Why We Occupy

Posted: December 30, 2012 in The Road to Skid Row

The receptionist at the Downtown Women’s Center (DWC) suggested I take Fourth Street to Pershing Square. “It’s safer than Fifth”, she explained. I left my sister to start her volunteer induction meeting and walked north to Fourth Street. The receptionist was right – aside from a few sleeping bags here and there, it was empty.

The DWC helped 4,300 poor and homeless women in 2011, a 71% increase from the previous year. Unsurprisingly, most of these women were black. If there was any doubt as to whether California’s recession was hurting its vulnerable citizens most, this statistic alone is enough to dispel it.

Up ahead, a group of towering high rises dominated the sky. Wells Fargo, Citigroup, U.S. Bank – their illuminated logos could be seen for miles. It was hard for me to comprehend how the banks could have their offices less than a mile away from the biggest slum on the west coast. I walked to the south west corner of Pershing Square and saw a group of people standing around, talking and smoking. As I got closer I saw what an odd assortment they were: a homeless guy with a shopping cart, a Goth-Pirate with a bright red bandanna, and a bunch of others, from Che Guevara lookalikes to neo-hippies.

For a moment I was dispirited. Trust California to turn the most radical movement for social change of our time into a stoner fest. I considered leaving – I could hang out in a café until my sister was finished with her induction at the DWC. Then I caught myself. What was I doing? I hadn’t even met these people and I had already pigeonholed them. I bit my lip and introduced myself.

“A new person! Welcome to Occupy LA!” A young woman enthused, shaking my hand.  She explained the assembly would start any minute now. I took a seat in the amphitheatre and waited. As more people showed up I realised how wrong my initial impression was. The demographic was so varied now – in age, gender, race and appearance –  it was impossible to write them off as any one group.

The assembly started with news updates. A young woman called Mary talked about Occupy LA’s efforts to stop people losing their homes. Occupy Fights Foreclosures had been working with the Rodriguez family to stop West Ridge Rentals from selling their house at a foreclosure auction. The Rodriguez story sounded like something Harriet Beecher Stowe might have written. Dilma Rodriguez took out a loan to retrofit her house for her daughter who has cerebral palsy. When she fell behind on payments Bank of America initially responded by lowering her monthly installments. Then they sold the property to a “house flipper” called West Ridge Rentals who forcefully evicted them, giving the family just five minutes to vacate the premises. Occupy Fights Foreclosures was investigating the legality of the eviction, as well as providing support for the Rodriguez family.

An older man sitting next to me lent over. “Just to warn you kid, they like newcomers to stand up and introduce themselves.” A few minutes later I was invited to take the floor. By now there were around 30 people there – a low turnout because of the big May Day march the previous week, somebody assured me. I gave them the usual spiel about being from the UK and then I remembered what I’d seen just an hour before.

“I visited Skid Row for the first time today and I was shocked by what I saw. I have never seen such destitution before.” A few people applauded.

“This is why we Occupy,” I said. “This is why the movement must carry on. We can’t let people live like this anymore. Occupy must succeed, it must reverse this imbalance.”

I stopped myself there. I wanted to say something profound but everything I said came from my gut, and my gut thinks in clichés. A middle-aged black man with a Jamaican accent welcomed me with a smile and a strong handshake.

I understood then why Occupy had seen a huge surge of interest in its early days. It was because people had the chance to talk about their fears and their hopes. All those people who felt like they were alone, like they were the only ones who were frustrated by government inaction to injustice and poverty. Suddenly they weren’t alone, there were thousands of others and everyone was willing to listen.

After a while the assembly broke up into discussion groups. By then about 50 people were there, maybe more. My sister’s induction evening at the DWC was about to finish, so I made my way back to Skid Row. Everything looked different – the skyscrapers, the illuminated logos. It all looked temporal, like some bad dream the world was about to wake up from.

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