My Firsthand Account of the Occupy Los Angeles Raid

I stood with the 99% in defending the Occupy Los Angeles encampment around City Hall last night. While I witnessed no outlandish displays of violence, what I did see still terrified me, so I want to share my account for all who couldn’t see the madness in person.

Truthfully, I was still a bit weary after staying up most of the night Sunday, the night the raid was initially supposed to occur. Whether the police ever planned to actually raid on Sunday night was irrelevant, I suppose, because they couldn’t have. Not effectively, anyway, our numbers were too strong. But maintaining those numbers permanently was never going to be feasible, so the cops waited until we were tired and depleted. When word spread that it looked like the raid would actually happen, I cancelled my plans and got down there immediately. I didn’t think we could stop the evacuation, but that wasn’t going to stop me from voicing my opinion and standing in solidarity.

While I occupy full time in my mind, I rarely physically occupy. I’m not out there camping at night. For me the camp is a symbol, a symbol that I obviously want to see stand. That said, I know the movement is strong and will continue with or without tents. But it’s not just a symbol for many who live there. About 1/3 of the campers are homeless. I hate when critics bring up this statistic as if to suggest their numbers shouldn’t count – as though the homeless haven’t been affected most drastically by bad economic policies and have no grievances about the system like the other protesters. At the encampment, the homeless have found something they can’t find elsewhere in LA – a safe place to pitch a tent, regular and free access to a bathroom and food, and most importantly, a community that not only acknowledges but includes them. Shame on a society that deprives people of so much and wants to take this away from them, too.

But anyway, you want to hear about the raid. About a thousand protesters amassed in support of the park, less than half of Sunday’s count. Like Sunday, however, there was a lot of listlessness. The protesters were just waiting for the police to make a move. While there was some strategizing (kudos to those who climbed trees and made capture especially difficult for the police), given that it’s a peaceful demonstration, there was no need to plan a counterattack. However, we all had our theories on how the police would handle the situation. Even though we all knew it was going to happen, the manner in which the police invaded took us all by surprise.

Without warning, hundreds of officers came out of nowhere storming the protesters. They emerged running from streets, alleys, and even City Hall itself to surround the park. It was like a well-choreographed scene from a hundred million dollar action movie. Their swift movement was brilliant and caused the crowd to run, scream, and cry. I’ve never shouted the word “fuck” so much in my life. We were very blatantly under attack.

Here’s the thing – they didn’t have to actually be shooting at you to make you feel attacked. In that instance, when hundreds of armed people in riot gear are charging right at you, everything in your gut says, “We are about to die.” And I say that as someone who always thought the police were going to behave. We still haven’t healed from the Rodney King era, and after the mistakes of other cities like Oakland and New York City, I figured the LAPD would go to great lengths to avoid a PR nightmare. But even if they didn’t brutalize most of us physically, they certainly did it psychologically. They purposely made us all feel like we were about to be slaughtered. Tactical, sure, but remember these are extreme measures against people who were guilty of staying in a park after hours. The same park the Mayor promised protesters they could stay in as long as they wanted until a sudden change of heart, undoubtedly do to corporate and political pressure.

Rather quickly, the police had circled various areas, trapping everyone in. People who wanted to go home were not permitted to leave. Officers would say, “You can get out over there,” and point in some direction, even though there was no exit. Every few minutes, the police lines would move in closer to make protesters feel more claustrophobic and imprisoned. Once we were all successfully divided and corralled, the police finally announced we were an unlawful assembly and that we had ten minutes to disperse. They claimed to make this proclamation on behalf of the “people of California”, which the protesters rightfully heckled, “We ARE the people of California.” Many attendees panicked because, despite a ten-minute warning, they still weren’t letting anyone leave. Was this a trick?

I was stuck in a section next to some mainstream reporters who had not been cleared to cover Occupy LA. Beforehand, the LAPD threatened that all media in the park who hadn’t been handpicked by LAPD itself would be subject to arrest no different than protesters. The reporters, like the protesters, probably figured there would be at least some warning before being kettled, so they were visibly nervous and frustrated when the police denied them an opportunity to exit. I hope they report this experience, but I suspect that

The initial ten-minute timeframe expired so as to thoroughly frighten all the would-be dispersers who couldn’t disperse. Then another ten-minute warning was issued, and after a few minutes of that, protesters trapped in the street areas were permitted to exit. Those who remained in the streets would be the first to be arrested, as they wanted to clear out that area first and establish an even stronger perimeter. I wanted to be in the park for the big showdown, but that was no longer an option. When the police swarmed initially, I tried to rush into the park, but was blocked out, so I missed out on that opportunity, although a couple of my friends managed to get inside. So at this point, I had the choice of being civilly disobedient on the street and being in the first group hauled away, or to cross to the other side of the police line and watch from a greater distance, which was the option that myself and most of the demonstrators in my area chose. My feeling is that if I’m going to keep participating in demonstrations, I need to limit my arrests to when I’m not given an option to step away at the last minute, though I have a lot of admiration for the 292 Angelinos who stood their ground. The nearly 300 that were arrested were/are held on $5000 bail (talk about excessive). Many of the lawyers had assumed the protesters who did not resist arrest would just be cited and released due to the prisons already being full (heck, Lindsay Lohan was just SENTENCED to hard time and left after an hour), but they clearly wanted to make an example and scare them from participating again. That much is evident.

