Business & Economy

Occupy LA gone from City Hall, but downtown still dealing with effects

The morning after L.A. raided and cleared out the Occupy L.A. camp, city employees dragged tents from the lawn into dumpsters.
The morning after L.A. raided and cleared out the Occupy L.A. camp, city employees dragged tents from the lawn into dumpsters.
Shirley Jahad/KPCC

The Occupy L.A. protesters are gone from the City Hall lawn, but Susan Hutchinson wonders if customers will ever come back to the downtown farmers market she manages.

Hutchinson stared toward a barricaded City Hall park Thursday, where vendors until recently sold baskets of plump strawberries and tomatoes, buttery croissants and bunches of fresh-cut roses. The weekly, open-air market was uprooted from the park by the two-month Occupy L.A. protest, and merchants suffered when relocated across the street from what became a squalid encampment of earnest activists, disenchanted youth, the homeless and drug abusers.

"We were collateral damage," Hutchinson lamented about the political protest that became "more like a refugee camp." A quarter of vendors stopped coming and business fell off by as much as 50 percent for those that remained.

Hutchinson says she tried sharing the lawn with protesters during the Occupy encampment, but their tents blocked the fire lanes needed by the market's permits.

Hutchinson took her concerns to one of Occupy L.A.'s public meetings, but when she told them that vendors were losing money, the crowd booed her. "It was inappropriate for me to use 'the M word,'" Hutchinson told KPCC.

The majority of demonstrators wanted to reach a consensus, but due to the near-unanimous agreement needed to make decisions in the Occupy general assemblies, they weren't able to reach a deal.

Hutchinson's complaints were among scores heard by City Hall leading up to the decision by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to evict hundreds of protesters from the park in a late-night raid, resulting in nearly 300 arrests last week. The behind-the-scenes pressure added weight to more obvious problems, from illegal drug use to seeping portable toilets to lice.

The protesters say their push-back against income inequality and Wall Street abuses will live on, but the encampment left another legacy.

Thefts, shoplifting and assaults spiked in the neighborhood, and film productions avoided the popular, landmark site. Local restaurants grumbled about lost business, and weeks of media coverage of motley demonstrators camped on the City Hall lawn did little to buff downtown's scruffy image.

There's also fear the city opened itself to lawsuits if other protesters aren't granted similar, extended welcomes on public property. Even some City Council members soured on the demonstration after enacting a resolution in October praising the "vibrant exercise in First Amendment rights."

"You either enforce the laws or you ignore them — these are the consequences," said Councilman Dennis Zine, a former Los Angeles police officer who initially endorsed the protest, then later urged the mayor's office to intervene. "Once you permit this to start, there is no stopping it."

Occupy activists are unapologetic and say critics are missing the big picture by focusing on inconveniences instead of the broader problems of society and the camp's efforts to raise awareness.

While the relocated farmers market will return to its original location and the City Hall lawn will grow back, millions of homeowners who lost their houses in the mortgage crisis sparked by corporate profiteering will not get their homes back, they said.

"I'm sure the original tea party by the founding fathers wasn't good for business — they threw the merchants' tea into the sea," said activist Peter Thottam, who is organizing Occupy events for the New Year's Day Rose Parade. "This isn't about local issues, this is about economic, social justice concerns."

The Occupy Wall Street protests started Sept. 17 with a few dozen demonstrators who tried to pitch tents in front of the New York Stock Exchange. It soon spread to other cities — the Los Angeles protests began Oct. 1, with a few dozen tents set up the first week.

The Democratic mayor was among the early supporters for Occupy LA — he handed out plastic ponchos one rainy day. After the population swelled in October, he said the city would remain "accommodating." But by the end of last month he declared the encampment, with overflowing waste cans and hundreds of tents, was "simply not sustainable."

Villaraigosa alluded to health concerns at the park, but a broader range of other issues came into play, from the impact on tourism to vandalism to the impact on downtown banks where protesters sometimes rallied.

There are plans in the Council to form a committee to promote the ideas behind the protest, while the cash-strapped city is still trying to figure out how much money was spent contending with the long-running demonstration, a figure likely to run into the millions.

Hutchinson said the protesters first shared the park with the farmers market, but its rapid growth made that unworkable. As the weeks went by, some vendors were harassed for food or stuck with unpaid IOUs. She said some vendors found it galling that people from the encampment would ask for freebies, while the protest was driving away their usual business.

"They had no control over these people," she said.

Last week the park looked like a faded industrial yard — concrete barriers topped with chain-link fencing walled off what was left of the lawn, once popular with sunbathers and tourists. Villaraigosa has said the cleanup and repair to the park might cost more than $1 million.

In a positive sign, City Hall's role as popular backdrop for filmmakers and producers — it was a fixture in the TV classic "Dragnet" — was back in business after film crews mostly steered away during the protests.

With the encampment gone, "Gangster Squad," a film starring Sean Penn, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, shot scenes outside City Hall last week — out of view of the chain-link fence that surrounds the park.

With vintage cars lining the curb and actors on City Hall steps in 1940s garb, events around here were returning to normal.

This story has been updated.