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In clearing Occupy site, time is on LAPD's side, chief says

On Monday, city leaders take a measured approach in efforts to close down City Hall encampment.

November 29, 2011|By Kate Linthicum, Joel Rubin and Rick Rojas, Los Angeles Times
  • Los Angeles police officers count tents Monday at the Occupy L.A. site at City Hall.
Los Angeles police officers count tents Monday at the Occupy L.A. site at… (Barbara Davidson, Los Angeles…)

After a flurry of eviction threats, street protests and court maneuvering, Occupy L.A. remained standing on the City Hall lawn Monday evening — prompting debate about the caution displayed by city leaders seeking to avoid violent clashes seen in other cities.

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said Monday he remains committed to the restrained approach, noting that the encampment has shrunk by about 150 tents in recent days and that police have so far managed to avoid aggressive confrontations with protesters.

Officers will clear the camp when they can "do it effectively and efficiently and with minimal force," he said. Time is on the department's side, Beck added.

But at least some observers were concerned that if the standoff continues, it could erode the authority of police and city leaders and embolden the Occupy protesters.

Los Angeles officials have been clear that they do not want to repeat the ugly scenes caught on YouTube videos when police dismantled Occupy camps in New York and Oakland.

The city's concern about its image was underscored Monday when police announced they would be allowing only a small group of print, television and radio journalists past police lines when the eviction is finally carried out. Police said the rules were to protect journalists from being harmed during the operation.

Although the drawn-out eviction strategy has kept things relatively peaceful, it also appears to have recharged the protest.

360° photos: Occupy L.A.

Photos: Occupy L.A.

Demonstrations Sunday night and Monday morning drew hundreds of new supporters, including clergy and other community leaders who stood in solidarity with the protesters, as well as a contingent that seemed ready to tangle with police.

Protester Emmanuel Freeman, a 28-year-old from the San Gabriel Valley, said he felt like he was in a stronger position after police failed to evict protesters Monday.

Police "for the first time realized we are not afraid anymore," he said. Freeman spent much of the day in a treehouse he built overlooking the City Hall lawn that he thinks will make it harder for police to remove him.

Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn., said L.A. leaders lost credibility by failing to enforce an announced midnight Sunday closure of the City Hall park.

"By not sticking to the 12:01 deadline, they're essentially saying, 'You need to leave by this time, but it's OK if you don't,'" he said. "There need to be consequences."

Waldman said L.A.'s leaders would have been better off adopting the strategy used by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York, where scores of protesters swiftly were arrested and their belongings confiscated in a surprise early morning raid.

Beck said he isn't worried that the LAPD's approach will make the task of eventually clearing the park more difficult.

"This is the Los Angeles Police Department," he said. "No one is more capable of laying down the law than we are. No one should have any illusions that this will be a difficult crowd management for us. No one should have any illusions that this is a sign of weakness, inability or lack of will from the Police Department."

Beck said the overnight demonstrations left him feeling encouraged that a violent showdown can be averted.

What could have turned into ugly confrontations remained largely calm. About 1,000 boisterous protesters blocked the intersection of 1st and Main streets until about 5 a.m., when police issued an order to disperse. Most returned to the encampment at City Hall Park, but a few were arrested

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the LAPD seem determined to give protesters every opportunity to leave quietly and avoid public criticism that they acted too quickly or aggressively.

But the city's patience has opened the door to legal challenges, including a lawsuit filed by protesters Monday to bar police from dismantling the camp.

The suit in U.S. District Court, Los Angeles, alleges that the City Council exempted the protesters from an ordinance banning overnight camping at public parks, and that Villaraigosa and Beck overstepped their authority in ordering an end to the occupation.

City Council President Eric Garcetti last month told protesters they "could stay as long as they need." And, on Oct. 12, the council passed a resolution "in support" of the "continuation of the peaceful and vibrant exercise in 1st Amendment rights carried out by Occupy Los Angeles." Activists also said that in the protest's early days, a mayoral appointee to the city's Public Works board assured them the anti-camping ordinance would not be enforced.

But Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who co-wrote the Occupy L.A. motion, said Monday that his resolution was written merely to show support for a group "speaking out on the issues that mattered to all of us" — not approval of open-ended use of a city park.

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