If you are a freak and you're not in Los Angeles, it's time to start praying three times a day in the direction of a certain four-block radius downtown, because it is your Mecca.
If you are a freak (a term I use with great respect) and you’re not in Los Angeles, it’s time to start praying three times a day in the direction of a certain four-block radius downtown, because it is your Mecca. Here you’ll find the courthouse suffering the Michael Jackson doctor trial, which is right across the street from Occupy LA. And of all this, the really crazy thing is how Skid Row, a mere few blocks away, has been slowly but surely trickling onto the lawn of City Hall.
The homeless population notorious for turning “Central City East” into the apocalypse after sundown every night has started shacking up with Occupy. Anyone could’ve called it. Like, if you had the option of having your tent/sleeping bag/cardboard pallet/garbage dome routinely power-hosed by the city at approximately 5 AM every morning if you hadn’t packed it up by then, or being able to set it up semi-permanently on a hill with mostly peace-loving individuals giving out free food and medical supplies and books, what’s going to be your choice?
I headed down there to check out the Michael Jackson doctor trial—what is that guy’s name, anyway?—thinking I’d do some hardcore theater reporting, but if you’re at all interested in what’s going on, and I can’t imagine you would be, just download the app. It costs 99 cents and it’s way more comprehensive than anything else you’ll find.
The people watching, however, was unexpectedly overwhelming, an instantaneous game called Who’s Crazier—Occupy LA or Michael Jackson Fans? On one side you had el General, a shirtless gentleman guarding a tarp full of magic headwear. On the other, an elderly woman with apricot-colored hair named Queen of Sheba wearing all purple, carrying a camera bag full of PB&J sandwiches and “a little man I take into the bushes so we can get it on.” It doesn’t matter who’s on which side. In fact, there are some people just crossing the street all day, such as the kid deconstructing his Virgo symbol into Michael Jackson’s initials by way of made-up esoterica drawn in Sharpie on his arm.
Lest anyone accuse me of giving conservative folk ammo against the movement, let me be perfectly clear: I totally am. Those people have been dream assassins since the beginning of time, it’s like their thing to rip down idealism. And that’s what the Occupy movement is all about: Making life better in a conscientious manner, or at least having access to a dream of a better life. Actually, it’s what this country has always been about, and it’s why everyone else in the world thinks we’re so spoiled—we have readily available running water and we also want a triple massage rain tile showerhead that somehow conserves and molecularly reconstructs its emissions?
But fuck that, if one has the option between making something that is OK exceedingly great and soulful or just hanging tough in mediocrity, will he or she not choose attempting greatness? Even if it means being associated with lunatics in the process? Who cares if it doesn’t work out in the end to exact satisfaction—the fact that one even tries automatically makes life better.
That a culture of complacency could be moved to a response of such a chaotic and widespread nature, one that involves actually getting up and making oneself seen in a physical way, is worth applauding in and of itself. That people are tolerant enough to put up with all kinds of divergent, crazy bullshit and possibly give up everything in order to say, “You have taken away my ability to dream, and I want to DREAM,” says a lot about this country. And uncannily, the Michael Jackson fans are essentially saying the same thing.
So yes, the crazies are in full-force, and there are grounded folk there too. Take Richard Florence, former designer of Anzevino & Florence, who told me he’d now rather be working for $15 an hour for a youth clinic of some sort than designing women’s clothing. I didn’t have the heart to tell him his new dream job probably pays less than that, because this guy was level-headed and well-spoken when conservative radio personalities John and Ken from KFI AM entered, smelling the homeless chum and coming in for an easy feeding.
Florence shut him down on the “grass debacle,” in which the city is telling tax-payers it’s going to cost $50,000 to grow and re-manicure the grass that was meant for Midwestern prairies, not the considerably more desert environment of Los Angeles.
It’s small moments like these that feel like miniature victories. But why is this about “winning”? This movement is about unity and solidarity, right? Look at that radio guy’s cheap sunglasses—there is no way he is part of the “1%.”
