Last night the mood at Occupy LA was tense. Thousands of protesters had converged in Oakland, closed down the harbor, and wrecked havoc at an building that had once sheltered homeless people, but now was shut down due to budget cuts. LA Occupiers staged a peaceful but edgy solidarity protest in front of the Police Station across from City Hall. Several hundred young people were there, along with a sizable contingent of police, mostly dressed in shorts and trying to look friendly. Cop cars lined the street, their lights flashing, adding a festive or ominous air, depending on your attitude towards the police. It was the Dias de los muertos, the day of the dead, and many young people were in costume, looking spectral and ghoulish. Young men with bull horns orated for an hour or more, and then the crowd dispersed back to the encampment in front of City Hall.
As I wandered about, I had flashbacks to the 1960s. Long-haired, bearded young men and lovely young women camping out, talking earnestly, and the occasional scent of pot. A potpouri of LA’s amazing diversity: diverse races, ethnicities and social backgrounds getting together for an all-night party that was both social and political, and never boring.
The General Assembly was cancelled because of the rally. In its place a group of ukulele players gathered and played lively Mexico music while a man did a rhythmic foot-stomping dance on a small wooden platform. A little Anglo girl with blond hair danced joyously. A group of African-Americans were having a political discussion nearby.
As I wondered around, I encountered Communists, socialists, vegetarians, hippies, seekers, and an earnest young Evangelical Christian who called out from his tent and asked passersby if they believed in God. When I responded “Yes,” he asked me if Jesus was my Lord and Savior. I bent down, looked him in the eye and replied, smiling, “Jesus is my Friend, my guide and my Savior.” The young man seemed relieved.
I kept thinking of the story that Jesus tells in Matthew 23 about how we are to respect the Law, but not those who profess the Law without practicing it. Jesus says: “Call no one your teacher, or father, or leader, for we are all brothers and sisters and only Christ/God is our leader.”
The Occupies get the “no-leader” part of Jesus’ teaching. They realize that you can’t trust the authorities; they are mostly liars and hypocrites. But many of the Occupiers haven’t yet connected with or submitted to their Inward Teacher. They have learned to resist unjust authority, but haven’t learned the spiritual discipline (and the inward peace) that comes from Holy Obedience. In the signs and art and conversations I sensed a deep yearning for a spiritual as well as political transformation.
I didn't see a religious presence at Occupy LA, like the interfaith tent I saw at Occupy Philadelphia, but there is openness to the idea of having such a tent, as I discovered when I spoke to some of the Occupiers. [It turns out there was a sukka, and a Hindu meditation tent, and a sacred indigenous space. As of Nov 11, there is an interfaith tent.]
My guide was a young Quaker from Orange Grove Meeting named Sergei whom I ran into by “chance.” Sergei is in his early 30s and has a long, anarchic beard, a jovial, bear-like appearance and a thick accent. He is articulate and thoughtful, and has been coming to Occupy LA on a regular basis for several weeks. (In case you're wondering, he has a job: he is self-employed and fixes restaurant equipment). Sergei sees his mission as helping to calm down people who are agitated. Some are mentally ill. Others are simply enraged by the system. Some are both, like the Mexican man named Juan who used to be a school teacher, and then lost everything, including his wits. Juan wanders around shirtless, making loud and sometimes inappropriate political commentary. Sergei treat him and others like him with great kindness. Sergei explained that he is part of a group of Occupies inspired by Gandhi’s Shanti Seva (Peace Army).
Sergei introduced me to several of the young people who are helping to bring some measure of order to this colorful, vibrant but somewhat chaotic group. A young Latino named Anthony and an Anglo named Casey who help to convene the People’s Assembly (an unstructured alternative to the General Assembly) were very pleased that a Quaker had arrived.
“We need the Quakers!” they told me.
Casey had heard about the Quakers through Tolstoy’s book “The Kingdom of God is Within You.” He sensed that the Occupy movement needed Tolstoyan and Quaker wisdom.
Others I spoke to acknowledged the need for people who can teach and model nonviolent resistance and conflict resolution skills. When I spoke to them about ICUJP, the Parliament of the World’s Religions, and the interfaith community, they were eager for us to come down and share our experience and insights with them.
One of the important elements of Occupy LA is educational. On the north side of City Hall there is a “people’s university” where informal classes and workshops are being offered. On Saturday and Sunday this week, there will be a teach-in with notables such as Robert Reich, Kent Wong, William Black and David DeGraw.
Those I spoke to were also very receptive to the idea of having an interfaith tent, and an interfaith worship service like the one I attended at Occupy Philadelphia. Such a service, I suggested, could be held in the manner of Friends, with silence and opportunities for everyone to share messages and listen deeply. Such a service could include people of all faiths, as well as humanists and atheists.
Those I spoke to loved this idea. There is a deep need for opportunities to become "centered."
I am proposing that we try to have such a gathering on Sunday afternoon, Nov. 13. I’d like to invite people from UDC, ICUJP, the Parliament, the Westside Interfaith Alliance and other interfaith groups to come and be a friendly presence. The important thing is to be open to listening.
It is also important to spend time at Occupy LA and get to know the people there. The more interaction we have with them and vice versa, the more likely it is that we will grow into a movement that can bring about the kind of change many of us dreamed about when Obama was elected.
Jesus was right: you should not expect our leaders to be our saviors. We have to be re-build our fallen society from the ground up, guided by the Spirit and committed to peace, justice, and egalitarianism. This is the only way to stop the war machine and the Domination System.
You can see LA Occupy with live feeds at http://occupylosangeles.org/