Saturday afternoon just after Thanksgiving in downtown Los Angeles, I was walking with my son Neal and his friend Chris, leader of a group of photographers we had joined on a photo tour of downtown Los Angeles. Our cameras became directed toward the classical revival architecture of government buildings whose architecture intended to express the rectitude of civic purpose, mixed with the uber-modern architecture likewise intended to induce a beneficent future.
We approached Los Angeles City Hall, whose white marbled and decorous superstructure was poised above the multicolored patchwork of tents set in place by Occupy Los Angeles, jammed in a seemingly chaotic assemblage in a broad lawn in front of the building. To say the occupiers were a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly was apparent to some extent– many were earnest college type people; some seemed to be drifters; others showed signs of being mentally disturbed. Most of the occupiers were middle-class people who were there for the cause they believed in, and were carrying out their purpose in an orderly and uncarnival-like manner. I had no way of knowing the number of people there – maybe a thousand.
As we walked around the place, I began to notice numerous people who prompted me to say to my son, “I’ve never seen so many hippies in one place since 1967.” The same deliberately mis-matched and well-worn clothes, men with beards, women with abundant jewelry, people with painted faces, all with that same sixties-era care-free attitude, and many with hand-painted slogans on T shirts proclaiming a multitude of anthems such as, “Power to the People,” “Our country is no longer ours,” and “We want 100%, not 99%.” Booths and makeshift structures were emboldened by bright colors. This movement however, was not powered by tie dye. We walked by a group of people clustered around a large panel containing several signs. One declared, “No more hope –we want action!” Another sign in red and black with the bold graphics of a fist militantly holding a push broom called for justice for janitors. The most poignant sign proclaiming “We want a system that works for the people – not people working for the system” was so familiar to what I had seen so many times over forty years ago.
I had come on this photography tour to shoot the richness of LA architecture and now I was surrounded by a different sort of a wealth – the people around me. Two photos I now wish I would have taken: one was of a woman talking to a very large policeman in a genial conversational banter, both smiling as they talked, with one comment by the cop causing the woman to break out in, well- I’ll call it riotous laughter – and she patted him on his shoulder. The other was a guy maybe twenty years old wearing paint splattered white jeans, no shirt, with paint streaked all over his body, his face and through his hair, who came up to me holding my camera and gleefully shouted, “Hey – take my picture!” I responded, “ I already did – in 1967.”
In the years around 1967, the vibe of the counterculture in Minneapolis seeking change seemed to be in the air many of us breathed, and now change was in the air again at this site. I walked across the street from the city hall grounds and saw a camera crew interviewing a twenty-something guy delivering rapid fire rhetoric into a microphone held by the interviewer, which made me stop to listen to him. He was very articulate, offering perspective and detail, and I thought here is the very message so many critics of the Occupy Movement say is lacking and unfocused. He commented some Americans making millions of dollars a year pay a lower percentage of taxes than middle class Americans who pay a higher percentage of their income. He described how low wages, increasing unemployment, fraying infrastructure, inefficient and insufficient health care affect the well being of the middle class but leave the top 1% unscathed. Now, he stated, is the time for us to redirect our democracy. I became aware his words constructed a striking parallel to thoughts of my writer friend Jeanette Clancy in Avon, Minnesota.
The interview came to an end, and the interviewer pulled back his microphone while the video operator shut down his camera. I faced the twenty-something guy and asked him, “What year is it?” He off-handedly said it is 2011, and while he began to be on his way, I vigorously responded, “I think it is 1967,” and he kept moving. Then someone said to the interview crew, “Hey – turn your equipment back on and interview this guy.”
For two minutes, I knew I could never come close to matching the erudite expression of the young speaker. But I spoke of what I knew, based on my 1960s experiences and its similarities to what was happening across the street. In those times my peripheral involvement where just being at a protest event was being participatory in a way which contributed to the cause of the times.
Later, when I told some people about this experience in LA, someone asked me if was there any danger at the occupy site. “Yes,” I hopefully answered, “but only to 1% of people.”