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Los Angeles Firsthand

Building community outside the Democratic National Convention

by Riyana Lilyhawk

Walking through the gated doorway of the Direct Action Network's convergence center, an old, four story building, indistinguishable from the rest of the neighborhood except for the sign hanging down from the second story — "La Justicia" — my best friend Luna and I came into a place of movement and anticipation. Old people, young people, people of all different races with an endless array of fliers for different causes and actions jostled around the large open room. Despite the diversity I recognized them as one tribe. They were united by a vision, no matter what smaller pieces they may have been advocating, a vision that the world would be a better place without oppression. As the week progressed, I saw that this was a community of people that completely looked out for one another, from the simple food Seeds of Peace cooked for us each day, to making sure we all had a place to lay our sleeping bags down at night, to legal protection and first aid.

Right on the inside of the building, to one side, was a beautiful altar someone had constructed, cloaked in candles and goddess images and marigolds in flower pots. Slips of paper were pinned to the wall, on which people had written their intentions for the week: "Walk in strength and beauty." "Stay strong." "Voice your protest." "Vote with your feet." "Rave on." Above the altar was a rough, organic wooden pentacle. I felt at home. This was my tribe.

The communal sense within the convergence center was a sharp contrast to the neighborhood surrounding the Staples Center, which had become occupied territory. The police presence was unreal — indescribable, incompre-hensible. The first time we saw them lined up along Spring Street across from the state building, I was afraid: there were hundreds of uniformed officers, their faces unreadable behind plexiglass shields, their Kevlar vests studded with teargas canisters, some with their hands on their guns. What was it exactly I was so afraid of? Arrest, a criminal record, jail, violence, something I couldn't even imagine? Slowly, the panic of that first moment deadened to a constant presence in the pit of my stomach throughout the week. They were always there. I got used to the way they tailed us back to the church where we slept each night, being surrounded by them in Pershing Square, the scream of fifteen or twenty sirens as the black and whites rushed down Seventh Street towards the Staples Center, the helicopters shining their searchlights into the convergence center as we slept, turning any random corner and seeing ten or twelve uniformed officers. It was jarring for me: white, female, an honors student and longtime L.A. resident, to suddenly be thrust on the "wrong" side of the law, an "undesirable." They recognized us immediately, as easily as we recognized them — the bandannas on our heads to protect us from tear gas, the types of clothing we wore, and, in some cases, our pale skin in a dominantly Latino neighborhood, were our uniforms.

The protests themselves were acts of beauty. Being there, in the heat, surrounded by people carrying huge colorful puppets and birds and chanting, I began to understand in a more elemental way what Martin Luther King Jr. meant when he said that breaking an unjust law was an act of love. The protestors were there to participate in actions of solidarity and hope, and the sacrifices they made stemmed out of the desire to create a better world. And because the actions did come out of such a sincere and heart-full place, they manifested as radiance, as light and magic. We walked to protest police brutality, we walked as youth to raise consciousness about racism within the educational system, we walked and woke up the neighborhood around us with voices of protest in English and Spanish, we danced in the streets and raved in the parks.

And perhaps because of this, for four days downtown LA became what we envisioned the future to be. It was staggering to be in the midst of, and incredibly liberating. I felt safe walking the streets, not because of the police, but because around me a multitude of people were all taking up the same space. The community already had a vibrant, striving street culture, and now it had been flooded with protestors in ripped jeans, piercings, and sarongs, young people in big pants and colorful tops, delegates in suits and tasteful jewelry. The streets overflowed with the entire spectrum of ethnicities, classes, and dreams. As satisfying as the protests were, it was this contradictory transformation of the city that taught me the most; both the heavy-handed response of the police that could not be overlooked, revealing the oppression of the system, and the community of diversified unity we invoked...a manifestation of what the future could be...might be...will be.

Riyana Lilyhawk is an avid raver, swing-dancer, and dreamer. She is currently working towards an MFA in film at USC.