When the end finally came, they went with a whimper.
Well, maybe something more than a whimper, but when Los Angeles Police Department officers at long, long last moved to clear the Occupy L.A. encampment that had blighted the landscape around City Hall for two months, they were greeted with catcalls and the usual tired, sophomoric chants — Whose streets? Our streets! The whole world is watching! and the rest of the tedious litany — but very little in the way of active resistance.
I was one of about 1,400 LAPD officers who took part in the eviction in the early morning of Dec. 1, playing my small role in a well-planned and well-executed operation that fulfilled both of its intended goals: to end the occupation of the City Hall grounds and to do so without the violence and bad press that had marked similar police operations elsewhere.
To these ends the LAPD devoted a large number of officers and deployed them in a manner the Occupiers clearly did not expect. Well before midnight, officers began closing the streets near the encampment, luring many Occupiers from the City Hall grounds and into the empty streets. News programs had been reporting throughout the evening of the impending eviction, showing LAPD officers collecting in the Dodger Stadium parking lot and boarding buses for the trip to downtown, and the Occupiers surely anticipated that the police would try to sweep them from the park in a predictable fashion: by amassing at First and Main Streets and then moving in a skirmish line across the City Hall grounds.
And for a while it must have appeared to the Occupiers that this was indeed the way things would go down. A number of helmeted officers did gather at First and Main, drawing even more Occupiers out of the park and to the very edge of the police line. But at about 12:15 a.m., as police and news helicopters circled and hovered overhead, 500 officers poured from the doors of City Hall and moved quickly to divide the large encampment into several smaller and more manageable sectors. The Occupiers who had been in the street were prevented from re-entering the park, and those who had remained in the park were prevented from coalescing into a mob. Within a matter of minutes, it was all over but the shouting. And yes, there was lots and lots of shouting.
Those 500 officers had entered City Hall undetected via a tunnel from a nearby building, allowing them to surprise, encircle, and isolate those Occupiers who chose to defy the dispersal orders that had been given. After that, it was just a matter of collecting the ones who made the choice to be arrested. Some went along under their own power while others had to be carried off to waiting jail buses. There were a few isolated incidents in which officers had to use force, but considering the number of protesters involved and the tensions that had been building since L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced earlier in the week that the eviction was imminent, things went just about as well as could be expected.
Even so, it was cringe-inducing to watch Villaraigosa and LAPD Chief Charlie Beck at a news conference the next day as they all but slobbered over each other in congratulating themselves for their success. “Was that a news conference just now by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck,” asked Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, “or a love-in?”
The mayor and the chief were eager to boast that the LAPD had changed since the May Day debacle of 2007, ignoring the inconvenient fact that it was for the most part the very same police officers who took part in both incidents. Yes, the officers were restrained in evicting the Occupiers, but there was no reason for them not to be. Recall that during the immigration protest at MacArthur Park on May 1, 2007, some small number of protesters pelted officers with rocks and all manner of projectiles, prompting a response from police that many called disproportionate. To the Occupiers’ credit, none of them threw things at the police, so there was no call for the kind of force used at MacArthur Park. (Whether this was due to the Occupiers’ commitment to nonviolence or to the tactics employed by the police is a matter for conjecture, but one must wonder what the plans were for the many gallons of urine found stashed among the 30 tons of debris removed from the park after the eviction.)
Now comes the question: What’s next for all those Occupiers now left with so little to keep themselves occupied? The grounds outside City Hall have been closed, guarded day and night by police officers and surrounded by concrete barriers topped with chain-link fencing, but some from the movement have been gathering at various times on the still accessible steps to the building’s main entrance. Thus forced into nomadism, the Occupiers staged an impromptu march through the streets of downtown L.A. on Saturday, resulting in one arrest when marchers defied police commands to stay on the sidewalk. (The L.A. Times reported that the man arrested, Anthony Lascano, was also jailed when the Occupy L.A. camp was shut down Thursday morning.)
And what’s to be done when the Occupiers choose to occupy some other handy but unguarded public space? Will it take another two months before Mayor Villaraigosa, Chief Beck, and the rest of L.A.’s political structure summon the courage to take action? The eviction, when it finally came, was skillfully handled, but the shame of it was that it took those two months for it to come about, even as it diverted police and other municipal services from elsewhere in the city.
For example, early on the morning of November 28, just hours after the eviction notices were posted at City Hall, Occupiers poured into the streets in anticipation of a coming police raid. No such raid was planned, but hundreds of officers nonetheless had to respond to downtown so as to clear the streets before the morning rush hour. Well over half of the officers on duty at the time were sent, causing the LAPD to declare a tactical alert throughout the city and to stop dispatching officers to non-emergency calls. If you called the police from the San Fernando Valley, the West Side, or from South Central L.A. that morning, they either didn’t come or they came hours later. These are costs that neither Chief Beck nor Mayor Villaraigosa addressed as they crowed about the success of the eviction.
Even the editors of the Los Angeles Times, whose opinions I rarely share, came to see the light when the Occupiers at last were scattered. In an editorial that ran on Dec. 3, the Times lamented that the LAPD had practiced what amounts to the opposite of “Broken Windows” policing by allowing the encampment to remain as long as it did. “[C]ity officials bent over backward to accommodate a group of protesters they in some ways admired — and who, in some ways, deserved that admiration,” wrote the editors. They continued:
This page even applauded the city’s restraint. But what we didn’t anticipate is that once demonstrators were allowed to spend one night on the City Hall lawn, it became harder to deny them a second. And then harder still to deny them a third. Given the ambiguity of their demands, it became unclear what would ever cause them to leave, short of force.
If the editors at the L.A. Times can learn this lesson, maybe Mayor Villaraigosa can as well. But don’t count on it. The Occupy movement is thoroughly enmeshed with the type of labor-union activism that launched the mayor into politics, and his reluctance to see the law enforced should be viewed in that light. As the last two months have clearly proved, it will be politics and not the law that will determine his response when he awakes one day to find that the Occupiers have occupied someplace new.