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What was Occupy LA really protesting?

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It's the one-year anniversary of the Occupy Movement, which started out innocuously enough in a park in lower Manhattan before sweeping across the nation and the world. In Los Angeles, we had our own Occupy experience, centered on City Hall downtown. It assembled a few weeks after the protesters in New York and held its ground until the end of November, when they were ejected by the LAPD. Along with way, Occupy L.A. distinguished itself as both the most peaceful of the major expressions of the movement in U.S. cities; and as the occupied city that saw the most cooperation between city government and the protecters (not surprising, given that City Hall is right across the street from police headquarters). 

The L.A. Times runs down what Occupy L.A. has been up to since. The answer is not a whole lot, although there have been periodic disruptions since last year:

The Los Angeles branch of Occupy did have some early policy victories but has been largely silent since. Protesters helped usher in the passage of a "responsible banking" ordinance that requires banks doing business with the city to disclose detailed data about their lending practices in Los Angeles.

The ordinance first proposed by City Councilman Richard Alarcon more than two years ago had been languishing, but the arrival of protesters outside City Hall last October brought new momentum to the issue. The L.A. demonstrators made support for the ordinance an official part of their platform and spoke frequently at City Council meetings along with a broader coalition of community and faith-based groups to get the measure passed.

In turn, the City Council showed support for the protesters — passing a resolution in support of the protests and welcoming them when they camped outside City Hall. But lawmakers then turned their backs on Occupy. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa ordered Occupy to decamp in late November, and some 1,400 police officers swarmed the area to clear protesters in a dramatic show of power that involved hundreds of arrests.

The "responsible banking" ordinance is significant, in that it actually involved the Occupy Movement convincing a city to, you know, do something about what many believe is at the core of the protest: the unethical, swashbuckling banking practices that brought on the financial crisis. In this sense, Occupy L.A. made progress. Something called "Bank Transfer Day" also got its start in L.A. The idea there was to move your money out of the too-big-to-fail banks and into smaller regional banks and credit unions. (Continued after poll.)


Last year, I made an effort to explain what Occupy L.A. was protesting and had an opportunity to explain the now famous/infamous distinction between the 1% and the 99%. Here it is again, for old times' sake...


Following in the footsteps of the Occupy Wall Street protest movement, a group called "Occupy LA" set up shop in front of City Hall over the weekend and have now begun to move around town. 

Back in New York, things had turned ugly, as the two-week protest saw a bunch of protestors arrested as they marched across the Brooklyn Bridge. From what I can tell, Occupy LA was rather more mellow. I asked a KPCC colleague who had visited the protest what the protesters were, you know, protesting. He wasn't sure, but he did say that "We are the 99%" signs were all over the place.

The LA Times explains:

The movement takes issue with corporate influence on government and the shift of wealth and political clout toward the richest 1% of the population. Many protesters carried signs with variations on the slogan "We are the 99%."

So what does this actually mean? 

The economist Joseph Stiglitz provided a summary back in May, in an article for Vanity Fair:

The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent. Their lot in life has improved considerably. Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent. One response might be to celebrate the ingenuity and drive that brought good fortune to these people, and to contend that a rising tide lifts all boats. That response would be misguided.

The Occupy Wall Street protestors and, presumably, the Occupy LA crowd are definitely not inclined to "celebrate the ingenuity and drive" of their foes. With Sitglitz, they're angry about how that ingenuity and drive has lost interest in the whole idea that a successful society is about more than success:

The more divided a society becomes in terms of wealth, the more reluctant the wealthy become to spend money on common needs. The rich don’t need to rely on government for parks or education or medical care or personal security—they can buy all these things for themselves. In the process, they become more distant from ordinary people, losing whatever empathy they may once have had.

Of course, it's worth noting that the 1% aren't exactly having a ball right now. They're reaping what they sowed, as global markets struggle to overcome the volatility that a series of crises, beginning in the U.S. in 2008 and culminating with Europe's debt debacle now, has brought on. 

But the 1% are also insulated. They can lose some, but not all. The reason the other 99%, at least on Wall Street and at LA City Hall, have taken to the streets is that they believe they really can lose everything. And some of the people they claim to speak for have: unemployment in stuck at 9 percent nationally and at more than 12 percent in LA; the foreclosure crisis grinds on; the number of people living in poverty in the U.S. is at its highest level since the Census Bureau started keeping track.

Initially, we could have looked at the Occupy Wall Street movement and seen it as an extension of the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999, or as an attempt to copy on a much smaller scale the protests of the Arab Spring. 

But Occupy Wall Street is now replicating itself. Some of those who've joined in may just want something to do. But with their "We are the 99%" argument, they've got a strong case that something is wrong and needs to be fixed.

Full Occupy LA coverage

Follow Matthew DeBord and the DeBord Report on Twitter.


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