As we move closer to this year’s May 1st street mobilizations, once again the social movement in LA is bucking heads and threatening to stage several marches and a general strike, but separately, as it was done in 2009. Politically then it was a disaster because President elect Barack Obama had just taken office and the LA divisions failed to maintain the necessary mass public pressure to ensure that immigration reform and legalization stay on the front burner in the congressional agenda. Today as the presidential campaign begins to take center stage in the minds of the eighty million people electorate and the mainstream media, with months of far right Republican bashing immigrants, workers and unions, women and gays and on immigration getting a free ride, I sincerely believe that if the leadership fails to unify, the results are easily discernible, we maybe heading for another calamity.
It’s a no brainer. A successful protest on May 1st means impacting the political arena on behalf of and in defense of the 99%, including the 11.8 million undocumented immigrants. On the latter, essentially this means, creating as much public pressure as possible to wrest from congress, not ask or beg, the coveted immigration reform and legalization for our people. To get as close as possible to reach this goal, an objective now 26 years old, means mobilizing in large numbers, similar to other years, 2006,
2007, 2008, 2010 when hundreds of thousands and millions took to the streets. The key ingredient in the formula for success has been unity and with 39 days left to May Day, unity is a priority.
The debate is on but is not yet focused. Since three months ago when Occupy LA, one of the new players in town began to openly organize for May 1st , ambitiously calling for a general strike, I have been persistently pressuring in meetings and through my writings for the movement to seriously consider the broadest possible unified approach to May Day. At this moment the debate is taking place online between members of Occupy LA, SEIU Janitors and the Dec 12 Coalition, it’s heating up and beginning to involve other activists who are saying the time has come for a broader dialogue. The following commentary stems from a discussion between David Huerta SEIU Vice President, Jared Iorio, Occupy LA co-founder and myself, Javier Rodriguez, the writer of this piece and also a long time activist in LA politics.
Organizational hierarchy will be better understood if it is defined presenting comparatives, finding some mirrors, either present or historical to make the point. For the purposes of the ongoing exchange, my thoughts will be controversial. Although it proudly lays claim to a leaderless horizontal structure, as in most movements, I find Occupy LA also has a hierarchy in place. There is a “formal” structured leaderless leadership and there is also the “real” leadership and it manifests in various forms, including virtual communications. If you monitor and/or do a survey of this political expression on the air, you will find a small circle, a diminutive number of OLAers, in exclusive control,, snutty or snooty, sectarian, bullish, obscene, disrespectful, arrogant, disdainful and also the opposite. It’s a mix bag. Born on September 2011, it’s young, less than six months old, in dialectical evolution, and as has been commented by many, I also sense it has been the source of a significant loss of activist and popular support for Occupy LA.
On the other side of this discussion we find labor with over a hundred years of movement experience in LA politics and I’ll synthesize it with a very recent anecdote around November 30, 2011 and the destruction of Camp Liberty at City Hall. Of course Mayor Antonio, a former Marxist lefty, labor activist and union employee, made the final political decision and moved the LA police against Occupy LA. The prize was 300 arrests and a reduction in the movement’s political activity and effectiveness by a large margin. Suddenly los indignados were left without the rent free space that was daily used no stop, 24/7 as a central headquarters. Essentially Antonio turned them into nomads in constant search of meeting places to discuss and plan the actions. But Villaraigosa’s move wasn’t only against us, Occupy LA, it had other targets. As on May 1st 2007, once again, he used the shock troops to instill fear on the city’s general social movement, and in particular the real massive threat, immigrants and the immigrant rights movement.
As part of the preparations to create the political atmosphere, the conditions in his favor, he acquiesced to the general demands of the downtown business class and the LA Times to dismantle the camp, and I believe on Friday November 28 –I maybe wrong on the exact date- he made the public announcement that the Occupiers were to be removed and he began to move his pieces. By this time the media had all the streets around City Hall covered. He had upped the ante and the climate of tension and suspense in the region began to rise. The threat was imminent. On the following day, a Saturday, I was at City Hall when I spotted several reporters, camera persons and clergy hurriedly moving in the direction of the north side lawn of the park. I called one of my media sources and I was informed the LA County Federation of Labor had convened an impromptu press conference. I dashed over there and I stood next to my friend of several battles, KPFK’s Margaret Prescod and I noticed that she had lately put on some pounds. Surrounded by a platoon of the city’s liberal and progressive clergy, Maria Elena Durazo, the Secretary Treasurer of the County Fed, began to address the dozen or so media members and a gathering crowd: “It is time for a transition” she stated and added “we hope Occupy LA will make the transition out of the park peacefully.” She went on for several minutes reiterating and justifying that “it is the best option for the city.” She then began introducing the male and female, mostly white, black uniformed priests and reverends, and one by one they backed her and the mayor’s play. Except that they posed a surreal justification for the endorsement, they all narrated the amount of times they had been arrested for civil disobedience, some to the tune of ten times or more. In reiterating over and over the request for a peaceful transition, not a single one of them mentioned the mayor’s name, nor the danger of arrests and injuries, so I called it out, “his name is Antonio Villaraigosa.” More poignant, Margaret demanded to know if they “were going to take a stand against any arrests and potential police violence.” Only the African American reverend responded. There it was brothers and sisters, the “labor and clergy hierarchy,” a top down political military structured hierarchy, as naked as it could be, cozying up to power. Symbolically speaking, at that moment, Jesus Christ the prophet and Harry Bridges, the historical leader and founder of the ILWU, the West Coast Longshoremen’s Union, probably turned over on their graves in disgust.
