Otherwise Occupied: On What it Means to be Part of the 99%


I finally went down to Occupy L.A. on Tuesday. It was cold and drizzly, not a great day for being out and about, though good weather for being grimly determined and hunkering down with a cause (there's something to the notion that our incessant sun and mild temperatures circumvent public protest and expressions of dissatisfaction in general, north of the 10 anyway).

I have to confess that I didn't go downtown explicitly to visit Occupy L.A., I went to have lunch with a friend and realized it would be a good opportunity to go down to Main Street afterward and take stock of L.A.'s contribution to the most sustained and visible national protest against corporate greed, etc. to date. Of course I had meant to get there earlier, but things kept coming up; truth is, it's tough to fit revolution into a schedule. It's almost never convenient.

I found the encampment at City Hall spirited but relatively mellow, which disappointed me. I suppose I was expecting pitchforks and torches, or at least harsh language, but nothing like that felt imminent. Then it hit me after a minute or two that I was wandering around like a visitor at a museum or a state fair expecting some aesthetic or entertainment value. A thrill ride. I may have been sympathetic but I was acting like a tourist, an outsider, certainly not like one of the aggrieved 99 percent, which I am by any definition. I thought further--why was I there? Did I want to join, or to pass through with a raised fist and go home and donate something, ultimately chalking up Occupy to more checkbook activism? Was I too old for this sort of thing, have my movement years passed my by? A quick survey of the committed, who were notably young but many ages beyond that, confirmed that's little more than an excuse.

The friend I had lunch with remarked that she'd heard that the Skid Row homeless, who've been careful to stay away up this point, are now preparing to join the Occupy forces. She thinks that'll be a disaster for the nascent movement because participants will be forced to decide if their tent--metaphorically and literally-- is big enough to hold what most people consider society's dregs. There could be a clash of classes; despite the growing phenomena of the new poor--people who've lost their relatively comfortable lives abruptly--that 99% comprises a lot of different people on the racial, economic and experiential scale, some of whom won't take kindly to having homeless people in their midst..

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We'll see. What did impress me Tuesday was the feel of solidarity amongst everyone on the city hall lawn, a clear sense of shared fortune and space that I frankly only see amongst the homeless several blocks south. People weren't shouting or stirring things up, but they looked ready to. They looked rooted, resigned in a good way. The makeshift village was living quarters, not a stage set. The many signs that sported slogans, statistics and lots of other food for thought was both a clear border and an invitation to what felt like a real community.

After my visit I met my sister, who works in city hall, in Starbucks on Los Angeles Street. They didn't have a bathroom, so I went next door to a hotel restaurant. Strangely , the restaurant's doors were locked, as were the bathrooms, which were only available to guests with keys; otherwise you had to see the hostess, who, I discovered, was nowhere in sight. "It's probably Occupy," my sister the attorney said with a shrug. "They don't want these folks using the bathrooms, overrunning their business." Overrunning their business? I started to get mad. Denied a creature comfort, feeling a very modest but critical door shut in my face without my consent, I suddenly felt very much like the 99%. It takes a village.

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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