Voices of the Occupation: What they'll take away
On Tuesday, in the hours before Occupy L.A. was ejected from the grounds of City Hall, Margot Roosevelt photographed participants and interviewed them about what had brought them to the protest and what message they hoped people would take away from it. Their statements have been edited for length.
Allen Lasley, 26
My mother was a single parent for me and my sister. When I was young, she was going to college and working two jobs — at McDonald's and at a dry cleaners. She still had to steal food. I was 4 years old when I realized something was seriously wrong.
Every experience I've had since then has been struggling to survive. I went into the Marine Corps when I was 17. I did two tours in Iraq. I came back realizing how messed up this country is, how we fight unjust wars for political assets.
In my head, as a kid, I thought if you work hard, you can achieve the American dream. I'd worked my entire life. But now I spend 12 hours a day filling out applications. I go to the unemployment office. My resume is on Monster.com. I've never been called to an interview. Not one time. I've lived at homeless shelters even though I get some military benefits.
I came to be a part of changing humanity for the better. When I first came down here I stayed up all night. I wanted to see what kind of people were here. The most intelligent people I ever met reside here. Everybody has the same story of getting screwed over by the government. Many veterans have gone through what I have and can't find work. That is the No. 1 thing for most people. There are just no jobs. I came here and these people gave me hope for humanity I had never felt before.
What people should take away is that we the people are the powers that be.
I believe power should be used to create equality. We want a level playing field. We don't want a small percentage of people to control everything going on around us.
Matt Wegner, 53
I was foreclosed on. That is partly why I'm here. I'll never own again. I refused to renew my [real estate] broker's license after seeing people foreclosed on and pushed into the street. I can no longer ethically practice real estate.
I've been wearing this sign on my back: “Greed is a Disease.” It is a sickness. It is destroying the lives of people. What is the opposite? Generosity. We have to stop taking and start giving. That is the mind shift I am trying to bring to the world.
I was hoping Villaraigosa would be the first mayor to say, “We are on your side,” rather than sending police to say, “Oh, we are going to evict you.” You can't evict an idea. You can't handcuff the truth.
Kern Masser, 18
Originally from Bakersfield, but then moved to his sister's place in Eureka
A lot of things are wrong. I tried to get a job after high school and no one would hire me because I had never had a job before. It is an endless cycle. I applied for 20 jobs in six months. I can't go to school because there's no way I could pay for the tuition. I'd like to learn. I like gardening but don't know how to do it.
But change can happen. People are trying to fight the 1%. People will look back at how bad things are now and say, “I'm glad we did that.”
What made me join [Occupy L.A.] was to find a place where I could have a conversation about social, political and economic injustice in this country. Our system favors the 1%. That is not sustainable for the citizens of the U.S. It's good to know you have other people that feel the same way.
I worked at HSBC [Bank] in the accounting department for three years. They let us go because they needed to outsource the jobs. So how do I pay my bills? I'm not going to wait until I'm homeless on the streets to fight for change.
Government power is an illusion. We placed them there. We can always take it away from them. Occupy is trying to figure out how. I'm a Republican — but a radical Republican. I don't like high taxes, but if you pay taxes, you want to know it is going to the betterment of people. You want to know it is going toward things like health insurance. I don't have health insurance. It is too expensive.
Joseph Thomas, 50
I was raised political. My mother adored Robert Kennedy. My father hated Richard Nixon. We talked about politics over dinner. My parents made clear to me: If you take social justice seriously, you have to be political. I'm here because I see our world is being broken. My generation has a responsibility to do something about it. I'd like to think even if I were living in a mansion in Bel-Air, I would come here.
The message? It's that politics matters. It is not peripheral. If you want to build a better world, you have to engage in the political process. We need to build a kinder, gentler world. I'd like to see a change in U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. has a dismal record in supporting brutal people across the globe. I'd like to see the Occupy movement be a force for democracy and social change.
Vivian Ortiz, 19
Grand Junction, Colo., attending photography school in North Hollywood
After I came here to school and went into debt, I found out my school is unaccredited. It is part of a corporate chain. They were good at making themselves seem like a legitimate school. But now I'm stuck.
