The real story of the Occupy LA raid
The subject of this interview, who wished to remain anonymous for the time being, is a writer who went to downtown Los Angeles on November 29--the night the LAPD was planning to clear the Occupy encampment on the front lawn of City Hall. His intention was to show support for the group of activists planning for civil disobedience in protest against the planned raid, but he was arrested by police as he attempted to follow their orders to disperse.
He spent almost two full days in jail, bearing witness to the abuse and brutality the cops inflicted on people whose only crime was to stand up for their beliefs. This interview was published by the Pass the Relish website.
YOU'VE GONE on record recently here at the blog stating that you don't really mind the Occupy camps getting cleared out...Is that true? If so, why did you even go down there on the night of the raid?
IT IS true. It seems to me without the camps, the movement can continue without being encumbered by the problems that camp life brought. When it comes down to it, all things must come to an end. The camps served a great purpose in shifting public debate ever so slightly to the left, which is something that just six months ago, and after 40 years of trickle-down phantom economics, seemed impossible.
I went down there just to show my support. I knew people were going to be engaging in civil disobedience, and I wanted to stand on the sideline and cheer them on. That's basically what I did, and instead, I got arrested while I was leaving the area and following police orders. I had no intention of getting arrested and was looking forward to sleeping in my bed that night.
THE MEDIA have been reporting that the raid on the Occupy LA encampment was basically peaceful and a model operation. In fact, the media story about this whole thing has been pretty single-minded...Is there anything to that?
IN MY view, knowing the history of the LAPD, this whole thing was used as a publicity opportunity from the very beginning. I'm not sure if you remember, but back in 2008, during the immigration protests, they had to settle lawsuits for some $10 million for basically bashing protesters brains in. The LAPD saw the Occupy encampment, weeks ago, as an opportunity to recast their department as friendly, thoughtful and kind of reformed.
What resulted was a coordinated effort between LAPD and the media to advertise these well-laid-out plans to clear the encampment.
If you look at the LA Times the day after the raid, there are all these diagrams and maps about the "thoughtful" tactics used by the LAPD to distract the crazy protesters. In addition, the media is drawing attention to what they claim are LAPD attempts to engage in peaceful arrests, like bringing in clergy or arresting each protester methodically and one by one, without the use of tear gas or rubber bullets or any kind of baton-bashing. It's a narrative about police tactics and nothing more for what was a pretty damn complex situation.
HOW WAS the LAPD already using Occupy to boost its public image even before Tuesday night?
IN THE week leading up to the raid, you started hearing about all these random offers to relocate the camp, give free office space, etc.--to basically negotiate with the camp in good faith. Meanwhile, at the General Assemblies, no one had any clue who was actually talking to the LAPD or City Hall.
And then, almost on a nightly basis, these captains would go down to the camp and just start talking to random campers in front of the media. Not talking to the General Assembly, mind you, but talking to whoever would listen about how they respected the protesters for being nonviolent, acting friendly, etc. The media ate this up. They were constantly publishing random quotes from occupiers about how they respected the "new" LAPD, how they were being nonviolent, etc. It was all so obviously choreographed to any rational observer.
So what really happened on Tuesday night?
THERE ARE two things to understand about what went down on Tuesday night. First, there was a group of 50 to 70 protesters who were planning on engaging in civil disobedience. These were people who had engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience training and were well-organized. They were either in the center of the park encircling one symbolic tent, or they were in their tents or some of the trees.
Second, there was a mass group of people who did not want to engage in civil disobedience and were only there to support those who were intending to get arrested (I was a part of this second group). I'm never good at this, but this second group probably numbered about 1,000 people and was standing on First Street and Main, outside of the park, separated from the group by about a 75 yards or so and 10 lines of riot police. That's the key thing to understand that the media is not reporting: there were two different groups there.
There was a complete media blackout during the arrest of the first group of people. I witnessed with my own eyes mainstream media being either arrested or escorted out of the area while they tried to cover the arrest of that first group in the center of the park.
From what I was told by some of those who were arrested in the first group, while some of the people sitting around the symbolic tent went along with the arrest, others chose to lock arms and resist arrest. These people were summarily subjected to what the LAPD was calling "pain tests." Let that be a lesson to you: the easiest way to reframe a story is to invent new vocabulary to describe whatever you are doing in a kind of official and bureaucratic way.
