Will Drugs Kill 'Occupy LA'? - Page 2

By Ruth Fowler 11/06/11

The LAPD's laissez-faire approach to marijuana has turned Occupy LA into the nation's most stoned-out encampment. So why are protesters paranoid about tear gas, riots and a coming crackdown?

The wine and pot are local, like the permissive policies. photo via

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OLA’s Head of Security, Emilio Arreola says, “If I see the hard shit—heroin, crack—I throw those people out. But marijuana? I don’t have the legal right to enforce that.” Arreola estimates that of 370 residents living on-site full time, about 40 are from Skid Row, while 20 are “kids who don’t know how to act. We try to take care of them, but that’s what the media picks up on. They don’t see the majority of us running the show and doing our best to keep the movement together.”

They’re working overtime on what PR pundits call counter-messaging. Last week, the group rolled out a new slogan: “More Revolution, Less Party”—posted on its website and handed out on flyers. The silk-screen printers are designing new logos with a similar theme to adorn a mass of donated clothes, bed sheets and bandanas. A tent village, housing the media team, has a whiteboard propped outside: “Don’t ask us for cigarettes. The only thing we can give you is the news. MORE REVOLUTION, LESS PARTY!” It echoes similar signs which were posted all over Madrid for the 15th May movement, the precursor to Occupy Wall Street. Giant signs on the plaza read "REVOLUCIón NO BOTTELLón!" (“REVOLUTION, no PARTYING”). The party has continued, but more discreetly, according to Esteban Gil, a Berkeley graduate who works on the Facilitation Committee here in LA.

But the spillover from Skid Row has proved less amenable to slogans than the tribe of kids. Yet OLA has shrewdly asked for help from Skid Row advocacy groups like LA-CAN (Los Angeles Community Action Network); together, they launched a Skid Row-focused “Occupy the Hood” affinity group and instituted a policy of self-policing, with the result that safety and security have improved—give or take a crazy assault or two. “A good number [of Skid Row residents] are awesome and help us out with other Skid Row people,” Arreola tells me. “They have their own way of dealing with that shit."

Suddenly a young girl with a determined jaw interrupts. “I think it’s weird to call out all the different groups here. We’re all the 99%,” she says.

“When the city council supported Occupy LA, they were supporting the 99%—and that includes the homeless,” Dennison says. “But it’s not surprising that once all these Skid Row folks most affected by local politics started to emerge, the attitude changed.”

If all politics is local, then the proposition that “we’re all the 99%” is increasingly debatable—especially in the Los Angeles City Council. The group’s early enthusiasm for OLA, when it looked like a relatively homogenous group of earnest if discontent college-educated children of the middle-class, has waned as the encampment became home to the pot-smoking, drum-beating kids and assorted representatives of the generally invisible and ignored underclass.

“The fact that the word ‘homeless’ is thrown into every article about the Occupy Los Angeles movement in order to invalidate it, is just hypocritical,” says Becky Dennison of LA-CAN. She cites the recent frosty statements by Mayor Villaraigosa and certain no longer gung-ho council members as evidence that the city’s political leaders have cooled to the movement as its target has expanded from a distant Wall Street and the abstraction of economic inequality to include certain recent controversial economic policies of the City of Los Angeles itself. An example: the $2.2 million in federal funds earmarked for Skid Row, $1 million of which was diverted to the San Francisco–based architecture firm Gensler, the same firm handling the NFL stadium project. “When the city council supported Occupy LA, they were supporting the 99%—and that includes the homeless,” Dennison says. “But it’s not surprising that once the race and class dynamic of the occupation changed, and all these folks most affected by local politics started to emerge, the attitude changed.”

Despite the fact that drugs have provided a reliable pretext for dissing the movement nationwide, Occupy Los Angeles remains passionately divided about adopting the “zero-tolerance” policy enacted (at least in principle) by the Occupy Wall Street encampment. So for now, along with the “More Revolution, Less Party” signs, OLA medics keep a watchful eye on their residents, whether from Skid Row or Melrose Avenue. Patricia Sanchez, who works in the First Aid tent and offers CPR training, explains: “We have AA and NA running meetings everyday, and we try and make sure everyone is fed and hydrated. Sometimes I’ll see someone covered in a blanket, just lying on the floor, and I’ll sit with them a while, make sure they’re breathing. We actually got one guy into rehab in the first week. That was pretty amazing.”

Yet realistic occupiers recognize that neither medical vigilance nor zero-tolerance policies will prevent the cops from moving on the encampment if and when the order comes down. For one thing, according to occupiers nationwide, undercover agents have, not surprisingly, infiltrated the big-city encampments. Emilio Arreola estimates that there are at least 15 “plants” on site at any one time. “I’ve seen them walk round the block, and get into cop cars. It’s obvious who they are,” he says. “The authorities are playing it smart with us. They’re hoping we’ll eat ourselves from the inside out, saying that the Local Farmers [who have had to move their popular weekly market because of occupiers’ tents] are pissed at us, everyone’s on drugs, all we do is party. It exists, but most of us are on two committees at once, getting no sleep because we’re working all the time.”

As he says this, the orderliness of the General Assembly is broken by an angry chorus of voices that wants to talk about Oakland, the mayor, the police, and what they see as the inevitable attack on their own encampment. The meeting is thrown into chaos until a woman from Oakland takes the mic and starts to talk about what happened “that” night. Pin-drop silence ensues. She’s followed by a man in a suit from Occupation Wall Street who stokes anxieties by urging everyone to load up on gas masks, join more committees, and stay alert.

“It’s kind of like Thanksgiving dinner. Everyone’s family looks crazier than yours. But this, here, the craziness—this is how it works,” Patricia Sanchez says with a laugh.

Daniil Dillinger, the web team worker, chimes in: “The point is that we’re a microcosm of LA society. To deny the presence of drugs and alcohol on the streets of Los Angeles would be disingenuous. We have a very evident problem and it’s been transferred to our camp, but unlike the city council, we’re not denying that problem.”

This weekend, Occupation Los Angeles was all business. On Saturday, joined by labor unions and community organizers, OLA marched to the city’s financial district in support of so-called National Bank Transfer Day, which saw over a million Americans move their accounts from the big banks to credit unions. The encampment has spent the rest of Saturday and Sunday hosting a teach-in, with lectures on income inequality, civil disobedience, and sustainable living.

But the heavy, sweet scent of marijuana still lingers in the air as another General Assembly drifts to a close. As occupiers wander back to their tents, a group passing by starts talking about erecting a tent specifically for medical-marijuana card holders to "medicate" in peace.

A young man newly arrived from Occupy Wall Street turns to the group in amazement. “I can’t believe this is what you guys in LA are arguing about. This is a fucking revolution. When the cops are coming for you, I can guarantee the last thing you’re gonna be thinking about is weed.”

The group stops to considers this. “Yeah, until after the fact. Then everyone’s gonna wanna toke,” one boy responds to the laughing approval of his friends.


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Ruth Fowler is an ex-stripper, Cambridge-grad and writer. Find Ruth on LinkedIn and Twitter.