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Occupy Long Beach hampered by city ordinance

Occupy Long Beach can't get the city to budge on a 1992 law, aimed at the homeless, that bars overnight camping in parks. 'Without the tent aspect we cannot be … a visible presence,' a supporter says.

November 27, 2011|By Ruben Vives, Los Angeles Times
  • Members of Occupy Long Beach gather outside city hall after attending a council meeting Nov. 15, 2011, to ask that an ordinance against overnight camping in the civic center be changed.
Members of Occupy Long Beach gather outside city hall after attending a… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

The white neon clock at the park couldn't be missed. It was 10:03 p.m. At the northeast entrance to Lincoln Park in Long Beach, a handful of people were on the move. Some were dragging a blue tarp from the grass to the sidewalk along Pacific Avenue while others were folding chairs. Nearby, sleeping bags were laid out, side by side, on the concrete.

This is the nightly ritual for Occupy Long Beach.

Unlike other demonstrators across the country, the three dozen or so Long Beach loyalists leave the ground they've staked as protest central by 10 p.m. to avoid violating a city ordinance that prohibits overnight camping in parks. At dawn, they move back in.

Photos: Occupy protests go global

What you don't see is the assembly of colorful tents that have come to symbolize the Occupy movement.

"Without the tent aspect we cannot be organized, we cannot be a visible presence," said Darlene Fernandez, a Santa Ana resident who said she supports the Long Beach protesters by sleeping three nights a week with them on the sidewalk.

Occupy Long Beach, which includes a number of homeless people, moved into Lincoln Park on Oct. 15. Members have tried but so far failed to persuade the City Council to amend the 1992 camping ordinance. The few times they defiantly held their ground resulted in arrests — 15 so far — and fines.

"There were only two things we weren't going to allow," Deputy Police Chief Robert Luna said. "One was camping overnight … and we weren't going to allow temporary shelters."

Protesters say that they've been stymied partly because their group lacks the sheer size of Occupy Los Angeles.

"We're not pulling in the numbers because this park has a stigma, a bad energy," said Chad Cooper, a 38-year-old college student and Long Beach resident who said he sleeps on the sidewalk with the group five nights a week. "Unfortunately, it has become 1st Amendment rights versus municipal codes that were put in place to keep the homeless away."

He also said the occupiers have more support than what is visible on the sidewalk each night.

That was evident earlier this month when protesters packed the City Council meeting and tried something new by chanting the catchphrases of the national movement: "We are the 99%" … "The world is watching." The tactics worked to a point; the council agreed to place on the next agenda a discussion of a 24-hour free-speech zone.

The next week, protesters were back to urge the council to let them camp in the park overnight. Tammara Phillips, liaison for the Occupy Long Beach Civic Engagement Committee, spoke for three minutes and began by citing the 1st Amendment.

"Sometimes we need reminders," she said, then pleaded with the council to let the protesters pitch tents as other cities have, including L.A. and Irvine.

"After all that's been done to the 99% working class, tents are the only things some of us have left," she said.

The council instead directed the city manager and other city officials to meet with the protesters and report back.

The ordinance was created to prevent the homeless from sleeping in parks, on beaches and on private lots. At the time, cities across the state were adopting similar laws; some were being fought in court.

City Atty. Robert Shannon, however, said an identical ordinance in Sacramento was already ruled to be constitutional. "Simply put, this ordinance cannot and does not make an exception for Occupy Long Beach," he said.

A recent survey by Long Beach Connections, a grass-roots community engagement initiative, showed that homelessness in the downtown area dropped by 12% since 2009. In fact, the city used the survey to prioritize resources in the downtown area that helped place more than 80 homeless people in permanent housing or long-term-care programs.

"We have had decades of some really hard work that's gone into that park," Luna said. "We've had challenges with transients, narcotics and violent crimes at that park to the point of not allowing people to camp overnight.... Ordinances have helped us improve the quality of life there, not only in Lincoln Park but other city parks."

Phillips sees it differently.

"I think the city fears that the homeless would be so empowered by this," she said, "especially if we use tents … then the homeless would insist on staying there with tents."

In Irvine, Occupy Orange County has had a different experience: A permit to camp out — with tents — in the northwestern corner of the civic center was recently approved for two more weeks. The group also signed a letter of understanding with the city to abide by a set of provisions, including "quiet hours" between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

"From the very beginning the feeling was: Let's see how we can work together rather than draw sharp lines of conflict," Irvine Councilman Larry Agran said. "Everybody understood this was a question of civil rights and civil liberties, not a question of the content of their protest."

Agran is puzzled about why other cities were opposed to working with the demonstrators.

"It seems to me that a number of these cities got over the initial surprise, then took an 'us versus them' attitude," Agran said. "Of course, we didn't buy into that idea at all. This is about all of us."

Photos: Occupy protests go global

ruben.vives@latimes.com

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