While there is no video or documentation of this, what I was told--and I wasn't in there, mind you--was that this involved stepping on feet, choking the protesters until they released their arms, and shooting them with rubber bullets. Had that been covered, it might present the public with a different understanding of what happened on Tuesday night.
How the second group, of which I was a part, got arrested was astonishing to me. At about 2 a.m., a big truck with speakers on it drove up to the crowd and warned the protesters that they had to leave within 10 minutes, or they would be arrested. I was in the crowd and was able to hear that warning, but only because I was up close to the front.
As I obeyed the police instruction and starting moving down First Street, I was talking and listening to people who were a little farther away and had no idea what was said (this was about half of the people). As the word spread, much of this group--filled with people who wanted to avoid being arrested--started moving away. They started to disperse.
Suddenly, out of thin air, another group of riot police started running out of a nearby building and surrounded this group of about 1,000. As this police corral was starting to close, people began screaming and panicking--again, most of these people had no desire to be arrested and basically tried to outrun the enclosing riot squad corral. Here is a partial video of that moment (at the 4:52 mark). You can see that about half the crowd was able to simply outrun the closing corral and make it out. I would say that most of those people just happened by pure chance to get through.
Unfortunately, 100 or so of us didn't make it in time or actually followed police instructions to stay put. In my case, I was walking along the sidewalk, following the dispersal order, when I stopped to take a photo of the protesters and City Hall. The riot squad enclosed behind me, and I was pushed off the sidewalk with batons, onto the ground, and arrested immediately.
The most frustrating part was that while I was being handcuffed, hundreds of protesters were escaping the corral all around me. It was incredibly strange that the line between those who were arrested and those who were not was pretty damn arbitrary. Especially knowing in my head that I was following orders and doing my best to get out of there without being arrested.
In my mind, this overly aggressive police corral drove the number of arrestees from the 50 to 70 planned arrests of the first group all the way up to 300 arrests for no reason whatsoever. In the media, you are hearing nothing about this distinction. This does a disservice to those who engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience training and coordinated their arrests, and ignores the LAPD's complete botching of the situation.
I WANT to go back for a second to what you said earlier--that people were actually hit with batons. If you listen to the mainstream media coverage of the raid, you hear over and over again that no violence was used, no one was hit, no rubber bullets were fired, etc. But you're saying this is untrue.
I MENTIONED what went down inside the park at the moment of arrest, with the whole "pain tests." But even less reported are all the skirmishes that took place around the various blockades of the City Hall area.
As I was attempting to get to City Hall earlier in the evening, I met up with a large group that was marching and trying to find a way in. By pure chance, the group was entering the area at the exact moment that a large caravan of jail buses was also trying to get in. Everyone in the crowd assumed that these buses were going to be used to transport the arrestees.
Many people in our group courageously implored the crowd to nonviolently block the streets so that these prison buses couldn't move in. Many in the crowd stood in front of these buses for about 15 minutes before a group of riot police, maybe 50 of them, came in and attacked the peaceful crowd.
I saw with my own eyes these young people being beaten with batons, shoved to the ground, and kicked out of the way. One could always argue that they were getting in the way of police operations and that they therefore they deserved it. But when it comes down to it, there was enough popular support in this crowd to protest the use of these buses for the arrests and to do so nonviolently. And the police failed to respect the will of these people, and instead responded with violence.
AND HAS there been any coverage of this in the media?
SO WHAT happened after you were arrested?
THIS IS where the idea that the police treated us with respect is simply untrue. After I was arrested and handcuffed, we were put on those buses and held in there for what we think was close to four hours. I've heard other groups were held in the buses even longer. The buses were so crowded that some of us had to stand continuously the whole time.
The biggest thing you will hear about are the painful handcuffs. I know people tend to think this just comes with the territory, but I have to say, four hours of coming up with methods to increase blood flow to your hands is nothing to laugh at. The police were also blasting Brittney Spears and other pop music the entire time, kind of like the Feds did at Waco and our military in Iraq more recently. It seems a little silly in retrospect, but at the time this was pretty unbearable.
I have to say, I was able to remain calm for most of this time, but it grew increasingly frustrating during the four hours, because many of the protesters on the bus were having a hard time dealing with the situation. They were screaming, kicking the bus walls, it was a harrowing experience. I tried in vain to calm everyone down.
