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Welcome to Occupy L.A.: Scenes From City Hall

Tasbeeh Herwees |
October 24, 2011 | 11:27 p.m. PDT

Senior Staff Reporter

Occupy L.A. protesters rail against corporate greed (Tasbeeh Herwees)
Occupy L.A. protesters rail against corporate greed (Tasbeeh Herwees)
On a chilly Tuesday morning, the Occupy L.A. protesters have formed a circle in front of the north entrance of Los Angeles City Hall. As they emerge from their tents and grab breakfast from the communal food tent set up on the corner of Spring and Temple, they join the circle to discuss a particularly touchy subject among the occupiers: money. 

“We don’t have cops beating us,” says one occupier named James. “This could be our burden to bear.”

Several people in the circle nod their heads, raise their hands and wiggle their fingers in silent applause. The ‘cops’ James is referring to are the New York Police Department, who have been accused of using violent aggression against Occupy Wall Street protesters camped out in Zuccotti Park.

The burden, says James, is continuing the L.A.occupation of City Hall without any money, but not because they don’t have any of it. The occupiers have been receiving plenty of donations through their website and at a donation tent set up on the North Lawn.

But the Occupy L.A. protesters aren’t an organization -- at least not a registered one. Four of the occupiers have been storing the money in their personal bank accounts and volunteer lawyers working with the protesters warn them this could leave them liable for tax fraud. 

The meeting this morning is an informal committee discussion debating the pros and cons of registering the occupation as a 501(c)4 non-profit organization. James tells the committee about occupiers in Spain who’ve done away with money entirely.

“Personally, I feel uncomfortable with money,” says James, to more silent applause.

Many of the occupiers agree with him. They don’t see how a movement that has been overwhelmingly anti-corporation can rationalize becoming a corporation. 

Still, there are others who see it as a means to an end. 

“I love the idea of no money,” says an occupier named Paul, “but this is a marathon and we’re going to be out here for years because our mission is to destroy the entire institution of capitalism.”

Max Funk, who’s been listening to the debate silently, speaks up.

“I'm here for economic justice,” says Funk, “Whatever can enable us to come closer to that goal -- which is paying for food, paying for porta-potties, paying for educational resources -- that's having money. Money is not evil, money is a device.”

More nodding heads and wiggling fingers for Funk.

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A few hours later, Funk is sitting in front of a different crowd, under a tent emblazoned with the words “People’s Collective University.” Next to him is a white board where he’s scrawled, with blue marker, “Basic Economics: Building the Modern Economy.”

“It’s not that capitalism is evil,” he says to the growing audience. “Injustice is evil. Exploiting people is evil.”

This is just one of three to five classes Funk teaches throughout the day at the camp. The classes are organized by the educational committee, which also offers classes in solar energy, improv, civil liberties, among many other diverse topics and trades. The classes are taught by volunteers like Funk, a UC Berkeley grad who studied business and economics. 

“Once I saw the financial crisis, and observing the phenomenon that created it in the first place, I didn't really want to do what I as doing at the time," says Funk. "So I left the start-up I was responsible for starting.”

Funk runs ProtectTheEconomy.org and has spent time at Occupy L.A. teaching anyone who wants to listen about how the economy works and how to fix it. Funk acknowledges criticism of the Occupy movement that portrays it as unfocused and aimless but he isn’t bothered by it. 

“What you are observing right now at this beginning stage is, you know, the hearts are coming together and we're beginning to know one another,” he says. “Many people are just frustrated and angry.”

Anger is definitely a running theme at the camp. Many of the occupiers are unemployed or in school. Some are homeless and others are facing financial troubles. If you ask them why they’re protesting, they all voice the same disappointment in a government they feel does not work in their interests. Funk is there to give them the knowledge with which to express that disappointment in a more constructive manner.

“We are all prohibited from pursuing our interests in the free market right now.” he says, “The game is not being played fairly.”

Funk has been here since day three. Most occupiers will tell you this is a leaderless movement -- and there really are no visible leaders -- but if you wanted someone to talk to you, he’s one of a handful of people to whom you might be directed. 

It’s not hard to see why. He’s articulate and enthusiastic about what he teaches, engaging his audience in shrewd discussions on the economy, banking and money. He espouses the values of transparency and free information.

“An economy is a public entity,” says Funk to an audience that has doubled since he began his class. “Therefore all the information about an economy should be made available those who contribute to its existence.”

