At the December 17th vigil, six protesters protesting the National Defense Authorization Act were arrested. | Video by OccupyFreedomLA
On December 17th, there was a candlelight vigil held in the 1st Amendment area on the west steps of City Hall in honor of Bradley Manning and sex workers.
If that seems incongruous, it is because two separate vigils had been planned independently by two different groups.
The L.A. chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project was there to mark the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.
Occupy L.A., on the other hand, had planned their vigil to celebrate Manning's 24th birthday, as a token of support for him as he faces a judge for the first time after 18 months of being detained without charges and without trial, on suspicion of leaking documents to Wikileaks that reveal government malfeasance.
But there was an easy feeling of solidarity between the two groups, who saw no reason not to combine the two vigils. As one woman pointed out, both sex workers and Occupy L.A. are, after all, "illegal communities."
I would see how true this was. Within 48 hours I would witness both sex workers and occupiers found guilty in court for doing what it is that they by definition do.
But for the moment it was a peaceful -- almost somber -- vigil. Candlelight revealed warm skin tones against the grey stairs and crisp dusk.
But December 17th represented not only Manning's birthday and Sex Worker's Day. It also marked the third month since the flagship encampment of the Occupy Movement was set up in lower Manhattan.
To mark the occasion, while New Yorkers were attempting to take back the commons by scaling the fence around Duarte Square (not so fast, said the NYPD in arresting 49 people), Angelenos, in solidarity with New York, decorated the fence that separated Occupy L.A. from its former home in Solidarity Park.
The police did not look kindly on the balloons and colored cardboard messages being placed on the fence. The number of police officers rose and soon enough squad cars were bleating messages about keeping the sidewalk clear for pedestrians, though none, besides us, were evident on a Saturday evening.
As the police presence grew and surrounded the sidewalk area, what had been a mellow vigil and fence decorating session became an animated and defensive protest for freedom of speech and assembly, punctuated by chants from the crowd.
One man was grabbed and cuffed for stepping off the curb.
"Let him go! Let him go!"
Another man used the people's mic to explain that we were the last line of defense between the police and the balloons.
"Whose balloons? Our balloons! Whose balloons? Our balloons!"
Another young man was tackled to the ground by several police, whose colleagues, batons drawn, moved in to form blockade lines and split the small crowd in two.
"Who's blocking the sidewalk now? Who's blocking the sidewalk now?"
Many of us now stood face to face with the police, who remained largely silent and expressionless as riled up protesters shouted at them.
"We made art! You made arrests! We made art! You made arrests!"
This confrontation continued even after the two arrestees were whisked away. As the the absurdity of this pointless standoff slowly became apparent to everyone involved, we began to head back towards the designated 1st Amendment area on the West Steps.
But Occupy L.A. was not quite done unpacking the meaning of December 17th. Looming over criminalized communities of all stripes that day was the National Defence Authorization Act (NDAA), sitting on the U.S. President's desk, which includes provisions that would codify into law the application of due process free indefinite detention for anyone in the world, including U.S. citizens on U.S. soil, on the mere suspicion of "substantially supporting" a vaguely defined set of terrorist groups "or associated forces."
That such legislation will ultimately be applied to members of an explicitly and proudly non-violent domestic political movement may seem a paranoid fantasy to some. But as muckraker Matt Taibbi recently asked, how hard is it, really, to imagine such detention provisions being used against "an unemployed American plumber who refused an eviction order from Bank of America and holed up with his family in his Florida house, refusing to move?" Would the proverbial 1% "consider that person to have the same rights as Lloyd Blankfein, or is that plumber closer, in their eyes, to being like the young Muslim who throws a rock at a U.S. embassy in Yemen?"
Not to mention that police in the city of London have already begun to think of the Occupy Movement as a terrorist threat.
To many in the Occupy Movement, the relative media blackout on the increased detention powers embedded in the NDAA requires provocative acts of consciousness raising. Protesters in black hoods and orange jumpsuits had been seen popping up in front of the Westwood Federal Building (see video immediately above) and elsewhere throughout L.A. in the the past weeks, but on December 17th protesters executed something more daring.
Dressed in orange scrubs that identified each as prisoner "#99", a group of six activists --mostly women--scaled the fence around Solidarity Park and occupied a (formerly) public bus bench, shouting down the NDAA.
All lenses focused on them through the chain link fence as the police slowly and methodically (and relatively delicately, I'm pleased to report) peeled them away and cuffed them (to see this, watch the video at the top of this post).
Knowing what they were about to face, I thought yet another significance of December 17th -- it happens also to be the one year anniversary of the self-immolation of Mohammad Bouazizi, which sparked the wave of revolutionary activity that spread throughout North Africa and the Middle East.
These protesters' willingness to face arrest, detention, court and related expenses reminded me, in a humble register, of Bouazizi's ultimate and desperate sacrifice.
These arrests expose, once again, that committing infractions on political grounds which harm no one entail arrest and detention, while elites who are responsible for monumental crimes, financial and otherwise, face no hint of accountability.
At the same time, the multifaceted significance of December 17th is clearly reflected in the words and creative actions by the protesters of the Occupy diaspora, once again undermining the trite dismissal of the movement as "having no message." There are clear messages, expressed by necessity through creative means, about a complex nexus of issues.
Jason Rosencrantz is a Downtown resident who has become an active participant in Occupy Los Angeles. Read his previous posts here.