CityWatch, Nov 15, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 91
RETHINKING LA - Occupy LA is slowly discovering that City Hall’s welcome mat has disappeared, that the Mayor’s gift of ponchos during the first rainstorm was more of a bon voyage gift than a welcome, and that the City Council’s endorsement was based on the hope that “This, too, shall pass.”
It has been more than six weeks since the Occupy LA movement took to the turf lawns of City Hall and during that time it has blossomed into a complete community that now includes a Library, a Theatre, a University, Health Care, Child Care, a Media Team, Peacekeepers, Governance, Entertainment, Public Works, Sanitation, and a host of other services, all accessible by visiting the Welcome Tent, the Occupy LA version of a concierge.
As Occupy movements around the country encounter resistance that has resulted in evictions and arrests, the Occupy LA protesters have enjoyed an environment of benign neglect from the occupants of City Hall.
The City of LA’s initial response the Occupy LA presence on the north lawn was awe-inspiring, one that revealed a kinder, more peaceful LAPD and allowed City Leadership to embrace a peaceful demonstration of First Amendment Rights.
Within days of the initial occupation, City Council President Eric Garcetti led a delegation of Councilmembers to the north lawn where they took turns addressing the crowd and where Garcetti wrapped the tour by telling Occupy LA “Stay as long as you need.”
The City Council jumped on the opportunity to demonstrate their passion for economic justice by issuing a proclamation in support of the Occupy LA’s peaceful expression of First Amendment Rights.
Since that initial “This is your City Hall!” blessing from LA’s leadership, the Occupy LA movement has settled into a round-the-clock occupation of the north and south lawns of City Hall in defiance of the ban on overnight camping in city parks.
There was a time when Los Angeles was a less hospitable free speech environment. In 1909, LA’s city fathers responded to the threat of class conflict with a ban on free speech from public streets that limited such activity to the Plaza.
Fans of free speech eventually found a home in Pershing Square where an informal outdoor debate society took root, initially referred to as the Pershing Square Philosophers in 1925 and by 1952 they were firmly established as the Pershing Square Country Club.
It was Mayor Sam Yorty that recognized the inherent danger in outdoor debate and in 1962 he declared that those who walk across the park "should not have their privacy invaded by men involved in loud harangues, by loiterers or by talkative crackpots."
Yorty’s solution was a park facelift that reduced the seating and resulted in a “non-loitering, walk-through park.”
It is against this rich backdrop of disdain for free speech that the recent actions of the LA County Health Department and the City of LA Department of Recreation and Parks (RAP) must be examined.
Occupy LA at one time operated a robust food service operation but that ended as the result of what some would call “code harassment” by health inspectors. Some have suggested that limiting access to food and water is one of the simplest and quietest methods to ending the occupation.
Jon Kirk Mukri, General Manager of Rec and Parks, recently sent the Mayor a letter detailing the impact of Occupy LA on LA’s City Hall Park.
The letter is obviously a response to a request and its content lays down the foundation for a legal eviction, one that honors the free speech rights of the participants while addressing legally sustainable issues that can justify a law enforcement action.
Mukri’s letter opens by rebranding the City Hall lawn as City Hall Park, a simple twist that is repeated and supported by the claim that it has been a “park” since 1927. At two acres in size, City Hall Park was apparently restored to its “historic condition” during City Hall’s earthquake retrofit.
Along came Occupy LA and protestors began camping on the lawn in violation of the city prohibition against camping in city parks.
In 1993 a court ruling addressed the legality of municipal prohibitions against nighttime loitering in city parks and held them to be constitutional, offering several causes that justified the bans. Mukri’s letter relies on them all.
Mukri establishes that the long ignored turf lawns of City Hall are actually “City Hall Park” and that firmly establishes the rights and obligations of the City of LA to protect those two acres of parkland.
The 1993 court case addresses the charge that anti-loitering laws are often unconstitutionally vague because they punish status rather than conduct.
Mukri’s letter builds on this legal distinction, addressing conduct and the results that will establish cause when the LAPD is brought in to evict the Occupy LA protesters, not because of what they say but because of what they do and its impact on City Hall Park.
The court held that a “park” is “a pleasure ground set aside for the recreation of the public, to promote its health and enjoyment.” The court went on to support the authority of the city to conserve those places “in their pristine state, and to promote public health, safety and welfare in the usage of those parks.”
Add to that the courts position that closing a park at night is a responsible action that limits wear and tear on park facilities and one can see, Mukri’s letter claims every bit of legal support for an impending action.
Mukri claims that City Hall Park soil has become compacted and extremely dry, that trees and other plants are suffering from a lack of water and nutrients, that the landscape areas are in decline.
Mukri addresses public safety and liability and wraps it up by putting a price tag on the restoration of City Hall Park, calling it a $120,000 project.
Over the weekend, Mayors from around the country initiated Occupy evictions.
Portland’s Mayor brought in 300 law enforcement officers from a dozen different departments to evict 1000 Occupy Portland protesters, an action that resulted in approximately 50 arrests.
Similar actions took place in St. Louis, Oakland, in Salt Lake City, and in Denver.
One can only imagine how tough it must be for LA’s Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa who also serves as the President of the Conference of Mayors. It was just a few months ago that he stood before Conference of Mayors and accepted his leadership role by declaring "Mayors, we can’t afford to be timid."
As Mayors around the country are acting aggressively to evict protesters and to confiscate mattresses, tents, and cooking equipment, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is slowly building a case and looking for an exit strategy that will return City Hall Park to its “historic condition.”
To think that it was not too long ago that City Council President and Mayoral aspirant Eric Garcetti stood on the north lawn and declared to the Occupy LA protesters “This is your City Hall.”
That was then, this is now.
The handwriting is on the wall.
(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net .)