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Committee meetings and discussions like the ones happening this morning are no rarity. In fact, they’ve become de rigueur in the settlement the protesters have created here. A few weeks ago, Angelenos on their way to work at the criminal courts next door or rushing to catch the bus on Spring St. might have stopped to survey the scene but today they rush past the encampment that has taken over the City Hall lawns without a batting an eye.

 

The micro-community boasts claim to a small kitchen, a first aid center, a library, a volunteer security team and even a meditative tent for those who wish to take a spiritual or religious moment away from the festivities.

City officials and police have been largely benevolent, even supportive, of the occupation. Occupier Mario Brito, a city liaison of sorts, coordinates frequently with police and is in constant discussion with them about lawn policy and protest routes. 

On Friday, October 14th, the day before occupiers across the world were set to stage a "Global Day of Action," Brito is greeted by Los Angeles Police Department officers with warm smiles.

"Hey, brother," Brito claps one of the officers on the back. Joe Michael, another city liaison, is already there sitting on the steps.

Earlier, Michael complained to Brito about the security team, who work with police to control crowds during protests and diffuse fights, which are surprisingly infrequent for a gathering as large as this one.

"I'm so short-staffed it's not even funny," said Michael, taking a drag on his cigarette. "But [the police] are aware that we have people here trying to fuck shit up."

The other day, one of the protesters brandished a knife at a Fox News reporter and the police had to be called in. On Friday, another protester verbally attacked a performer who put on a satirical act called "Billionaires for Bush." The satire was lost on him and the protesters worked together to move him away as he pounded on a drum and chanted against the performer.

"Are we about peace?!" they chanted back. "Then let's act like it."

Another de facto leader, Brito seems to be the one to go to when such fights break out. On that same Friday, a member of the security team wearing an orange safety vest rushes over to Brito and lets him know about a “provocateur”  on the South Lawn. Brito follows him to the scene, where a young woman wearing a white button-down shirt and black pencil skirt has attracted a crowd. 

"This is about the way I dress!" she yelled at a group of people near the media tent. Spectators attempted to pull her away. 

Brito later explained that she had presented herself to the police as a member of the media team. “No one’s ever seen her before,” he said. She was accused by suspicious protesters of being an undercover city official.

“I’ve been here for three days,” she told the crowd forming around her. 

Like any movement, the Occupy LA encampment also has had to deal with slackers and sponges who’ve seized upon the opportuntity to party.

“These liberals who come over the weekend and think it’s a fucking carnival,” complained one occupier to Brito. He nodded in understanding. 

There’s also the problem of resources. While Occupy LA prides itself on being all-inclusive and all-welcoming, the encampment has attracted a substantial homeless population from nearby Skid Row. All the food is donated and distributed freely to whomever wants it, but when resources dwindle, organizers get skittish.

Scenes at the food tent are sometimes tense. As one man sidles up to the food tent and stuffs a bag of chips in his jacket,  an organizer gets angry and yells, “You’ve been here 15 times! You’ve blown a bag of groceries.”

The man sheepishly returns the bag to the table and walks away.

"There's one rule about any public gathering," one occupier remarked. "Four to five percent of the people there are going to be completely fucking psychotic."

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Approaching its fourth week, the occupation is still going strong. Upwards of 350 tents cover the City Hall lawn, which has turned brown and muddy. LA City Officials have estimated it might cost $400,000 to repair, but the occupiers say they want to take care of it themselves. 

"We know it's a problem," Occupy LA spokesperson Gia Trimble told the Los Angeles Daily News. "We want to fix the grass and get it back."

No decision has been made on whether they want to incorporate or not. Following scrutiny of Occupy Wall Street’s funds -- they reportedly have more than $300,000 in a union-owned New York bank -- the LA occupiers have set up a white board at the donations tent detailing their expenses and assets. They ended the first week with little more than $5,000 in net assets. Brito says all the donations come from small, individual donors and not one donation has exceeded $100. 

“We have to have resources,” he says. “If we don’t have resources, we’re basically fighting with one hand tied behind our backs.”

The City has still been accommodating to the protesters. A week ago, protesters urged City Council to pass a resolution in support of the movement and it passed. Police are still amiable towards the occupiers -- all of them speak highly of the LAPD. 

“They’re the 99 percent too,” said one occupier. 

Mayor has also been supportive, allowing the protesters to camp out on the lawn and ignore a city ordinance that would require them to move off it at night -- “for now”. 

“The city acknowledges their First Amendment right to be here and to protest in the way that they have,” Villaraigosa told KPCC. "We’ll see what happens going into the future," he said.

 

 

Reach reporter Tasbeeh Herwees here.

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