In the wake of the eviction of the Occupy Los Angeles protestors from City Hall Park, there is much talk and a flurry of activity regarding what to do next. The obvious legislative issues are being addressed and actions are planned, but what of the Occupy community on which so many had come to depend for the two months it operated? As a resident of the Occupy Los Angeles community, I participated in the creation of what I had already come to believe, is the future of civilization.
Five consecutive years attending the Burning Man arts festival had changed and shaped my view of community long before I arrived at Occupy Los Angeles (OLA). Once a year, tens of thousands of participants (in 2011 it was over 5,5000) sojourn into the desert about a hundred miles from Reno and create Black Rock City. Based on ten principles, or codes of conduct, such as “radical inclusion,” “leave no trace,” and “gifting,” the sense of community at Burning Man is so strong that an entire subculture has formed around it, holding regional events and utilizing the social networks, such as Facebook, to stay connected and continuing to practice the “ten principles.” Its regular participants, who call themselves “Burners,” are so devoted to this new way of living, that they call this yearly festival, “Home” and the rest of their lives they call, “the default world.” From the very start of my participation in 2007 in the Burning Man project, I felt that it was a training ground for something far grander, to be done for the sake of life instead of art. So strong was my own sense of purpose from such a unique and refreshing approach to civilization, that I have endeavored to find ways to bring this new sense of community into my “default” life whenever and wherever I am able. As I watched and helped the OLA community grow over the weeks, I felt as though it was the real life fruition of my Burning Man experience; The community began to feel like Burning Man. There were others of the Burning Man community drawn to OLA, as well as members of similar communities such as a group called the Rainbow Family. Due to the influence of these strong community minded people, the varied residents of OAL of all ages and life circumstances came together and, developing out of the needs of the people, became a functional community, working together to address the needs of the community. We cared for each other, sought ways to support one another and to take care of our environment. We were creating the community we all needed but that is lacking in our “default lives,” which most were there to protest against. It was the community of our future.
Due to the contagious sense of inter-connectedness growing within the community, I witnessed OLA, over a period of two months, form into “tribes” who pooled their resources, fed and clothed one another, and begin to head community projects such as cleanup, gardening, and peacekeeping. I took up residence at “Kid Village,” a tribe so named because those with kids grouped themselves together along with women young and old, to create a safe space for children and women. It also became a space dedicated to hosting women’s meetings and activities for visiting children on weekends, as there were many families who came to show support or to expose their children to what was happening there. Other “tribes” included the “Love tribe,” “Music tribe” as well as several tribes of artists, and those grouped together with similar belief systems. People created sacred areas, places for inter-faith prayer and meditation, a food distribution area where donated, prepared food was distributed, a medical tent where medical professionals from the larger community volunteered their time and supplies were donated, a clothing donation tent where clothing was made available to the community, a growing library, and The People’s Collective University where university professors came and taught classes. I once spent the night as a “peacekeeper,” staying up all night keeping watch over my area. I was able to put into effect a peacekeeping procedure that the community had recently adapted at the General Assembly. This procedure is called Shanti Sena, which means “peace scene” in Sanskrit, and was introduced by a member of the Rainbow family community. When a disturbance is occurring which does not appear to be resolving on it’s own or is escalating, an observer or participant calls out, “Shanti Sena!” to which all who hear are responsible to go and observe the disturbance taking place. The responding community forms a protective circle around those in conflict or committing an offence, and observes with out physical interaction; if necessary separating those in conflict by forming two circles or helping to mediate between the conflicted parties. This was what happened that night as I was up keeping peace, when several young people returned home late and decided to catch up on their work sorting recycling at 3:00am, which was not well received by those sleeping near by. A loud, hostile argument escalated so I gave the call of “Shanti Sena!” and the community gathered around from all directions, despite the late hour. The presence of the community and the knowledge of why we had gathered succeeded in subduing the egos involved, and help us navigate through the conflict and resolve it. It was encouraging to see a practice introduced, reach consensus at the General Assembly, put into practice, and to see it prove effective. The residents of OLA were learning new ways of interacting with one another, and were forming a functioning community.
Though this growing new community had many problems, I believe given time OLA had the potential to solve many of the problems it was encountering in fresh new ways without involving outside law enforcement, which most of our residents were strongly in favor of. Distribution of donated resources seemed to be one of our greatest sources of conflict as a community, and a problem we were unable to solve in our short time there. More than once money went missing and arguments over food distribution were common. I do believe more time would have produced a solution; one that was need based, worked with the “tribes,” and was transparent to the community, as these were the principles being talked about upon our disbanding. The most challenging principle for the OLA community was that of inclusion, accepting one another in our differences and without judgment. I would estimate that about 90% of people I spoke to in the Occupy community had some person or group of persons who they felt “didn’t belong there” or “should be kicked out,” although this attitude improved as our community grew. The OLA community had a large homeless population as many who had already been living on the street, decided to relocate. The question of drug and alcohol abuse was often a point of contention at meetings. At one point, the group of volunteers who called themselves “peacekeepers” walked away from this job because the community kept expecting them to be, and even referred to them as “security,” and insisting they do something about the drug problem, among other things. When this happened the community had to face the reality that we needed a new way of dealing with disturbance and safety within the community, and so re-structured the role of the “peacekeepers,” which was how I ended up volunteering that night. Rather than the expectation that there was someone assigned to dealing with problematic influences, it must become the responsibility of the entire community to come together to make decisions and openly communicate these to persons whose actions have become an issue. Once again, given time, community participation in the various peacekeeping practices we were enacting, (such as Shanti Sena),help from the social services representative who had begun to lend support, combined with the growing attitude of acceptance and understanding, would have proven effective in creating a safer, more workable community with sustainability for the future.
I believe our future depends upon each of us beginning to see ourselves, not as an individual living within a city or country, but a small part of a whole organism, in which resources are communally shared, waste is eliminated, and people band together to care for each other and their living space. When the OLA community was evicted from Liberty Park, there were many who had nowhere else to go and who had come to depend on the community as a family, and were plunged into sorrow at losing them. With our economy on the verge of a major collapse, and so many people already without job or home, it is necessary for each of us to re-evaluate how we view and operate within our community. It is time to consider the concerns of the community as a whole at least as important as our individual needs (or more so). We must let go of our judgment of and competition with one another, and begin to value people as more than the equivalent of their life circumstances or financial status. I have been inspired by my experience at OLA to seek out ways to build community and address community needs within the “default world” in which I live, and to work with others in promoting a new way of thinking about our community and instigate change. By the time OLA was evicted on November 22, 2011, it was a thriving community that had great potential for solving the problems inherent to such a community. It was inspiring to watch the power of what such a group of people could accomplish, and the implication for communities in the future as we all take forward these lessons we learned.