Having been the primary Civic Liaison between the Occupy Orange County encampment in Irvine and Irvine City Hall, I get asked a lot what is going to happen at the Irvine City Council meeting tonight and what will happen beyond it. I don’t actually know. I don’t think that anyone really knows — every day brings surprises. So far, we’ve been lucky at the City Council meetings; things have gone very well, ranging up into the actually beautiful.
Tonight will be a bit harder than most: we’re ending the 24/7 overnight Occupation in tents of Irvine Civic Center — although we have reserved the right to be on the sidewalk at night and on Civil Center grounds in tents during the day (on those parts where the lawn is not being re-sodded) — and figuring out what to do next. The last I heard, there will be some symbolic ceremony on the lawn marking our departure (and it sounded like it will be quite poignant and I don’t want to spoil it), and then the meeting, and then packing up the tents and moving forward. We’re supposed to be gone from the portion of the lawn on which we’ve been camping by 10 a.m. tomorrow morning (although “gone” could mean being elsewhere in the Civic Center Plaza until 10 p.m. Wednesday); from what I’ve heard, though, the truck that will take our things away will roll up and out before midnight.
As of 10 p.m. tonight, probably around the time that the City Council meeting ends, we will have been there for 2100 consecutive hours. That’s a lot. That’s amazing. That’s enough.
Up on the flagpole
I don’t hear much about it happening anymore, but when I was growing up you would sometimes hear of stunts along the lines of people setting up a crow’s nest and sitting high up on a public flagpole for days or weeks. Sometimes this may have been done to set or break a record, sometimes to call attention to a cause, sometimes to call attention to some commercial venture, or sometimes for unexplained or even inexplicable reasons. After a while, people walk around past the flagpole without looking up. If a passerby happens to look up and ask “what is going on there?”, the answer comes nonchalantly: “oh, we have a guy up our flagpole. He’s been there for weeks.”
For all of its pageantry and theater, it’s raucousness and chaos, the Occupy Movement is deadly serious. It is serious about the corrupting power of lobbying and wealth in government, about income equality and the destruction of the middle class, and much more. That is and has to be the center of what we are about. When the story becomes about our being up on the flagpole, rather than our central concerns — when people have become used to us and we no longer attract attention to our message by doing the same thing — then it stands to reason that, like Occupations in much of the rest of the country, we move on. We may move on to another flagpole; a carnival doesn’t shut down when attention wanes after two weeks in one spot, but rather moves on. We don’t aim to wreak havoc on any particular location — but we do aim to unsettle, to make people think about why we’re there.
Why are we moving on? Well, this tactic, in this spot, is played out — and we have a whole big county to visit.
We will be out in force this evening to speak (and listen) to the Irvine City Council at its meeting tonight. We’re not on their agenda; we’ll be speaking in public comments, as usual. At one point, I had hoped that the Council would be voting on specific resolutions we wanted; that didn’t happen. I understand why — the Council has its own sense of pride, and does not want to be strong-armed into supporting any particular action, especially if it’s one that it would likely pass on its own. So we have no arrangement for a vote, today or in the future, on any particular proposal.
But I think that we’ll get votes on our substantive issues anyway before long — not to “get rid of us” because we’re right on the merits, the Council will understand this, and we will lobby hard for what’s right. (Not just in Irvine, either; Irvine just happens to be first.)
The brunt of the discussion today, as I understand it, will be to ask the Council to follow Los Angeles and New York in supporting a call for an end to the absurd concept of “corporate personhood” — a once-benign metaphor that has metastatized over time, choking off critical life functions as of the Citizens United decision of two years ago. (You know those SuperPACs literally spending upwards of $3 million on television ads in single primary races in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida this month? That’s the poisoned fruit of Citizens United.) We’ll ask the Council to move on it at their next meeting, and the meeting after that if it doesn’t happen, and we’ll stay engaged until it does happen. (Did you remember, when reading that, to be proud of our engagement in civil culture? Good! This is, after all, how it’s supposed to work.)
