Occupy LA.Occupy L.A.Photo: Patrick GookinPeople have a lot of misconceptions about the Occupy Wall Street movement. Some may think it’s populated by arrogant 20-somethings looking for attention and a party atmosphere with leftovers from Burning Man and Coachella. Some may think it’s a few leftist apologists and homeless people intermingling uncomfortably. Some may think it’s a breeding ground for anti-American anarchists and communists plotting the takedown of our infrastructure. Others think it’s just a passing fad like pointy shoes and Bedazzler jackets.

I had some of these misconceptions myself. But after visiting Occupy L.A. a few times, I decided to go for broke and join the occupation to see it all firsthand. I didn’t know what to expect, but I had to reject these doubts before I could really see what was taking place.

I visited during a Demands Committee meeting and the General Assembly, the nightly gathering for decision-making, to get a better reading of what was taking place. This didn’t feel like a casual uprising of people looking for a party. This didn’t feel like that at all.

Grist relies on the support of generous readers like you. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations matched!

I immediately felt like I was transported to ancient Greece, wearing sandals and robes, talking with people with different ideologies and outlooks. We had an intellectual revolution brought out of hunger and poverty. We had people occupying the public square discussing politics and experimenting with alternative ways of government. What I really like is the fact that everyone here is engaging everyone else, in groups or one on one.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

I remember the first night a friend and I started to try and put up my massive, eight-man tent. This tent was from back in my days when I was making over $100,000 a year, buying crap that I didn’t need in a desire to feel good about myself. I appreciated this irony as I tried to decipher the directions for my massive tent. In about 10 seconds, someone stepped in and offered to help. Five people, people I’d never met, joined in. Before I knew it there was a little committee of strangers there to help me get my tent up. After getting it up, they disappeared to find other things to do, people to help.

People at Occupy L.A. make eye contact. People talk. People listen. This is where great ideas are born. Where people put aside their arrogance and allow others to speak on their issues. It’s not a place where people tell you what you need to believe, or what the movement is about. It’s far beyond that now. It’s shapeless, formless, leaderless, and functionless. This, however, is not a bad thing.

The next morning I woke up early, far too full of feelings of what I could do to help this movement, how I could be a bigger part of identifying problems and solutions. I watched the beautiful collection of tents and sleeping bags covered in morning fog. I sat there trying to understand what this occupation could mean to me … to my country … to the world? What it is could be anyone’s guess, but one sign an occupier made really stuck with me. “We are many and we’ve met! You are not alone. We are the 99%.”

That sign inspired me to write. Whatever your particular complaint … whatever it is you’d like to change in this world … here is a fertile ground where you can plant your seed. Come and join the occupation. Interact with anyone you encounter. Spread your message. Meet.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

You are not alone.

We are the 99%.