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Chalk protests at downtown L.A.'s ArtWalk draw a defiant new line

Occupy L.A. members clash with police as they use ArtWalk as a canvas for their anti-gentrification theme.

July 13, 2012|By Rosanna Xia, Richard Winton and Sam Allen
  • Juan Garcia with Graffiti Control Systems spray-paints over a wall on 5th Street near Broadway in downtown Los Angeles after it was covered with chalk scrawlings Thursday night by Occupy L.A. members.
Juan Garcia with Graffiti Control Systems spray-paints over a wall on 5th… (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)

The chalk scrawls began showing up in downtown Los Angeles in May.

Members of the Occupy L.A. movement, with the support of some homeless rights advocates, used pastel chalk to express their anger about gentrification in downtown and how, in their view, it was pushing the poor out.

For weeks, the chalk protests were little noticed, and Los Angeles police quietly began arresting the so-called chalkers on vandalism charges.

But on Thursday, a small group of activists gathered at the corner of 5th and Spring streets during the heart of downtown's popular monthly ArtWalk, handing out chalk to passersby and using the sidewalks as their canvas for more anti-gentrification and some anti-police slogans.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, clashes began between some activists and LAPD officers, resulting in a melee that left four officers injured and more than 15 people arrested. The LAPD called a citywide tactical alert, streamed hundreds of officers into downtown and used less-than-lethal rubber bullets to disperse the crowd.

PHOTOS: Confrontation at downtown L.A. ArtWalk

The incident highlights long-simmering tensions as downtown L.A.'s major revitalization — after decades of decline — has ushered in thousands of new residents as well as upscale lofts, restaurants and galleries to the city core. The gentrification has transformed large swaths of downtown, but it has spread into areas that were traditionally home to some of L.A.'s poorest residents.

Occupy L.A. has made this a central focus as it attempts to rebound since the group's eviction from City Hall park last year. Both Occupy and Los Angeles Community Action Network, a homeless and low-income advocacy group, have targeted the Central City Assn., the leading downtown business organization, with their protests.

Many of the chalk protests have occurred outside the CCA's offices on Wilshire Boulevard, which have been hit by nightly encampments as well as loud demonstrations. But it was Thursday's demonstration at ArtWalk — which is one of the most successful community events of the revitalized downtown — that got the attention.

Cheryl Aichele of Occupy L.A. said her group is concerned that new developments on the edge of skid row are pushing out not only poor residents who can no longer afford rents but also small-business owners. She claims downtown boosters are trying to "criminalize" homelessness by lobbying for more aggressive LAPD sweeps of skid row.

Earlier last month, the Los Angeles Department of Public Works, backed by police and firefighters, had launched a major cleanup effort on skid row, citing the need to address urine, feces, discarded needles and other health dangers listed in a recent county report. The sweep collected nearly 5 tons of trash.

Peter White, co-director of LACAN, said downtown gentrification is another example of the "1%" profiting at the expense of the 99%. "They've been lobbying and advocating the 1% and their pretty out-there vision," he said. "But their vision doesn't include downtown's poorest residents."

On the streets downtown, the dividing line is far less clear. Some residents said they support the right of "chalkers" to protest but don't fully agree with their take on gentrification. Many were angry that the dispute disrupted their beloved community event.

Patti Berman, a longtime downtown resident and ArtWalk board member, said the activists are on a mission to "de-gentrify" downtown.

"I'm a liberal, I don't like talking like this," she said. "But these people have no goals, they just seem to want to cause trouble.... The fact that they wanted to destroy ArtWalk, that's very hurtful. ArtWalk has done a lot for my neighborhood, and I don't know what's going to happen now. I don't know where it's going to go."

Brady Westwater, a longtime downtown resident and activist, was more blunt about Occupy. "It's a dead movement — it saw its day in the sun — and now they can't do anything but try and find the place to cause the most disruption at a real community event. Downtown is a real community."

The debate over downtown's future has been going on for more than a decade. As its revitalization began, the city made a new push to clean up skid row that included adding more police officers to the streets and cracking down on the notorious drug trade.

CCA President and Chief Executive Carol Schatz said gentrification critics are "attempting to destroy" the growth of downtown.

"LACAN, when push comes to shove, would chase away every one of the residents that has come to live in the empty buildings that were converted to housing," Schatz said. "They would chase every one of those individuals away, and they would chase every bar and restaurant away."

She and other downtown advocates said it's important to look at downtown's growth in historical context. She said downtown L.A. used to be "dark and empty."

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