We will also be calling for a resolution — and action — on moving the city’s money. Right now, we understand that the city has a lot of money in large banks, thus becoming one of the reasons that these institutions are “too big to fail.” If you think that our asking the Council to put its dollars instead into credit unions and local community banks is purely symbolic, then you have failed to understand something critical about the crisis in our financial institutions since 2007 (and, to be fair, before), and this is a great time to explain it to you.
Financial institutions (banks, credit unions, others) are supposed to loan out money — to provide the credit that lubricates our capitalist system. When the big banks got their bailout during the waning days of the Bush Administration, that was why: so they would continue to lend money and keep the economy stimulated. Instead, they took the money, invested in Treasury bills and the like, cut credit to businesses and consumers to a trickle, paid big bonuses to their worthless executives, let the economy suffer, and then swooped in like vultures to buy things up when the prices collapsed. Oh, and of course there are lots of places to invest besides the U.S., and lots of places to hide and hoard money. And we — Irvine included — are part of that system.
Credit unions and small community banks don’t — can’t — do that. They make their money by investing — and they make their money most safely by investing locally, with people they know and can monitor. That stimulates local demand, stimulating local business, creating local jobs. That cities like Irvine should have their money where it helps to prime and then to stimulate their own local economies, especially during economic downtimes, is pretty obvious. So we will ask for it — as often as need be. And if you wonder what Occupy is worth, ask yourself: who else has been asking for this to happen? It hasn’t happened yet — but my bet is that it will.
What I and a few others will have to say won’t be on these sorts of resolutions; they’re covered. Most of what I have to say is: thanks. Irvine’s Council, City Hall staff, Police Department, have all been wonderful. Have they “waited us out?”, as I asked last Friday? Maybe, but if so it was a wiser and braver decision than I think one would see from most City Councils. Things could have gone bad here — and they didn’t. Irvine could have ended up with the — much more expensive, by the way — conflicts that has been seen in Long Beach and Santa Ana; it could even have ended up with the sorts of embarrassments seen in UC Davis (forever to be associated with pepper-spray) and Berkeley or the tragedies seen in Oakland. The City swallowed hard and took a risk. Politicians don’t like taking risks. But they did it — and, if all goes as expected over the next day or so, it will have paid off handsomely.
(A personal aside: Lots of people deserve credit for this success, but I want to mention the four with whom I’ve had the most contact: the Council subcommittee of Larry Agran and Mayor Sukhee Kang, who have been piloting the ship by themselves since before Thanksgiving; Police Commander Barry Aninag, the I.P.D.’s main contact and has been very available, helpful, and thoughtful over these weeks; and Sharon Landers, the Assistant City Manager with whom I have been negotiating starting from a few days into the occupation — and without whose (usually) patient and energetic efforts I can promise we would not be looking at a happy ending to this story. She and Cmdr. Aninag always took us seriously and often went the extra mile to see how the City could provide useful help for the protesters — and that short description makes it sound much less significant and difficult than it was.)
One, two, many Occupies
What wasn’t — perhaps could not have been — predicted back in mid-October was how the Occupy protests gestating in Irvine would split into a variety of projects and enterprises, ranging from ones involving national and international efforts to ones that were intensely local. There has been a division within Occupy Orange County (Irvine Synod) from the beginning between those who prioritize process — primarily the radically democratic General Assemblies — and those who prioritize results, such as effective deployment of our resources. (Far more of my own time as a civic liaison, frankly, has gone into addressing these internal rifts than those with the city, which have at times been most acrimonious than anything involving the City.)
