exercise of speech in this location is intolerable.

At 2:30 the event I came for started on time and with a good sound system. There were even folding chairs for 100-200 up front, but I was too late for one of those and stood back near the "IT department" tent. The first speaker was Robert Reich. Toward the end of his talk, he took some abuse from one person in the crowd with a cheerleader's megaphone who accused him of being a part of the Clinton/Rubin Administration and its large part in the turn-over of government to Wall Street. His introducer and later speakers defended him as the one prominent official who objected to Rubinomics and was gone before the worst of it was implemented. Reich's biggest applause lines were his advocacy for campaign finance reform to get money out of politics and for cutting our military budget in half. In response to a question he said, "We should support the Democratic Party when it becomes us."

After a musical interlude, there came an "economics panel" moderated by Bob Scheer, who of course spoke at length and forgot to moderate. The next speaker was William Black, an associate professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, a white-collar criminologist, a former senior financial regulator, and the author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One. He excoriated the Obama Administration and State AGs for not pursuing criminal actions against Big Bank executives. He contrasted that to the Reagan and Bush I years when federal regulatory agencies made 1,000 criminal referrals arising out of the S&L debacle (including the infamous Charles Keating—for whom Alan Greenspan was a lobbyist), resulting in a 90% conviction rate.

Professor Joel Rogers came from Wisconsin to describe what had happened and was happening there in response to Governor Scott Walker's initiatives and to give a little advice—mainly, stay focused together on the big issues and don't let yourselves fragment over parochial causes.

I would love to have stayed to hear and see the rest of the program, especially George Lakoff, but my knee and back had had enough standing by 4:30 and I went home. The lineup for the rest of Saturday, ending with a movie premier in the evening, is here. Other events, including Occupy the Rose Parade, are being planned and will be posted on the website calendar.

My overall impression: This looks nothing like my memory of protests in the 1960s—the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, or even the Berkeley free speech movement and the women's liberation movement. Whether the Occupy Movement may grow into something on that scale I don't know, but it's hard for me to envision it being effective if it does not.

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