On the night of November 29, the Dec 12 Coalition had its weekly evening meeting at La Placita Church, just three blocks away from City Hall. By the time we finished our business it was about 10 PM and the rumors were thick in the air and pointed to a police assault on the park in a few hours, perhaps around two or three AM. I attempted to enter the zone but the LAPD had it all blocked so I did an end run, I snucked in through Alameda St. It was then that I ran into Atty. Raul Granados and we walked together. By then the Latino media was calling me for interviews and as I reached 1st and Main the scenery was spectacular, absolutely panoramic. On the south side in front of and on the side streets of the LAPD headquarters, there were at least 40 media trucks stationed on the sidewalks with about 75 reporters and camera people all over the place waiting for the action. Additionally there were about fifty or more activists with cameras walking back and forth also looking for the right shots. The brass had issued a warning for media to stay inside the yellow ribbon zone on the south side of First for their own protection. Of course that was really a smoke screen for intimidation. Inside the park were over a thousand occupiers and sympathizers. I did several live interviews and also walked several reporters into the park so they could have an inside view as well as contact with the protesters, interview them and put them their thoughts on the news before being arrested.
I did the last live interview for Univision’s Ch 34 around 11:05 and minutes after I spotted a police spokesperson walking unto the middle of the street and the media as well as the dozens of activist cameras swarmed him like bees. The white middle aged lieutenant was on a briefing mission and about a 100 people encircled him. Suddenly though, I heard an occupier loudly confronting him and you could see the sparks flying about the police setting limits on the media coverage. To reiterate, the media had been issued orders prohibiting them from roaming freely. The cop got nervous and began to walk away fast, almost trotting and there was Jared Iorio, the Occupier, on his tail and the media and cameras after them. It was obvious the cop lost composure and you could see the resentment on his red face.
After that, hundreds of people walked out of the park and took to the street walking back and forth and chaos began to rule. About 11:50 a young Occupier, tall, curly brown hair and beard began to scream, “mic-check, mic-check.” He caught the attention of the crowd, explaining they were needed inside the park. The people began to chant and followed Esteban Gil to the Spring St. corner park entrance. However, as the crowd got closer, other chants from the “whose streets our streets” small leftist group, you know who they are, diverted the crowd, confusion set in and the last opportunity to protect the park with the added and bigger crowd dissipated. This was the golden moment the LAPD brass had been waiting for –and later on I confirmed it- and on or about 12:15 AM of the morning of November 30th, they surprisingly exited from inside City Hall, a unionized public building, moving fast and aggressively, arrested 300 people and took control of Liberty Park.
The mayor arrived on the scene sometime after that and sternly, on TV, began to congratulate the LAPD. However, not long after, the other side of the story began to leak online and to the press and it revealed the harsh treatment doled out the majority of the arrestees, by the 1300 or so police operative. Especially the story of the bus full of arrested women, who spent 7 hours inside a cold, approximately 45 degrees, parked black and white sheriff bus, tightly handcuffed and not allowed to use a rest room which caused two of them to wet themselves. Furthermore, prior to Occupy LA entering the LA political arena civil disobedience was usually a three to five hour experience, this time los indignados were punished with days in jail and many had to meet excessive bails. The rest is history.
During the time I was there I observed many things, but what constantly stood out was the question “where were the influential socially active Angelinos, including clergy, labor, immigrant rights leaders and the array of left organizations and their base.” And more noticeable, “where were the crowds of hundreds of labor rank and file members.” If, and it’s only an if, the city’s liberal and progressive leaders had moved people by the hundreds to the park that evening, as they did in the previous two months in militant solidarity marches against the banks, there is a possibility the mayor and the LAPD would have pulled back and bided their time, just as it happened in New York. However, SEIU’s David Huerta, who today is clearly moving his union towards a unified May 1st, was there with several other mid level unionists. I also spotted about 20 members of SEIU’s front, Good Jobs for LA and many of the individual labor activists in OLA’s Labor Committee. Lastly, about 10, mostly white, young members of the interfaith community. Though out that night there were several hundred Occupy LA known members, the overwhelming majority were sympathizers and many of them were taken off guard inside the park and arrested by the blues.
In retrospect, the press conference described above was key in the decision to move in on the people and wipe out the resistance at Liberty Park. But trust me, what these two sectors did during the “Immigrant Spring” against the March 25, 2006 1.7 million digitally counted march and the May 1st Great American Boycott, which moved about 4 million people and almost shut down the city and LA County completely, was a hundred times more egregious. And then also, it was Antonio the Mayor who moved the strings against the relatively radical March 25 Coalition, which ironically was led by us, his former friends and comrades of the Autonomous Center for Social Action-C.A.S.A.
But the bigger and imperative lesson for all in LA’s social movement is the quest to find and consolidate the path for unity. If the Berlin Wall fell, then Wall Street has to fall, however, power does not concede anything without struggle and there is and has never been no other formula, but the unity of the people.
Javier is a long time activist in the social movement in LA, particularly Latino politics, active in the field of immigrant rights since 1971, with 22 years as a rank and filer in labor, he is also an independent journalist, a media and political strategist, and today is presently with Occupy LA and the Dec 12 Coalition.