A lot of people say, “The economy sucks, and I'm not going to do anything about it.” I'm here to hopefully make a change. I want to have a more stable future than what I'm having right now. I want people to look back on [Occupy L.A] with a positive light. Everyone came with their own issues. But the major thing is that something is wrong with society. People want their voices to be heard. Me personally? I want to get a proper education and not be in debt forever because of it.
Carina Clemente, 24
I went to Cal State Long Beach. I graduated with a major in psychology and theater. I was laid off a year ago. I've been trying to find work since then. I've spent five or six hours a day filling out applications and looking for work. But I only got contract jobs teaching theater classes and doing temp administration work.
I came out of curiosity. I didn't have an initial plan. The first day there were different focus groups. We came up with the idea of the People's Collective University. We held classes around political, social and economic justice, sustainability and community needs. We are making plans to expand into neighborhoods. The idea is to provide an alternative education model. We are focusing on the ideas of Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator. He came up with a “popular education” based on mutual respect and using the personal experiences of students.
My experience through the collective university is that we have knowledge to share and can educate each other. We don't have to rely on the repressive education system. We can build together. We had classes on nonviolent direct training, on working-class unity, on healthcare inequality, on ending racism and white privilege, on addressing the role of patriarchy. Just having honest discussions, people were able to get a different perspective. People got a chance to understand each other.
One message is, we have the power to provide for ourselves. We are intelligent and capable enough to do so, regardless of formal institutional education.
Gabriel Marantz, 25
I came as a response to corporate greed and social, political and economic injustice. It is time for us to restore our democracy and have real representation for reasonable taxation. This movement gives a sense of hope in our ability to make change. Going to the ballot box is not enough. Until we change and reform the corruption of the political system at its core, we can't have a government that represents us. By volunteering [in the campaigns of Barack Obama and Dennis Kucinich], I was [able to] have an effect in getting someone elected, but getting one elected official into office is not enough. We are not a true democracy anymore. The disparity in wealth is saddening. To do nothing is just not an option for my soul.
We should abolish private financing in all federal elections and get rid of perks and gifts to politicians. We need a constitutional amendment that says corporations are not people and money is not free speech. I want a lot of things, [including] serious electoral reform. [We should] abolish the electoral college. Elections should be on national holidays so everyone can get there without restrictions. [We need to] make government more representative.
Rachel Bulisky, 29
Recent transplant to Los Angeles from New Jersey
I have an accessory line, www.trashriot.com. I do necklaces. But I haven't made anything lately because I'm homeless. I have a BA in fine arts from Montclair State in New Jersey. Now I'm $20,000 in debt and I'm on the street. I majored in artistic welding. But you need electricity and a blowtorch. So now I do wire wrapping in my tent. I used to sell in Venice, [but the store] got shut down.
I was on a bus. I saw all these tents. I got off to see what was going on. Someone asked if I needed a place, and gave me a tent. At the same time, these people were protesting all the things I hate. The government is totally messed up. Everybody here can agree on one thing: Things are not right. There are a lot of frustrated people and nowhere to go with that. There's a lot of energy. It's not like we all say the same thing. It is a meeting ground and a shelter where we can all throw around ideas.
There have been a lot of beautiful moments. It's been a meeting place of brilliant minds. At least in one place, we're trying to work it out. I learned how to crochet here. We started a crochet circle. We were making handbags out of scraps of materials. It was a lot of fun.
J.D. Mcconnell, 33
Recently moved to Las Vegas from Los Angeles
I came to get money out of politics. We have a system of legalized bribery and political puppeteering. Before, I was not feeling like I had a political voice. This is the first time I've felt like I had a voice. If you get enough people together, you really can be heard.
Allan Eaton, 33
The key issue is our economic and financial situation. It is important that we do the most we can to bring attention to it, so future generations won't see the noose getting tighter and tighter around their necks. It seems like a class war. The wealth has been unequally distributed and too many people are losing their homes. Too many are homeless. Too many veterans are coming home from war and not getting the treatment they need.
I gave up a job [to join Occupy L.A.]. I found an occupation. Separating myself from my work life, social life, home life, I see more of who I am. I have separated myself from everything I know. Sometimes it is weird. I'm used to getting up and going to work. Seeing the spectators. Having a social life, going to hear music, bands. Getting beers with friends. Shooting billiards. All those things are of so little significance. This is more important for the future of this country.
The message is economic justice. That is it.
Photos and text by Margot Roosevelt.