I took a good look at the people and players early on and reached my own conclusion, which was that we needed both of these wings to fly. (Why that is would require an entirely separate post — possibly a book.) People on both sides have been required to swallow bile over time and we have had our eruptions of conflict over responsibilities and resources. My reaction to this has been similar to others who have had a long experience in activism: I’ve seen worse. These are good people united in a good cause — or several good causes, actually — and the lack of external threat from Irvine has in some ways intensified our problems of self-governance. (You don’t argue internally as much when you’re being pepper-sprayed.) But, even with some bruises, we’ve made it to this milestone.
When we have conflicts in our meetings, the word that is supposed to calm and focus everyone is “unity.” Unity between people who all think the same thing is easy. Unity between people who disagree is what’s hard — and what makes the call for unity all the more necessary. We have a diverse group in our movement: people from liberal and conservative backgrounds, libertarians (Ron Paul supporters) and (either self-described or other-described, I can no longer keep it straight) “anarchists,” homeless people, hard-core environmentalists, people from MoveOn and further left, Democratic Party activists and Obama-disdainers, people with academic records and criminal records. There’s no reason for ever thinking that unity would be easy — but, somehow, for the most part, we’ve gotten things done.
While the above conflict has taken place, other things have been going on as well — things that, to me, show the vibrancy of this infant movement. Occupy Orange County has moved in many directions at once. Here are some of them.
Occupy the Courts. This is a nationwide effort set for January 20, the second anniversary of Citizens United, discussed above. (Vern will, I expect, take much of the lead in writing about this. He is working with a surprisingly large number of people on something creative. I won’t spoil the surprise.) The events of that day — speakers and … more — will take place in Santa Ana Civic Center. Chances are that you will want to come.
Occupy Direct Actions. Some people have been seeking more direct confrontation with authorities — and from the base of the “village” in Irvine they’ve been able to find it in actions against the Port of Long Beach, in defense of the Occupy LA protests, etc. Some Occupiers, having gotten the sort of great deal on transportation that you only get from either a relative or friend or someone who admires what you’re doing and wants to help, are on their way right now to Washington DC for a mass rally to protest the indefinite detention provisions in the recently-passed NDAA. Not everyone agrees with all of it, but there are many fights to be had underneath our common banner.
Occupy Events. We’ve come to realize that the Irvine Civic Center Park is a pretty great place to bring people together, and it will always be known as the incubator of the Occupy movement. If there is no other likely place for our General Assemblies during hours when the park is open, it will continue to be our likely place. We look forward to speakers, to music, to gatherings, to it being a launching point for marches to challenge those who would suck the marrow of out the majority of the country just to fatten themselves up. One group within Occupy will be working on promoting those sorts of local events and actions; look out for it.
Occupy Foreclosure. Vern or I will be writing more about this before long. A woman named Trang Che came to our encampment in desperation at an upcoming eviction. We decided to give her some comfort and support. Occupy people have been staying with her at her house, media contacts on speed dial should the sheriffs ever come. It turns out that some people around had relevant experience and knowledge in these matters. We found that the City of Irvine has a special arrangement with the Legal Aid Society to give legal help on foreclosure matters to its citizens. We found some lawyers who could pitch in. Other people with similar problems are seeking us out. There’s a class action suit we didn’t know about. Foreclosure is not one of the key national issues in the Occupy movement — I think that it is emphasized far less than student loans, for example — but in Orange County it is definitely an issue that has been sapping the strength of the middle class, so here we have gone. Not everyone has to make it their signature issue; people can go their own way. That’s part of the beauty of the movement.
Occupy Sustainable OC. This is in some ways the most unexpected and unique twist on the Occupy movement here. Everything, as you may have heard, is interconnected. People who lose their houses need someplace to stay. Reducing our dependence on foreign oil leads to a saner foreign policy and less defense spending. Creating more healthful environments may lead to less crime. But much of the “sustainability” movement — which has some very cool technology — has been geared at single-family dwellings, such as “Earthships.” Are larger projects possible?