Now outside of the perimeter, we became a chanting mob of hundreds on the other side of the barricade. From time to time, the police would push us backward a few feet. At one point, I was at the front and was getting bumped with an officer’s baton as he kept demanding we step back. The baton was held the long way and not painful in itself, but I was getting crushed between the officer’s pushing me in one direction and the pushing back by the crowd trying to stand its ground. “Stop shoving!” I screamed at the officer. After all, they were trying to get us back a few feet for no purpose other than to display their power.

From that distance, I wasn’t able to witness the events in the park for myself, though I’ve since seen YouTube videos of guns being pointed in unarmed protesters’ faces and others being shoved to the ground by officers. What I did see was the crowd growing rowdy on the outside of the police line, wishing to show support to the hundreds being arrested in the park. Effectively, what the police did was push the people away from the park and to the other side of where they were standing, but that did not succeed in breaking up the protest. Now people were just assembled in the streets forty yards away from the park. Eventually the police had to declare this new gathering an “unlawful assembly” and try to disperse that too, which involved some baton whacking and what would probably look like comical chase scenes if Benny Hill music was playing as a soundtrack. It wasn’t so amusing in the moment, however.

When one of these sudden clashes/chases broke out with police and protesters, that’s when my friends and I sprinted down the street away from the scene. Even getting out was a fiasco. A cop who said she would escort me through police lines grabbed me by the arm (without warning – it wasn’t especially rough or anything, but it’s scary when you’re all of the sudden grabbed by an officer after everything else that had gone down) and an officer at the other end of the street still didn’t want to let me through. The officer holding me asked what she was supposed to do with me, then, if not let me leave. Yet again, there’s a lot of “you must leave the area/you can’t leave the area” and finally the second officer gruffly let me pass. My car was behind a separate barricade. I probably would have had a lot more trouble getting back to it were there not a business man parked next to me who was also waiting to have access to his car. An officer first searched my car with a flashlight, and then when given the go-ahead, I was again restrained by having both arms grabbed (again, not that forcefully, BUT STILL) when escorted to my car.

The press conference afterward made me sick. The mayor and the police officials cheered themselves on doing a perfect job. First, let’s give them some credit: to my knowledge there were no tear gas, no rubber bullets, and seemingly fewer police violations than in other such raids, but I think at least half of that credit is shared with the protesters whose response to the police’s advances did not make them feel like they had to use such measures. But while you can give the police kudos for the execution, you can never call it a job worth doing. There was no reason for that kind of intimidation for that petty of an infraction.

For as much as I’ve been watching live feeds of Occupy scuffles in other cities, I didn’t fully grasp the extent to which we live in a police state until I saw the police swarm on peaceful people with my own eyes. If this is indeed “the finest moment in the history of the LAPD” as Mayor Villaraigosa said, then the LAPD should be ashamed. Shouldn’t their finest moment involve protecting and serving LA residents rather than suppressing them? My friend recently had her home robbed of her valuables and you know what LAPD told her? They can’t investigate or do anything about it because they are understaffed and under-funded. Yet they can afford to pay 1400 officers to terrorize and apprehend a few hundred campers who have the first amendment on their side.

And I think that’s perhaps the most frustrating conclusion I’ve drawn: the LAPD is powerful, clearly capable of pulling together a masterful plan to take down an opposing operation. So why aren’t they harnessing this man and brainpower against the rampant gang violence or any of the other things that make this city notoriously unsafe?

Witnessing this all unfold, seeing how the people at top so desperately want to squash this movement just cements my commitment to the cause even more. But there are so many rich entities working against it that the only way this populous movement will succeed is to genuinely have the population behind it. So I urge you to not just acknowledge that what’s happening is wrong, but to find a way to participate civically to change our current course.

(Above photo from the Guardian; I like their signs.)

1 comment:

KirstB said...

I highly recommend this article by Don Mitchell covering the protests surrounding People's Park in Berkeley: http://iesyppat.files.wordpress.com/2008/05/the-end-of-public-space-mitchell.pdf
We discussed this in the context of OWS yesterday in one of my classes. So much of what he writes still rings true. A lot of this particular case was related to the right of the homeless to a public space.
This line in the conclusion really stuck with me: "so long as we live in a society that so efficiently produces homelessness, spaces like these will be-indeed must be-always at the center of social struggle."