My group was taken on the freeway to the LAPD police station in Van Nuys, and there we sat until sometime in the morning, probably between 7 and 9 a.m., we weren't sure, until the police decided to book us. At this point, because I was making an effort to be respectful to the police officers, I was being told that, like all misdemeanors in LA, we were simply going to be cited and released. Everybody knows that jails are so overcrowded in LA that people with minor misdemeanors spend no time in jail whatsoever.
After we were finally booked at 10 a.m., we awaited word on what was going to happen. Suddenly, a police captain appeared in front of the jail cell and began to talk to us. He flat out said the following: "Yes, normally all misdemeanors are immediately released with a citation and spend no time in jail, but it's been decided, at the highest levels of the department and city government, that you are going to spend the maximum time we can keep you in jail without charging you with anything, not for criminal reasons but to be made political examples." Literally that is almost a word-for-word quote of what the captain told us.
Our bail was set at $5,000. We were never formally charged with anything, never given lawyers and never read any rights. It's true, the law states you can be held in jail for 48 hours without being charged with anything.
WHAT WAS it like sitting in jail for two days?
THE BEST I can describe it is that it's like sitting on a jam-packed airplane that's stuck on a tarmac for 48 hours. The flight attendants won't tell you anything about what's happening, why the plane isn't moving, when it's going to leave, etc.
Usually, when you are booked into LA jails, everyone is given a shower upon intake. Instead, for the first day, the stench was almost unbearable. Also imagine that every third person was kind of losing control and at various times bursting out in fits of rage. It was hard to keep things on a level that was tolerable for everyone.
When we tried to get some amenities--like having the massive floodlights turned down, lights so bright that even if you close and cover your eyes, there is no way to block the light; or asked to turn on one of the TVs in the cell; or to control the temperature (which either blasted heat or air conditioning)--we were basically treated as violent felons.
I'll never forget the LAPD officers who, with looks of disdain, responded to our requests by saying, "You shouldn't have gotten arrested then." When I tried to explain that most of the people there were essentially tricked into being arrested, I was met with complete disbelief by the officers, who were taking, word for word, the truthfulness of the media coverage and what their commanders were telling them.
SO TELL me more about some of the other people who were in there with you.
AT FIRST, because most of the guys in my cell were pretty much freaking out, I had a hard time feeling any kind of solidarity with them. I found myself buying into the media story that these were mentally deranged people who were just angry with anyone or anything.
As the few of us who were able to stay on the level were able to calm people down, it became clear that everyone who was in there was there for the right reasons. Yes, some of the people there were I guess what you would call the long-term homeless. But I was struck with how these individuals were able to articulate a political critique of how Wall Street and corporations had bought off our government that would challenge any of the arguments in the mainstream media.
The other group that I had so much respect for were all the young Chicano kids, from 18 to 25, who were either high school graduates or trying to work their way through community college. It was this group that took the lead in calming the group down, communicating with the National Lawyers Guild through the crappy telephones in the cell, and, most importantly, over the course of two days, educating the inmates in the general population sections of the jail about the Occupy movement and what it was all about.
The general population was filled with mostly brown and black faces. They listened and asked a lot of questions about what we were trying to do and what happened. This all culminated when we were able to start a "We are the 99 percent" chant across the entire section of the jail.
WHAT'S GOING to happen now and how do you feel about the whole situation?
WELL, FROM what I'm reading in the media, the city attorney mostly decided not to file any charges against the protesters. I've also read that this particular city attorney is planning on running for county district attorney, which is a very high-profile position that oftentimes serves as a stepping stone to a bigger political career.
It's fascinating... this city attorney invented a new category of crime to talk about the protesters. He was quoted in the LA Times as saying that many of the Occupy arrestees were what he is now calling "career protesters." Lol.
Like I mentioned earlier, the easiest way to reframe the debate on something is to invent some new category to describe an age-old issue. When he invokes the term "career protesters," he's doing one thing and one thing only: he's using a term that downplays the political elements of civil disobedience and emphasizes its criminal nature. It just moves the whole group closer to "career criminals" (a term in use since the early '80s) and farther away from the political sphere.
I have to say, I don't feel proud about what happened. I don't wear this as a badge of honor or anything. All I wanted to do was stand on the sidewalk and support those engaging in civil disobedience. I kind of just want to forget the whole thing.
First published at the Pass the Relish website.