Irvine has, unbeknownst to many of us (certainly to me), been taking some major strides in this area, not least of which a whopping big organic farm within the Great Park that (if I remember my facts correctly) can pretty much feed Orange County, if it comes to it. Redevelopment funds have now been cut off (although there is some chance that some exceptions may be made for re-purposed military bases) and the Great Park faces new challenges. Is there a match to be made between the interests in sustainability coming out of the Occupy movement — a “brand” with whom many want to be involved — and some of the copious land in the Great Park?
Secret stuff. There are other project around that I’m not sure are yet ready for public consumption (one involving efforts by my new Occupy pal JB), so I won’t discuss them here. The interesting thing, from my perspective as one mostly rooted (and sometimes mired) in partisan politics, is that Occupy now offers a non-partisan or trans-partisan brand under which Orange County activists may choose to rally. (Side note: personally, I want the Democratic Party to prosper here, but I would be a fool not to recognize how turned off many people — especially young people — are to politics. Shepherding people to vote for Obama, vote for Dianne, vote for Loretta, etc. has its place and its purpose, but those who thing that it can be the primary purpose of Orange County activism are fooling themselves. At a minimum, the pure sort of partisan politics that I enjoy has not done that well on this rocky soil. If we Democrats want to reach out to people, we had best reach out to where they are.) You will be seeing many more proposals over the course of this year and, if I don’t miss my guess, in years following that will have roots in (and possibly branding of) the Occupy movement. And you will pay more attention to it than if it just came out of nowhere, because that is simply how our minds work.
From one Occupation of OC, therefore, will have sprung many Occupies. (That’s the point of my clever graphic above.) This has been a natural (even if unanticipated outcome) of our incubation on the lawn of Irvine’s Civic Center. I believe that Orange County will be richer for it.
Bumps in the Road
And what if things don’t go as well as expected tonight? What if the City Council meeting becomes contentious, or if some wildcat Occupiers decide that they really want to be pushed off of the lawn rather than walking off of their own free will? Well, there may be bumps in the road, but there is enough forward momentum right now that we are likely to keep traveling straight no matter what happens.
What we’ve created in Irvine is interdependence. Occupy protesters have more to gain than to lose by continued cooperation with Irvine. We may have further events there; we may have cooperation in the Great Park. We have developed a good reputation and Irvine has made itself into a good example; we can now go elsewhere in the county having shown that we can be cooperative and well-mannered and bring this act to other “flagpoles” for other people to see. (That’s free speech, right?)
You’d think that I’d know more about what was going on, but sometimes I don’t. One thing I learned on Sunday was that people have apparently decided to move to a spot in Fullerton, which was reconnoitered on Saturday night. I have an appointment, along with other Occupiers, to talk to people at Fullerton tomorrow. I don’t know what will come of it; I don’t know if it will lead to some agreement a la Irvine, to a decision simply to withhold enforcement of anti-camping laws, to conflict, or to a change of plans on our part. I do know this: we can now show up there with a model agreement, hammered out over weeks and weeks between me and Sharon Landers and approved repeatedly both by the Irvine City Council and its subcommittee and by the often apprehensive General Assembly of Occupy OC — that worked for almost three months. We’ve lived up to it reasonably well, as has the City and its police force, and taken it (if all goes as planned) to a friendly conclusion. Can Fullerton, Mission Viejo, Costa Mesa, La Habra, Newport Coast, Santa Ana, or anyone else have the same success? We’ll see. We have lots of time.
As for now, I think that we leave with both our reputation and Irvine’s reputation burnished. That’s not bad for three months of work.
UPDATE: 4:30 p.m., Jan. 10: What I thought was a lovely gesture of respect and peace has, I have just been informed by phone, just happened. The poles and contents have been removed from the tents at “the village” and they are sitting in place on the ground where they had been sited. They will remain there until after the City Council meeting and will then be removed. I’m happy and proud that my brothers and sisters in the Occupy movement followed through with this; it’ sounds just the right note of our departure from Occupy’s “Irvine overnight camping phase” in peace.