My children saw us struggle financially. I wanted them to know we're not alone -- and we can do something about it
A photo of the author with her family and an Occupy Los Angeles protester
“I don’t want to get arrested,” my 7-year-old, Murphy, said as I slung our sleeping bags into the hallway. It was already 4 in the afternoon and I wanted to get down to Occupy Los Angeles and pitch our tent before sundown.
“They’re not arresting people in Los Angeles,” his brother, Spencer, said. Four years older than Murphy, Spencer has been driving his little brother wild by correcting everything he says.
I sunk into a dining room chair, pulling Murphy close so I could eyeball him. “Here’s the deal, kiddo. We’re not going to do anything that will get us arrested. If it looks like anything like that is going on, we’ll get back in the car and come home. OK?”
My mother-in-law, who had been sitting at the end of the dining room table, looked up from her book. “And I’ll be right here, if you come home.” I looked at her and felt a prickle of irritation at the base of my neck. She’d been staying with us for over a month. Why not occupy L.A. while my mother-in-law was occupying our living room?
The truth was, I wanted to join the occupiers downtown because I was tired of feeling helpless about our financial situation. My husband and I declared bankruptcy this year and were slowly digging ourselves out of the fiscal rubble. I couldn’t watch occupiers on TV anymore without participating. If not me, then who would stand up? Or, in this case, bed down. The option of merely attending the site without camping felt half-assed, like we were day-trippers instead of the 99 percent.
The children have been aware of our bankruptcy and unemployment problems, and I hoped that seeing other people who have been similarly affected would give them a sense of being part of a larger whole. More important, I wanted them to grow up knowing that they had the biggest part in shaping their own destiny. It would be a hands-on civics lesson.
But what if there was police activity downtown? What if the other tents were only occupied by homeless people and stoners? I had invited another family whose son was friends with mine. I thought that the “sleepover” aspect might mitigate any possible boredom the kids might feel. But what if it was not simply boring, but dangerous? Media reports from across the country had been increasingly grim, and I had read about a fracas between two occupiers involving a knife the day before. It was handled quickly and no one was hurt but, clearly, not everyone was down there giving peace a chance. But we live in a city where scuffles happen every day. And I had learned through extensive traveling, protest marches, and even flying internationally two days after 9/11 that things are rarely as bad as people say they are. Most of the time, fear is the enemy — not what’s “out there.”
As the boys marched into the dining room with their pillows, adding them to our pile of equipment, I prayed I wasn’t wrong.
“Last call for the bathroom,” my husband, Pat, said.
“There will be porta potties down there,” I said, “but we don’t know how many they have or where they are.”
“Porta potties.” Spencer winced. “I guess I won’t be eating much.”
“Spence,” I said, “you have to eat. The potties won’t be that bad.”
But, of course, I didn’t know anything about the potties. And so, by the time Pat dropped me off at the encampment to scout for a tent site, I was looking for a spot that was close, but not too close, to the dreaded blue cubicles.
“Can I pitch my tent here?” I asked a young man I assumed to be an organizer, based on the benignly authoritative manner he used with other campers.
“Looks like we’re trying to keep the walkway clear here,” he said in a casual tone that indicated a “whatever works for you” approach to urban planning. He pointed out a makeshift alleyway for foot traffic, with domed tents, three deep, on one side and service tents on the other. On the service side I saw a signs for a library, meditation area, and a People’s Collective University. “But really you can set up anywhere.”
“I was told this was the quieter side,” I said. “My husband and kids are going to be with me.”
“Oh great,” he said, his face brightening, “we really want to start getting families down here.”
“Well, here we are,” I said, stupidly, since I was only bringing my family and another for one night, not an army of families to occupy for as long as it took to restore power to the people.
“Great. Great,” he said. “Yeah, I guess you could say this is the quieter side. That’s how it’s turning out anyway. The general assembly starts at 7:30 on the south and that’s when it gets pretty crazy and noisy for a few hours.”
I stifled the urge to ask “how crazy?” I didn’t want to sound uptight. He looked like a 20-something hipster, while I am a 50-year-old woman who still feels rock ‘n’ roll but looks most comfortable wearing waders in her tulip garden.
But I wanted to get a sense of what I was in for. I dipped my head down and said in what I hoped was a worldly tone, “Is there going to be a lot of pot smoking in this area? Personally, I’m cool with it. Cooler than I look like I might be. I lived in New York in the ’80s. But we’ve got kids, so …”
“Gotcha,” he said. “There’s some of that on the other side. But most of that is kept out of sight.”
