Economy Occupy

A Close-Up Look at Slow-Motion Democracy at Occupy LA

This past Saturday night I became—albeit briefly— a voting member of Occupy LA’s Finance Committee.

I’d been to OLA’s City Hall camp site for a minute or two a couple of times before on my way elsewhere. But on Saturday, I decided all other commitments could wait. My neighbor, the talented journalist, Sam Slovick was spending at least a week in a tent with the Occupiers, uploading regular dispatches for LA Weekly, Huffington Post and Slate.

Heck, even the LA Times’ Steve Lopez spent the night in a tent on the City Hall lawn.

I figured the least I could do was to hang out for a late afternoon and evening.

When I first arrived, my dog in tow, I did what most reporters seem to do at the Occupy sites. I snagged people, snapped their photos, asked them who they were, why they were there, what they did with their days they weren’t out here Occupying. Among those I met were a number of school teachers, a massage therapist, a Marine and his two kids, a retired newspaper reporter, a nurse, a guy who said he used to work for Wells Fargo, but was between jobs, and a venture capitalist. (No, really. I took his card and Googled him when I got home.)

I tried to avoid those who seemed discernibly crazy or extremely high (although my overwhelmed white wolf dog, Lily, seemed to magnetize the latter).

I did talk to the guy with the Boobies Not Bombs sign, but just to complement him on the bright pink bra he was wearing on his head.

After these mini interviews, I wandered over to the Welcome tent, where Occupy LA’s needs list and its itemized weekly budget were posted. This week’s budget amounted to $7509.90, with the $4669 for Porta Potty rentals the largest line item by far. At the welcome tent, I wound up chatting to a high school biology and physics teacher named Jeff who worked at the campsite daily. “Between this and teaching, I’m not getting much sleep,” he said.

Just as I was about to leave and go back to interviewing, Jeff announced that OLA’s Finance Committee was about to have a meeting. Would I like to attend?

I would, I said.

The Finance Committee, which it turned out had just changed its name to the Resource Committee (people are extremely word-sensitive around here), met on the lawn across Main Street from City Hall Park.

About a dozen people of various ages and ethnicities sat in a circle. Among those attending in addition to Jeff the teacher was a 50-ish retired school teacher who said he was still was very active in the union, UTLA, a man who’d founded some LA charter schools, a young woman wearing a pink tutu, whose name and profession I didn’t catch, and several other bright-seeming 20-somethings, who, along with an older, bearded guy named Deacon, looked to be the veterans of the committee.

I hung back a bit, intending only to observe, but I was told that my attendance qualified me as a voting participant. So I moved into the circle too.

It appeared that the mission of the Resource Committee wasn’t so much to decide how money was spent, as it was to determine how OLA’s funds were handled. Once of the first orders of business was to remind everyone that they were NOT, repeat, NOT to promise reimbursements to anyone, that there was an orderly process for reimbursements that had to be followed. In fact, no expenditure at all over $50 could be made without the approval of the General Assembly, or the “GA,” which meant “a minimum turnaround of 24-hours.”

The GA is Occupy LA’s theoretically leaderless and notoriously unruly governing body comprised of anybody and everybody who happens to show up for the nightly 7:30 General Assembly meeting. Each of the Occupy groups around the country, LA included, has roughly the same organizational structure as Occupy Wall Street. The structure includes the GA, plus such organizational tools as the cluster of hand signals used by all Occupiers when votes are taken, and for a variety of other forms of communication during meetings and assemblies.

(The whole hand signal thing was skillfully parodied by John Oliver on a recent segment of The Daily Show. Since I’d seen the parody, I was thankfully already familiar, for example, with the waggly fingered jazz hands gesture that meant I approved of a motion, or wanted to express enthusiasm at something a speaker said. The finger waggling sounds utterly silly when I write about it, but felt curiously unsilly and nearly natural when I actually did my own waggling. Ditto for another gesture I picked up after noticing others using it, which meant I was kinda meh on an idea.)

It seemed the main business that the Resource Committee had to address on this night was where to actually keep the organizations’ money, meaning the cash that OLA collected in donations each day for the running of the camp and any of OLA’s other expenses. As it stood, the funds were being held in the individual bank accounts of four different people—which didn’t strike anybody as the safest of set-ups. Thus the primary business at hand was to figure out what to do instead, and then recommend that course of action to the GA—and hope to heaven that the unruly group passed it.

However to persuade even this far smaller group to pass a resolution proved to be a distinctly labor-intensive endeavor.

In past days there had evidently been some discussion about becoming a 501(c)3 non-profit, which was a nit-picky process that could take more than a year, at best, often longer. So, it was recommended that they’d be best served to do what most beginning organizations do, which is to have some other like-minded 501(c)3 umbrella the designation down to them.

This umbrella suggestion, however, had been previously brought up to the GA and roundly voted down. A young woman on the committee named Claire explained that New York’s Occupy Wall Streeters had done the umbrella thing and there was something about them getting their bank account frozen. (I have no idea if any part of this story is true. In any case, it was enough to rattle the GA.)

Back at the Committee, the non-profit umbrella was brought up again, along with some other strategies, all of which were deemed to require further research.

Finally, it was proposed that while a more permanent solution was found, the money should be removed from the four personal bank accounts and put in a safe deposit box.

Haggling over the pros and cons of using a safe deposit box, and who should have keys to said box, took of most of the rest of the time. Matters were not helped by a late arrival to the group who opined at some length that maybe OLA shouldn’t be renting safe deposit boxes from banks at all, since banks were in fact the enemy. I was heartened when, after about 15-seconds of his harangue, other members of the committee began politely but firmly using the “wrap-it-up” hand gesture.