I personally loved when this super glowy ripped dude got on the microphone (after much fighting, I heard, Occupy LA got rid of that human microphone stuff, at least for big speeches) about seizing your own health as the most basic form of political act. Self-empowerment comes through eating whole grains, fruits, and vegetables grown without chemicals or genetic interference. He urged us, over and over, to “clean out the liver, kidneys, and colon, to reclaim and protect your bloodstream,” as when you are healthy you will not get sick. There is nothing invading you, so you are living your full physical potential. Plus, then you won’t be stuck caring about Obama’s latest “We Can’t Wait” initiative, further establishing that our health is not only not a right anymore, it’s part of the consumerist system of supply and demand.
Meanwhile, el General yelled, "If we eat more spaghetti, we speak Italian!" Off in the distance, a lone wolf wailed on his didgeridoo.
As this glowy ripped dude urged us to rise out of “poverty consciousness”—which I took to mean quitting the downtrodden, sarcastic sloganeering about banks prevalent in the Occupy movement—and do what we can to get our lives in order starting with our own bodies, some of the homeless started yelling at him for being a classist asshole. Simply for talking about organic food. Sad that good health is seen as elitist these days.
Still, good for the homeless for joining in. We have secret, nomadic tent herds all over the country from our economic downturn, huge posses of otherwise “normal” landlocked individuals with no choice but to switch on survival mode. They’re then forced by law to pick up and move night after night, or else face consequences of trespassing or squatting. For excellent reference on this phenomenon, please read William T. Vollman’s haunting treatise on the state of nouveau homelessness in Harper’s from earlier this year.
Some of these Occupiers are on their way down that financial de-volution. Some are basically there. Others have way surpassed this point, and are just supremely fucked probably until they die.
Heading into it, it’s difficult to not feel total despair. And also revulsion, pride, and awe. There has been no confrontational police violence at Occupy LA. Despite complaints about the grass and other small murmurs, the city’s not making a big fuss about anyone being here.
There’s an energy healing tent next to the first aid tent (while I received Reiki, a gentle soul joined on his own). There are classes, and a library. Weirdly, Rage Against the Machine’s guitarist showed up to give a speech. Sure, there are idiotic discussions everywhere that aren’t even worth repeating because there are people who just want to yell, want something to rail against. It’s difficult to think in there. You can’t really tell the legitimately economically concerned “regular folk” contingent from the homeless, the mentally ill, tweakers, starseed messengers, health warriors, desperados, crust punks, washed-ups, queer crusaders, or those who wandered West from Burning Man and can’t figure out how to get back. Now add in super sad, hardcore Michael Jackson fans too? And everyone’s got their own agenda? OK, I’m calling a time-out here.
This is total spectacle. The only thing that makes sense is that it’s not supposed to make sense. And having something absolutely bonkers incorporated as a paradigm of normalcy across the nation—and having real support for that—will absolutely change public opinion, somehow. This inadvertent activity is what Alejandro Jodorowsky might call “panic theater.” It’s extreme happening as a form of initiation, in public, with no distinguishing among participants, observers, what is spontaneous, what is staged, or what is even the stage.
The “outrageous or scandalous character of such experiences,” Jodorowsky says in Psychomagic: The Transformative Power of Shamanic Psychotherapy, compels “you to go, if only for a moment, beyond attraction and repulsion, beyond cultural conditioning, beyond the criteria of beauty and of faith.”
According to Jodorowsky, this initiation brings about enormous mental shift via “an irrational and, at the same time, rational act: irrational in its appearance but rational in that the person knows why it has to be done.” And this, friends, is the essence of his theories on psychomagic. It’s a cleansing or healing accomplished through surreal, ridiculous, often unbelievable yet totally true series of events. “The only traces it will leave will be carved into the interior of human beings and will manifest in psychological changes.”
So come take the Hajj to downtown Los Angeles. Or go visit your own local Occupy. There’s no telling what the outcome will be. All we know is that at some point, there definitely will be one.
(Additional reporting and photography by Monika Bukowska.)
- Vice Blog