By Bill Boyarsky
Almost 20 miles from the Occupy L.A. encampment and 265 miles from the Las Vegas Republican presidential debate, the state employment office in Norwalk, Calif., was a sad, quiet reminder of what the presidential campaign should be about—unemployment that is dooming the prospects of this generation and its children.
The employment office was my first stop on a day that would end at home watching the debate. The idea that any of these candidates would occupy the White House is appalling, as is the growing possibility that President Barack Obama may lose to one of them.
But that’s getting ahead of the story. I drove to Norwalk on debate day because the city of more than 105,000 people and the communities around it are examples of how the recession is damaging America’s middle class. Unemployment is 12 percent in this area, and jobs are melting away.
At the side of the room, computer workstations were filled with men and women quietly searching databases for jobs. In another area, others waited for interviews with counselors. As I looked at them, my nerve failed. Journalistic practice dictated that I ask some of them for their stories and get some good quotes. Maybe I’m getting too old for this business, but I couldn’t bring myself to intrude on them. I have been interviewing the unemployed all through the recession and have heard their stories of discouragement and despair. I just didn’t feel up to doing it again.
Instead, I drove through neighborhoods beaten down by the economy to downtown Los Angeles where Occupy L.A. has become a tent city on the grass around City Hall. It’s been there for about three weeks. Amid the tents was a sukkah, a temporary hut that Jews build for the holiday of Sukkot. Sukkot celebrates the harvest season and recalls the Jews’ 40-year journey from Egypt as described in the Bible. The sukkah reminds Jews of the huts that sheltered their ancestors during the journey. The symbolism is nice: The Jews escaped slavery in Egypt; the Occupy movement wants to end economic slavery in the United States.
I talked to Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, who was there with his young son and daughter. They had brought honey cake, baked by his wife that morning. It was delicious.
“People want a harmonious and just world,” he said. “There is a lot of inequality and injustice in the world, and by these people being here, they are bringing attention to these social problems in the most visible way I’ve seen in my lifetime.”
Talk about symbolism. Occupy L.A. couldn’t have picked a better spot than City Hall. The place is owned and run by banks, other financial institutions, land developers, airport concessionaires and anyone else who has a stake in decisions made by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the 15-member City Council. Occupy L.A. would have been justified in storming the place. But in a smart public relations move, the mayor and council embraced the movement and a friendly Los Angeles Police Department worked out ground rules, escorting the demonstrators on their march to the financial district last weekend. But now, the Los Angeles Times reports, some council members “are growing skittish about one of the demonstrators’ main demands: cracking down on wrongdoing by banks.” No doubt the bank lobbyists are taking an interest in that one.
With all this municipal love for Occupy L.A., there was a relaxed atmosphere in the encampment. I hung out for a while with one group of young men who didn’t especially like the long nightly meetings that try to pound out a consensus on matters. They wanted more action, like the demonstrations of Occupy Wall Street. Another group was engaged in a discussion of Area 51, the secret desert military base linked with extraterrestrials. Being a fan of the old Art Bell all-night radio show, with its accounts of extraterrestrials, I enjoyed the conversation.
As I listened to others and considered how long they had been camped there, I was impressed with their staying power and their concern about financial institutions and unemployment. They understand what’s wrong with the country.
There was no such concern at the Republican presidential debate, which took place in Nevada. That state has an unemployment rate of 13.4 percent, higher than the community I had visited earlier in the day. The backbiting among the candidates was pure middle school. For a moment, it looked as though Mitt Romney was getting ready to punch out Rick Perry and that moderator Anderson Cooper, in charge of the playground, would have to intervene. Someone should tell Rick Santorum to lose that smirk. Same with Romney’s painful-to-watch stage laugh and Perry’s newfound debate combativeness.
What was most important about this encounter was that none of them offered hope or even much concern for the unemployed. They want lower taxes for the wealthy. Perry rehashed his idea of putting 1.2 million people to work in the oil business. It’s hard to imagine creating that many jobs in an industry that is so automated that one person can run a 24-pump filling station. Romney wants to balance the budget and repeal health reform. Their real goal, of course, was to appeal to the Republican right wing.
It is painful to contemplate any of them winning next November. But as Obama acknowledged, “It’s going to be a close election because the economy is not where it wants to be, and even though I believe all the choices we’ve made have been the right ones, we’re still going through difficult circumstances.” He told ABC correspondent Jake Tapper that “people who may be sympathetic to my point of view still kind of feel like, yeah, but it still hasn’t gotten done yet.”
None of it will be done if one of these Republicans beat him. The worst fears of the Occupy movements will be realized. There’ll be nothing for the jobless in Norwalk, Las Vegas or anywhere else in the country.
AP / Isaac Brekken
Republican presidential candidates—from left, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Herman Cain, Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann—pose for a photo before a GOP presidential debate Tuesday in Las Vegas.