“Sounds like this is the right spot, then.” I resisted the urge to jazz up my language by calling it the right “hang” or “hood. ” I offered a salute of solidarity and flipped out my phone to call Pat, who pulled up within seconds.
The boys tumbled out with our tent and gear while Pat took off to park. Within seconds, I looked up to see three young men striding toward us, offering to help us pitch the tent. My first impulse was to politely refuse. I wasn’t sure I should let people get too chummy with the kids and, quite frankly, I didn’t know if they would expect something in return. But these were either students or activists, and I didn’t want the kids to get a sense of anything at work but good intentions.
I smiled carefully and said, “Sure. My husband will be here soon, but I really want to get the tent up before it gets dark.” On the off-chance that I had made a bad call, I figured the mention of a husband who could be totally badass would discourage them.
Undeterred, the guys pulled out our tent poles and set to work, joshing with the boys and insulting each other’s tent acumen. Spencer and Murph hopped around handing them equipment like they’d just run away and joined the circus.
In fact, this was just the first time I would notice the universally generous attitude that was consistent throughout our stay. I understand why the left has sought to distance the Occupy movement from its hippie element. There’s a fear that it lightens the movement, makes it less serious, more fringy. But at a time when “compassion is out of fashion” (as Paul Krugman recently wrote in the New York Times), it was moving to see young people opting to help us — and each other — out. I think the core hippie belief that we are in this together and that we are all responsible for each other is one that the left should embrace.
By the time Pat appeared on the scene we had a sagging shelter, flapping precariously in the breeze.
Pat smiled. “Did anyone look at the directions?”
“Nah,” one of the guys said. “We knew we’d figure it out.”
Proving that all you need is love and a plan, Pat located the directions and significantly sped up the process so that the tent was up before sundown. Before taking off, our new pals gave us the lay of the land and offered to check in on us later.
As we walked through the encampment, I wondered if the kids saw what I saw. There were plenty of people who looked like us, and I even saw a few children, but there were also telltale signs of homeless campers — grocery carts and cardboard signs that were more concerned with Jesus than the 99 percent. A barefoot couple, shirtless except for her bikini top, walked toward us looking like they were high on more than just life.
I stole a glance at the boys and couldn’t discern any discomfort. In fact, they were delighted when we were offered free sweet bread.
“Free food!” said Spence. “We should come here all the time!”
I was about to point out that they actually get free food at home all the time. But I didn’t want to kill their enthusiasm. Indeed, the free food – especially baked goods – flowed all night and into the morning. Free baked goods, I have now come to believe, are the very lifeblood of any decent rebellion. What decent mob won’t go the extra mile for a glazed doughnut?
We returned to our tent before attending the general assembly. I planned on bringing the kids to the beginning of the big meeting and whisking them away if things got crazy. When our friends arrived I broke out the red wine for the adults and chocolate milk for the kids. The boys dragged out their Dungeons and Dragons book and, as the sun dipped behind the undulating horizon of round tent roofs, we shared French bread and aged cheddar. Just because we were at a bare-bones populist action, there was no reason to eat like it.
This could easily be one of the family’s many camping trips, except for the sounds of people setting up the meeting on the other side of the building, the density of the tents, and the lack of a campfire. Was that what I had been hoping to create? A feeling of normalcy for the children when our reasons for being there were far from normal? Dire forces had urged these people to camp around our city hall for days on end. Shouldn’t we be talking more about these issues to the children? I wanted them to feel safe, but also be informed and inspired.
Splitting the difference, Pat and I briefly reiterated our reasons for being there and took them to the beginning of the assembly. But we also indulged their desire to turn the tent into the Death Star. And when Spencer stood firm on not using the porta potty we didn’t insist that he use the same facilities as everyone else. Instead, we stood in line for an hour at a bathroom opened for finicky campers in a nearby public building.
Later, as I lay in our tent, I wondered what my sons would take away from this adventure. Certainly, I hoped that they grasped some of the deep concerns that were propelling people — citizens — to camp in the middle of our city. But more than that, I hoped that they felt connected to those citizens. I didn’t want them to grow up thinking that it was someone else’s job to fix things.
And, in the end, if none of those messages had sunk in – even if Spence and Murph had been more preoccupied with the tent and their friend – I hoped that the cumulative effect of attending marches and rallies would start to make participation a habit. As I told them when I tucked them into their sleeping bags that night, “The first and most important thing you can do is to show up.” I’m glad we did.