Ron Kaye: A spark of life in the conversation

Born and raised in Glendale, a Boy Scout and a graduate of Flintridge Prep, Joe Briones now calls the streets of downtown Los Angeles his home.

Briones, 29, a film student at L.A. City College, is homeless by choice, an organizer of the Occupy Los Angeles movement encamped at City Hall.

A true believer that the moment is at hand for a revolution in American society, he provides a window into the Occupation movement that started with confrontational Occupy Wall Street and then spread across the country, raising questions about just what it is and where it is going.

“This is that moment that I’ve been waiting for, when the people can take back control of their lives from the interests of business,” he said.

Briones’ political views are about as far left as you can go, past socialism to anarchism.

“Anarchists get a bad name,” he said. “It’s not about destruction and chaos. It’s about creating a system of social organization without hierarchy. That’s one of the things that makes the Occupation movement so great — we are leaderless. Past movements, you cut off the head and the body dies. That isn’t possible here.”

The 200 mostly 20-something protesters sleeping in dozens of tents on City Hall’s north lawn represent a lot of different political views, a sort of leftist counterpoint to the Tea Party, a political phenomenon that is gaining momentum even as it is searching for its identity.

Yet, they sometimes sound like Congressman Ron Paul, with frequent calls to “End the Fed,” blaming much of the nation’s economic problems on the Federal Reserve and its close ties to the banks and Wall Street.

And they denounce President Obama for the bank bailout, the continuing wars and the failure to deliver on his promises.

“It might as well be Bush doing those things,” as Briones put it.

Much like the 1960s, when civil rights and anti-war sentiment inflamed the passions of the young, this generation of protesters is facing the same questions: What are they for? What do they want?

Figuring that out in daily meetings of several dozen committees and a nightly “General Assembly” — broadcast live in streaming video on the Internet all day long — consumes a lot of the time and energy of the protesters.

The process for making decisions is cumbersome, chaotic at times, since anyone in the group can put a “hard block” on any proposal if they strongly oppose it.

One night last week, there was a long debate with hard blocks on both sides of the question of whether to call the committee formed to come up with proposals for what they want the “Demands Committee” or the less confrontational “Objectives Committee.”

For Briones and other organizers, the egalitarianism and inclusiveness of the decision-making process is the movement’s strength.

“In top-down decision-making, the people at the top are inevitably going to make decisions in their own interests,” he said.

“What we’re doing takes a lot of time and hard work, but in the end, everybody is onboard and working together. The fact that the occupation is not against one specific thing is a strength, not a weakness. It’s not an anti-war movement. It’s not a civil rights movement. It encompasses all the aspects of problems that are in American society and finds a solution for them.”

Much of what I’ve seen and heard while watching the streaming video and talking to protesters stirs my own idealism at a time when it is hard to see how America can work its way through the political stalemate and economic restructuring we are facing.

They call themselves the “99 Percent,” in contrast to the 1% who control 40% of the nation’s wealth, but making that more than a slogan isn’t going to be easy, with the efforts of organized labor and Democratic Party operatives trying to co-opt the movement.

I don’t think you have to agree with Joe Briones or any of the other protesters, any more than you have to agree to the goals of the Tea Party, to see that they represent a spark of life in a political conversation that has been going nowhere for years.

When you are as badly stuck in place as we are today, sometimes you just have to move, no matter what direction you move in. After all, the world that Briones wants to see come out of this isn’t threatening. It is a lot like the world he grew up in.

“I grew up in a place where you as a kid riding around on your bike could come home for lemonade and you could leave your bike on the lawn and nobody was going to steal it. You left your doors unlocked at night and you didn’t worry.

“But unfortunately, that experience is not available today to the vast majority of Americans. It’s because of economics and that’s what we have to change.”

RON KAYE can be reached at Share your thoughts and stories with him.

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