The “Occupy Wall Street” protesters gathered in the shadows of the country’s gleaming monuments to capitalism have finally begun to attract the glare of the national spotlight. What was once seen as an amorphous collection of extremists, counter-culturalists and naive 20-somethings has now evolved into a movement that may well pose serious challenges to the political establishment, including President Obama.
As labor unions begin to join the protests in New York and media organizations spotlight alleged abuses by the police, the “Occupy” movement has also begun to spread to dozens of other cities throughout the country. One of those cities, Los Angeles, is perhaps an especially appropriate setting for a movement that aspires to cinematic ambitions: Regular people, through nothing but the power of their own voices, upending the rule of the political elite.
To get a sense of how the “Occupy” protests — derided recently as a collection of “growing mobs” by Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor — are taking shape across the country, Need to Know’s Sal Gentile spoke with Saul Gonzalez, a producer for the Los Angeles-based public broadcaster KCRW, who has visited the “Occupy” encampments there and spoken to some of the protesters. What follows is an edited transcript.
Sal Gentile: Paint a picture of the “Occupy” protests in Los Angeles. What’s the size and scope of the encampment there?
Saul Gonzalez: What strikes me is where it is. Where they’ve decided to go is Los Angeles City Hall. You’re at this icon of government and public power, and representative power, and that’s where they’ve decided to set up their encampment, because it’s one of a handful of symbols that a lot of people in Southern California just know. It’s an iconographic place.
There are about 150 to 200 protesters. They’re on the lawn on the north side of City Hall, and are very well organized. They have a tent for first aid, they have a food tent, they have a media tent of course, which I think is requisite for these things now. They even have a library — you can get books from anyone from Noam Chomsky to Ross Perot. And then, on the lawn, they’ll have these general assembly meetings, and they’ll talk about why they’re there, and they’ll vote on things. Everyone basically has to sign onto an action before they move forward with it.
Gentile: Do you get a sense of who these protesters are, and why they’re there?
Gonzalez: These are the millennials and the Y Generation folks who have been left out of the economy they thought they were going to step into. This is the “creative class” that hasn’t had the opportunity to be as creative as they would like to be, or think they can be. These are 20-somethings who don’t have a full-time job, they don’t have health care. They’re job gypsies, and they just wander around from one job to another.
They may be tattooed up and have piercings and all the rest, but what they really want seems to be really mainstream, which is what their parents had or have, which is a steady job, insurance, paid vacations and knowing that you’re going to have that job not only for a week or two but five or ten years.
Gentile: Early on the media seemed to dismiss these protesters as naïve, or on the margins of the political spectrum. But you’re saying they actually have mainstream political goals?
Gonzalez: Absolutely. There might be a person or two camped out on the lawn at City Hall who want to take a whack at the pillars of capitalism and set the whole house tumbling down, but I think for every one person like that, there’s ten people who want into the capitalist system. They just feel that it’s dysfunctional for their generation.
What they want is pretty centrist. They want a system to be cleaned up that they feel is corrupt. They want the banks to face up to the sins of their past. And they want this economy to start running again on all pistons. They say, “If I had a job, I wouldn’t be out here.’
Gentile: How are the protests being perceived in Los Angeles?
Gonzalez: It was very LA the other day, where on one side of City Hall you had the protesters and you had Occupy LA in their tent city, but just around the corner of City Hall you had them shooting a big movie, you had camera gear and camera cranes and all of that. And then up the street they’re having the big Michael Jackson physician trial. You could throw a rock and hit it.
And that’s where all the cameras are. At least in terms of broadcast media, there are very few outfits visiting these protesters and shining a light on that. They’re all preoccupied with Michael Jackson’s physician and what’s happening there. And it’s just kind of a tale of two encampments. You have the Occupy LA people on one side of the street, and then you have all of the local and national TV crews on the other side of the street, following [the trial] much more closely.
Gentile: Are the protests having an impact in Los Angeles yet?
Gonzalez: It’s very easy to live in Los Angeles and ignore the fact that this is happening, or not even know that this is happening. It’s probably not as much in your face as it is in New York. They did score a little bit of a victory [on Wednesday], some members of the City Council voted in a symbolic gesture to side with the protesters. Because there were a few days where they were camped out in front of City Hall and nobody from the city literally walked down the steps and talked to them. And that changed in a big way the other day.
Gentile: In Europe, there have been massive riots over unemployment and government austerity measures. Here in the U.S., the Tea Party movement has fundamentally reshaped the Republican Party. Is the Occupy movement the transformational expression of anger many on the left have been waiting for?
Gonzalez: I’ve been to Tea Party rallies, and I’ve been to this now, and I must say, I do feel that white hot rage more when you go to a Tea Party movement than, at least, this Occupy LA encampment that I visited. People don’t use the same kind of language, they don’t have quite the same venom in their voices as some Tea Party members do — not everyone, but that’s what struck me.
I think there are a lot of people who are kind of glum with what they’ve experienced. It’s more melancholy than anger: “We’re at a time in our lives, in our 20s, when we should be really productive, we should be building our careers now, we should be taking the first steps of our real life after college.” And these are people who feel that the stairs aren’t there to take those first steps. And so there’s more of that then there is “Let’s grab Molotov cocktails and start throwing them at cops.” I just don’t see that.