Occupy L.A. has been held peacefully since it began in September – a stark contrast to the tension and even violence seen at protests in New York and Oakland. But last week Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced that the protests at City Hall must come to an end.
While negotiations are ongoing, some protesters say they refuse to move, and the tension has raised concerns over how the LAPD will handle Occupy LA’s uncertain future.
But walking around the protests, Chief Charlie Beck isn't phased, even as he weaves past a man holding a snake and a group of 20-somethings smoking marijuana.
“Marijuana use doesn’t disturb me. The behavior of the group disturbs me, and the behavior of the group’s been good,” he says.
Chief Beck is just one of a number of officers who interact with the protesters on a daily basis: the LAPD has become a sort of middleman between them and the politicians at City Hall. The department also meets regularly with representatives from civil rights organizations like the ACLU, and an LAPD captain is stationed at the camp 24 hours a day. It’s all part of Beck’s broader policy of community policing.
“It means working with the community instead of targeting it,” says civil rights attorney Connie Rice, an outspoken critic of the LAPD and a member of SCPR’s board. “You’re going to talk to people like they’re human beings. You’re going to help people solve problems so that you can fight crime better. If the public backs the police, crime goes down.
Community policing is a strategy usually applied to neighborhoods, not demonstrations. But Chief Beck says he sees Occupy LA as a community rather than as a problem.
“This is not a riot, a one time event. This is a sustained movement, in my opinion, that we’re gonna have to deal with maybe for all of 2012,” he says.
Beck is taking his cues from the Mayor and City Council, but is also conscious of the department’s past mistakes in dealing with protesters.
“The LAPD does not want to be the story here. I could change the story real quick but I don’t want to do that,” he says.
The last time that story played out was at the 2007 May Day protests in MacArthur Park, where LAPD’s Metro Division used tear gas and rubber bullets on peaceful protesters and journalists. The City paid out nearly $13 million to those who were injured or mistreated. The ordeal was a sharp reminder of the the department’s historically antagonistic relationship with protesters.
“If controversy were a university, we’d have doctorates here. I think that’s important to recognize. Successes are fleeting and the mistakes last forever,” Beck says.
His approach to the Occupiers is even more striking when compared to the tactics other departments around the country are taking.
“Had Occupy LA happened ten years ago, it would not have been pretty,” says Rice, who recently the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York’s Zucotti Square. “I was surprised to see the NYPD looking like the old LAPD -- they were swinging their batons and bristling with intimidation. They were looking for a reason to be able to use force. Then I came back to LA and saw LAPD talking to protesters, trying to let them know they weren’t there to intimidate them or remove them. It was a very, very sharp contrast.”
Occupy L.A. protesters agree. Mario Brito is one of the unofficial organizers and the movement’s main liaison with the LAPD. He meets regularly with Chief Beck and representatives from the department.
“I think our relationship with the LAPD is based on professionality, and the fact that we’ve been honest and forthright, nonviolent,” he says. “They actually came out with a different pattern of operating, and that should be applauded. The NYPD should learn something from the LAPD”
But if this sounds too good to be true, it might be. Protesters have scoffed at the mayor’s announcement that the demonstrations “can’t go on indefinitely.” While negotiations are ongoing, someone’s gonna have to give. Some protesters say they’ve even begun preparing for a police raid.
“It’s in the back of everybody’s mind here,” says Joshua Taylor, another Occupy LA organizer. Taylor helped organize a march Wednesday night that ended on the steps of LAPD’s headquarters, where the group protested police brutality experienced at Occupy Oakland.
“Let’s just say the government has a tendency to say one thing and act in another fashion,” he says. “But at the same time I don’t think LAPD really wants to do anything, I don’t think they want to come in here. We’re just all pissed off at all the other police depts and unfortunately LAPD has to hear about it, and luckily they’ve been very understanding.”
Chief Beck reiterates that negotiations are his primary line of action in dealing with the growing tension between City Hall and Occupy LA. But what if negotiations don’t work? What if some of them might even want conflict with the LAPD?
Chief Beck says the department will do its best to keep it that way, and to convince protesters who may want to engage them in conflict that it’s not in the best interest of their message.
“If it comes to the point where people want to get arrested, then that’s what we’ll do, but only because they want to get arrested [to make a statement]. We’ll give them ample opportunity not to,” he says. “Using force...that’s not my goal. The true measure of strength is when you restrain it.”
It’s an uncertain future, but perhaps one that both the LAPD and Occupy LA can look to with cautious optimism.