The first thing you notice is the sound. It’s the air hundreds of feet up being chopped and diced to pieces, as surveillance helicopters endlessly circle the camp. It sets the tone – a soundtrack that never goes away, just gets drowned out momentarily.
That sound is the filler for in the gaps between events at Occupy LA. Even tonight, when the city is supposed to evict the camp, the happenings of note are few and far between. A chant here, a march there. A lot of waiting and wondering. There’s a lot of down time. Everywhere people are milling about, relaxing, shooting the shit. It could be a block party, except for that sound.
The police keep the pace slow. It’s not until 1am that the riot gear shows. They take 30 minutes to walk halfway down a city block. 6 hours of standing and staring later, they leave. It feels like a message.
But for those long hours in the middle of the night, traffic cut off for blocks around city hall, this tent city is a modern-day Brigadoon: an island in another world. Traffic lights continue endlessly cycling, disconnected from their raison d’etre, from the city in which they have a function. Trees become forts. Bus awnings become lookout points. Even just standing in the emptied street of this car-choked metropolis has an intense psychological effect. Everything transformed to a different purpose than its design. You question the why of things. Another world seems possible.
A human fence of black and kevlar keeps this alternate reality from spilling out to the rest of the world. It idly stands there, murmuring amongst itself, wordlessly denying passage. There is a psychological weight to its presence. While the occupiers organically form and reform into new disorganized shapes, everything about this man-fence screams order. Each link is spread out at even intervals. Outfits, posture, expressions identical. It’s a man-made thing. Built for what purpose exactly? No one knows for sure. For now, for hours, it merely watches.
The not knowing claws at your mind. Beats into it like the steady chopping sound of helicopter blades. I’ve faced down masses of police in many countries and many continents, but the situation is never so real as when it’s in your back yard; when it’s transforming your home into an alien landscape, and your neighbors into combatants. It’s easy to be brave for an hour at a time, but eventually you get tired and you need your family, your bed, your security. Holding your ground for days, weeks, months, forever? I don’t know the right word for it.
Tomorrow the papers and blogs will write the story of tonight. Catch it, box it, categorize it. All throughout the tent city, reporters roam, picking out their pictures and words with the discrimination of a trained chef choosing ingredients. To tell the story they want to tell.
This is the story I want to tell:
Once there was a city within a city. It was filled with vigor, and hope, and life, and disappointment, and despair, and the entire range of human existence. The people who lived there wanted desperately to make a better world. Though no man could know the way, though they had no power, though naysayers belittled them, they kept trying their best. Their words made them powerful enemies, who sought to end their new world. And then, one day, the walls closed in on the city, swallowing it whole.
One day. But not tonight.