Jason Rosencrantz is a Downtown resident who has become an active participant in Occupy Los Angeles. He shares this story of the events at Bank of America Plaza on November 17th.
When I woke up last Thursday morning, I wasn't planning on getting arrested. I knew it was going to be a day of action for Occupy Los Angeles (OLA) and the Occupation Movement more generally, since November 17 marked the two month anniversary of the movement's birth.
The importance of this milestone was amplified by the recent crackdowns on the Occupations in various cities across the U.S., which had culminated in the early morning raid on the original encampment in Manhattan's Zuccotti Park under the direction of multibillionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
I am one of the many who don't camp at City Hall but commute on a nearly daily basis to participate in OLA actions and committee meetings. I have great respect for those who do camp there, since they constitute the point of gravity around which these activities revolve.
So I rode my bike downtown to take part in whatever march was planned. When I got there, however, I ran into a trusted acquaintance from the camp who let me in on a little secret: An affinity group had planned a clandestine action, using a march to Bank of America Plaza as cover, although she couldn't reveal any further details. I was intrigued, so I tagged along with her and a few associates.
As we walked, we discussed our respective levels of commitment to the impending direct action. My acquaintance was there to document the action with her video camera. Another couldn't risk arrest due to ongoing legal issues. Another was functioning as a media liaison. But what about me?
I was a citizen in good standing with a perfectly clear record. I had just turned 40 years old, and had spent much of the last decade frustrated by a sense of hopelessness in the face of what I saw as the dark trajectory of this country and the world. Also, I wasn't totally unprepared, tactically speaking. In the past weeks I had Non-Violence and Civil Disobedience training at OLA's People's Collective University on City Hall's north lawn.
I decided I would play it by ear.
Downtown was alive with activity. I heard chanting, drums and sirens as we rode the Angel's Flight funicular up to the financial district, were Bank of America Plaza is located.
There was an unusually high number of private security agents with their walkie-talkies among the business people on their lunch breaks. I thought it would be a good idea to put my hoodie on over my homemade "Occupy Los Angeles" t-shirt. I bought some fruit from a vendor and sat in the Plaza to observe.
As the March approached its terminus at Bank of America Plaza, the police presence grew. Hundreds of people were filling the square for a rally.
I didn't witness any signal, but all of a sudden I saw a dozen or so occupiers jump onto a grassy area adjacent to the Plaza and start pitching tents. This must be it, I thought, and found myself leaping over a flower bed in order to assist with this new encampment in the shadow of Bank of America.
The police made no move to evict us until a representative from Brookfield Properties, the same institution that owns Zuccotti Park, requested that "private persons' arrests" be made for trespassing on their patch of grass. In the meantime, a kabuki of mutual posturing between police and protesters lasted several hours.
For a while the perimeter of our little encampment was porous, I could still leave if I wanted to. As time passed several people did. But as riot police started to appear on Hope street, I looked around at the people who were signaling their commitment to stay.
I recognized many of them from activities at OLA, and had heard several speak articulately and passionately at General Assemblies. I decided that I would be proud to stand with them.
Vinegar soaked bandanas were passed out to protect ourselves from the tear gas we feared would come. Remembering the fate of Scott Olsen, the Iraq War vet whose skull was cracked by a police projectile at a demonstration in Oakland recently, I put my bicycle helmet on my head.
We didn't have the numbers to defend the entire encampment, so we encircled our impromptu medical tent.
I noticed an old man a few links down our human chain. The frailty of his body was more than compensated by the determination in his eyes. He was tall and thin, like me. If he can do this, I thought, then so can I.
As the moment of truth approached, we became increasingly interesting subjects to the professional television news teams that were allowed through the perimeter of police. The questions they asked were all the same.
"Why are you doing this?"
It is hard, especially in such circumstances, to formulate a pithy answer to this simple question, since answering it fully requires articulating the interdependent cluster of political, economic and environmental crises we face.
Where should one start? With the fact that private corporate institutions have superseded democratic institutions in power and wealth, to the extent, for example, that
nobody can reach high political office without corporate sponsorship? Will I then have time to explain how this puts such private institutions in a position to dictate legislation to the legislators they sponsor, against the interests of the people they are supposed to represent? Or should I talk about the crisis of capitalism, with its rapacious appetite for natural resources--unsustainable on a finite planet--and the environmental destruction it entails? Or should I concentrate on unemployment, or homelessness, or foreclosures, or war profiteers, or prisons?
After the media got their sound bites and cleared out, the riot cops began to creep onto the grass. They began throwing the outer tents of our encampment onto the flower bed I had earlier been careful not to disturb. We began to chant "Don't hurt the flowers!" until we realized that they were piling the tents there to hide whatever would happen next from the media and our supporters in the Plaza.
As the sky darkened and a chill grew in the evening air, we faced a circle of riot cops that tightening around us. As they gripped their billy clubs and lifted their (rubber bullet?) shotguns, it was impossible not to feel visceral fear.
But there was something else that eclipsed those pangs of fear, something that reminded me in some small way of the bond that combat soldiers speak of. I wasn't so concerned for myself as an individual. I stood where I did in solidarity with those with whom I had locked arms, with the people engaged in actions all over the country that day, and with our supporters in the plaza who continued to chant:
"You're sexy! You're cute! Take off your riot suit!"
We were facing outwards and couldn't see each other's faces, but through song and by using the 'people's mic' we spoke each other's voices and acted as one.
We began to reach out to the human beings hidden behind the uniforms and brutal instruments.
We explained that we were a peaceful assembly exercising political speech. We asked them to consider their role in this moment in history, and asked what they would tell their grandchildren. We looked in their eyes and explained that our fight was not with them, but with the system that sets them against us. We said we knew that they were not being paid overtime for this, and that they were part of the 99%. We reminded them about the two-tiered justice system in this country, and that we might need them in order to apply the law to political and financial elites who regularly escape accountability. We even told them that we loved them.
The postures of several officers softened, and someone claimed later to have seen a tear in one officer's eye.
In the end they arrested us anyway, of course. At the final moment they asked us to sit down on the floor, so that they could execute the most "passive arrest". We held
a miniature assembly, to decide whether not to comply. We unanimously decided to remain standing.
One by one they removed us from the human chain. They broke our physical bond but our spiritual bond was only strengthened by the experience of the day, as it would be further still by the long night that followed.
After a perp walk to the paddy wagon and a short ride to the Municipal Detention Center on Los Angeles Street, we were reunited for booking, where we again broke into a song that had united us during the action:
"Solidarity forever! Solidarity forever! Solidarity forever, the movement makes us strong!"