Released in 1988, John Carpenter’s THEY LIVE finds honest, hard-working Americans – personified in this case by the muscle-bound mullet that is ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper – on skid row, under the thumb of a kleptocracy of aliens masquerading as decent, clean-living human beings in cahoots with a power elite of Reagan-era Republicans doing much the same thing.
Los Angeles offers the perfect backdrop to THEY LIVE. Wall Street might be America’s financial capital, but LA is its epicentre of conspicuous consumption, the natural point of origin for the TV signal being used by these intergalactic free-enterprisers to addle and exploit the collective human consciousness.
In Carpenter’s eyes we are not resigned to our fate, simply blinded to it. In the world of THEY LIVE, as in this one, it is he who controls the medium who controls the message.
So reads the inscription over the main entrance of LA’s City Hall. Completed in 1928, in 2001 it underwent a seismic retrofit enabling it to remain functional in the case of a magnitude 8.2 earthquake. Between its broad foundations and dizzying spire it stakes its ownership of this corner of downtown LA, and of the city as a whole, casting the cluster of tents at the base of the building’s north side into an indifferent shadow.
I’m approaching from the north having ridden the bus down to Union Station , covering the last few blocks on foot. People on the buses here look dead tired, even in the middle of the day. Those who aren’t sleeping deeply are drowning in the shallows of Transit TV, spellbound by the staccato splurge of cheaply commercials and syndicated televisual excrescence.
It’s during a short promo for something called ‘The Jace Hall Show’, adorned as it is with garish graphics instructing me to find, follow and fan Jace Hall, at all fucking costs, in all four million corners of the (fuck me I’m tired of saying it) social web, that I finally understand: TV isn’t going to be conquered by YouTube. It’s just going to become it.
Carrying on a little way down Main St I see the south side of City Hall, and the #OccupyLA encampment proper. On my way in I get chatting to a guy called Luke. He’s recently lost his job, his apartment, he’s basically here looking for a place to stay. He’s friendly, well-spoken, we talk a little about Occupy and what we both think it stands for, but it seems like Luke has more pressing concerns. I leave him meandering off between tightly-packed tents, in search of enough open ground to make a new home.
Is Luke a ‘protester’? Not in the Middle English (and, I suspect, Middle American) sense of the term. He doesn’t have a placard. He isn’t lining up to join ineffectual millions marching for one day only, he isn’t settling down with firearms and french fancies for a tea party. He’s just looking for somewhere he can be around people, feel part of something larger than his singularly troubled self, sleep a little sounder for the knowledge.
Spotting one of the circles signifying a meeting work-group, I wander over. The consensus process used at Occupations is deliberately open and inclusive, anyone can wander up, listen in, ask a question. At the same time, I make a point to volunteer who I am and what I’m doing there. The paranoia’s palpable these days, the Occupiers aware that plants and provocateurs are among them, becoming ever more entrenched in the logistics and liturgy of their struggle to survive.
Whatever neurosis they’re feeling can’t be being helped by the pungent smell of weed filling the air. Seems like it’s everywhere in LA these days, not just the boardwalk of Venice Beach and the backstreets downtown, but clouding street corners all along the route of the 704 running between the two, a rich aroma on Rodeo Drive, a purple haze on Sunset Boulevard. The signs are everywhere, lurid cannabis leaves drawn in green neon, brightening windows of the clinics where it’s sold.
That’s another of the skewed stereotypes the Occupiers have to put up with: they aren’t just jobless (ergo lazy) and homeless (ergo destitute) they’re also potheads (ergo crazy) and stoners (ergo dangerous). For my part, I’ve drunk a lot of booze and I’ve smoked a lot of weed and I know what I’d rather have my revolution powered by. If the smell of sensimilla hangs heavy in the air at #OccupyLA, the smell of sense hangs heavier.
I end up in the Media tent, being shown twenty-minutes of footage they shot on Veterans’ Day, showing a bunch of cops herding some vets from Somewhere-They’re-Not-Allowed-To-Be to somewhere they are. It’s not the incendiary contretemps I’m expecting, it’s actually kind of depressing. The droning recalcitrance of the protesters, the drone-like bewilderment of the police, each quietly hoping to provoke a reaction, each outwardly keeping the peace.
As I’m watching I’m joined by Tere (pronounced Terry), a blogger and comedienne heavily involved in the pro-cannabis movement. We get talking, and she tells me about the catalyst for her conversion into activist and Occupier: the experience of staring down the barrel of an automatic weapon, after being caught up in a federal raid on a doctor she was visiting.
(As she’s telling me this I think back to my experience of the Hackney riots and scribble down the words ‘consciousness scales’ in my notepad. I’m thinking about tipping points and radicalisation. I’m thinking that it doesn’t take much, just an accident of circumstance, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or maybe just the opposite. And that it can happen to anyone.)
Tere explains that the key issue with cannabis is federal government interference in state rights, acting on behalf of powerful lobby groups nervous about potential commercial applications of cannabis undermining existing interests in the food, drink, tobacco, clothing and energy industries.
They’re right to be nervous. In California they have conditions second only to Afghanistan in terms of suitability for large-scale cannabis cultivation. Whatever obstacles the Obama administration throws in their way, somebody here was paying attention when John Lennon prescribed a solution to Britain’s economic woes back in 1969: “We had an answer to Britain’s problem. It was to legalize pot and let homosexuals marry and Britain would be the richest nation on earth. It’s as simple as that.”
Tere and I finish our conversation realising what little hope we have that the markets can put aside decades of institutionalised self-interest and work together. We don’t think they’re capable of working together. We don’t think they know what it means. They seem less evolved to me these days, our leaders. They seem, in the words of one of their kind, ‘behind the curve’.
Which is where the people of #OccupyLA strike the most positive contrast. That’s right, these ’spoiled brats’, this ‘pond scum’, ‘these louts, thieves, and rapists’, they’re the ones taking the initiative, in the face of gratuitous intimidation by fear-mongers on the far-right. They’re thinking ahead. They’re working together, in their own minds at least, for all our sakes.
As I leave #OccupyLA the General Assembly’s getting underway. Someone mentions the name of J. Edgar Hoover. I’m already thinking about another Hoover, Herbert, the former President who gave his name to ‘Hoovervilles‘, the shanty towns that sprung up all over America during the Great Depression into which he led the country.
The more Occupations I visit, the more I’m starting to think of them as pre-emptive shanty towns, set up by people who aren’t waiting for the powers that be to foreclose on their future. By creating their own process, their own infrastructure, their own model for consensus-based community, they’re showing us all ways we can hope to stay civilised in a world of diminishing returns. We only call it ‘protest’ because they’re doing it in places they simply cannot be ignored.
And there they remain. Waiting for their ranks to swell, as joblessness grows, as the markets consume themselves, as consciousness scales. They’re digging in for the long haul, matching energy with inertia, making this ramshackle home for themselves on the right side of history. They’re going nowhere, and still staying ahead of the curve.
If only it wasn’t curving downwards.
Rollovers stolen from Christian Annyas.
You can watch the whole of THEY LIVE on YouTube.
[UPDATE 16/11/11 07:20 ] This is also worth a look, from John Carpenter himself (via Fraser):