At several points, the charter school guy, whose name was Bob and who was clearly a man who had run a lot of his own meetings, attempted to convince those gathered that they should not waste time on the safe deposit thingy, but immediately resolve to find a non-profit that would act as an umbrella, and then pitch the whole thing to the GA and make sure the matter got passed. “You need your money to be secure and accessible,” he said. “You need a permanent solution. And you need a solution that is going to make bigger donors feel comfortable. A safe deposit box isn’t going to make large donors comfortable, trust me.”

Everyone listened, then returned to the safe deposit box question.

The meeting had begun just after 6 p.m. By 7:15, he resolution to get a safe deposit box, was getting mostly waggled fingers. (Bob had by this time progressed from Meh, to waggle fingers.) But it also got one “hard block,” from the tutu girl. The dreaded hard block is more than a NO vote, it’s a veto, which is physically demonstrated by crossing one’s forearms and fists over one’s chest.

What followed was another nearly 45 minutes of discussion and an evolving set of confusing and, to my mind, mostly meaningless amendments to the original motion. (The details of and reasons for the amendments are far too labyrinthine to detail here.) Finally—and thankfully—-the safe deposit box measure passed with a unanimous waggle of fingers at 7:58 p.m.

It was also determined that there would be one more committee meeting about the issue on Monday then, after a few more details had been researched, the whole thing would be presented to the GA on Monday night, and a box would hopefully be acquired on Tuesday.

“Democracy is messy,” Jeff whispered to me, after the motion passed.

“I think this might be why the framers of the U.S. Constitution decided on a republic,” I whispered back.

Then, sensing I probably sounded old and churlish, I added, “Hey, birth of any kind is messy.”

“Yeah,” said Jeff, “but if this movement is to stay true, this is how we need to do it.”

After the committee meeting broke up, I listened in on the GA for a while, then decided to wend my way home. Lily the wolf dog and I were tired out by all this Occupying and Democratizing.

Yet, before I Ieft, I spoke again to Charter School Bob (whose actual name is Bob Vanech, and it turns out he does a lot more than charter schools). He told me he’d been coming to the Occupy site almost daily and had spent a bunch of time with the Demands Committee.

“The Demands Committee?”

“It’s the committee that decides what demands Occupy LA is going to make of the mayor, the City Council, and others,” said Bob. “And we’ve got on some great ones! They’ll be rolling out soon.”

So, yeah, the Occupy movement is, in many ways, organizationally unwieldy. Yet certain things are getting done. Hundreds of people are fed at the campsite every day, their basic needs provided for. On Friday night at the GA, one of the collective decisions was to send $500 of OLA’s funds to Occupy Oakland, just to show “solidarity.”

One bearded and charismatic 26-year-old, former medical student, who was on the Resource Committee, and who seemed to be on several of the other significant committees in the camp, admitted the 99 percent movement was very much in its infancy, and its insistence on everyone having a say in everything could be maddening. “But this is the movement I’ve waited for all my life,” he said.

Fine. But will it really sustain itself and grow? And, if so, with its glacially democratic process that sucks up such great gobs of time, will it accomplish anything of consequence?

These are wide open questions.

But still….one can’t help but feel that, despite the messiness " frameborder="0" allowfullscreen> …something is happening.….

And, call me crazy, but I don’t think it’s going away.

SAM SLOVICK’S wonderful Occupy LA photo, video, narrative series may be found here.

NOTE: THERE’S NEWS ON THE JAIL ABUSE ISSUE. We’ll discuss that all tomorrow.


  • The “occupiers” are organizing themselves and acting more like Wall Street corporations — trying to run donations through a straw-entity to cheat the IRS and arguing about who gets the money. They’re no different. Oh, unless the “occupiers” are set up as a charity, which they aren’t, don’t try to deduct donations to them on your tax returns.

  • Woody, I’d have to submit there’s a profound difference between a protester out on the street who earns 20k/year, tops, and a Wall Street executive that earns 6,7, even 8 figures plus bonuses.

    That being said, I think what’s going to end the “Occupy” movement is a break within the ranks.

    The concept of the “99 percent” is a good idea. In fact, I think it is the ultimate idea toward creating real change in this country, unifying all of those who aren’t wealthy. But the problem is that we were not brought up to be unified. We were brought up to fear things different than us, and to take solace in a belief that we’re “better” than those with less than us. And, this attitude has already corrupted the 99%, imo, with signs like, “Why arrest us when there’s crack dealers 2 blocks from here?”. (Impoverished drug users and small time sellers aren’t part of the 99%? And wouldn’t most in the occupy movement believe drugs should be decriminalized, anyway?)

    While Bill Maher is a comedian and satire is part of his job, his joke during his “new rules” segment that “nobody should want to Occupy Oakland anyway” may as well have been written by the Koch brothers. While we know it’s in jest, you can already sense the attitude that the 99% really doesn’t include those scary “ghetto” types, who, btw, are in more need of a unified front of the non-wealthy than most of the middle class citizens who are spearheading the movement.

    Truth be told, Celeste, this is how the “1%” always wins. They know we can’t all just get along. In developed, wealthy countries like ours, when the going gets rough, one half of the poor kills the other. It’s just an unfortunate mindset that I think we’re generations away from evolving from. But the seed has been planted, and the phrase “children are the future” rings more true today than ever. Which direction will the children go? The way of compassion, or the way of greed?

  • The guy making comment #1 needs to check with an accountant before giving advice or pontificating about OLA’s finances. As is well know, gifts to political organizations for their use, while not deductible for the person making the gift, are not subject to federal taxes – so there is no issue of tax avoidance or “cheating the IRS.” This is pretty elementary stuff. Be wary of advice from amateurs on tax issues.

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