Saturday, May 8, 2021
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The Battle for Echo Park

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In May 2020, as the worst effects of the pandemic and its economic downturn were unleashed on Los Angeles, unhoused individuals began settling and organizing in Echo Park. Over the course of the summer, their numbers grew to around 200 people. The space they cultivated had art, gardens and organized living spaces. It was much closer to an autonomous zone than a houseless encampment. It was a system that worked. Community members felt safe. They kept the area clean so as to cause as little fuss as possible for the visitors to Echo Park.

The City ordered Los Angeles Police Department to clear the park of all residents on Wednesday, March 24. Prior to Wednesday, however, a planned political action was announced by some larger Los Angeles-based Instagram accounts like In This Together LA and Democratic Socialists of America, Los Angeles. On the morning of the projected sweep, hundreds of people showed up in solidarity with the houseless community.

That morning’s events reflected very little of what would happen that night. No police showed up to the park. The protesters marched in front of the office of Mitch O’Farrell, the city councilmember responsible for the sweep, and members of the community spoke. One or two police cars drove by slowly while another sat parked watching us some distance from the gathering. After marching back to the park, many people went home, though some stuck around with community members to make protest signs to put around the park.

Between 6 and 7 PM, rows of cop cars began gathering at Dodger Stadium, just around the corner from Echo Park. A group of protesters coalesced around them. Over the course of the next couple of hours, hundreds of police in riot gear showed up, armed with bean bag guns, rubber bullet guns, batons and of course the guns and cuffs all cops keep on their hips. They pushed protesters to the corner of Glendale and Santa Ynez. Police lined up on two sides of the intersection at the border of the park. They began directing protesters to disperse, calling the gathering “unlawful.” The only way to disperse would have been down the other side of Glendale. Of course, just around the bend was another line of cops and cop cars. There was nowhere for protesters to disperse.

Notable at a standoff like this is the lack of masks covering many of the police officers’ faces. Seeing as they are supposed to be public servants, some protesters take it upon themselves to remind officers that there is a pandemic. One such disagreement between a protestor and an officer resulted in the protester being grabbed by officers, presumably to arrest her. I was standing a couple of feet away. 

I moved to try to pull her back into the crowd as the arrest seemed to me to be utterly unlawful, unconstitutional and immoral. From behind me, an officer holding his baton in two hands gave me a shove, knocking me to the ground. Still down, I heard a pop and felt a horrible sting in my leg. Nearby protesters grabbed me and pulled me back into the crowd to protect me from arrest. 

At first, I didn’t know what had happened. I thought maybe a firework had gone off. But people told me I’d been hit with a rubber bullet. Between 1984 and 2017, fifty-three people were killed by rubber bullets while 300 people were permanently disabled. In October 2020, during the celebration for the Lakers winning the championship, police shot a man in the face with a rubber bullet knocking out eight of his teeth and a part of his lower lip. Another man was shot in the eye. Luckily, I got hit in the middle of my thigh. Almost anywhere else would have certainly left permanent damage. I’m actually not entirely out of the woods yet. I have a blood clot in one of my arteries and am set to go back to the hospital to see a doctor for another checkup a week or so from now. Oddly, my jeans weren’t torn but the skin where the bullet landed is entirely shredded. I’ve been walking with a limp since, my massive scab throbs whenever I stand up and the bruising has spread all the way down to my calf. I was on the ground when I was shot. I was a threat to no one. The same night, a journalist had his arm broken by an officer swinging a metal baton with both hands.

Despite the sweep being scheduled for that Wednesday, police ended up striking a deal with the crowd; they would leave the houseless residents alone that night if we all went home. The blockade was opened and I, along with the other protesters, hobbled our way out of Echo Park. During the standoff, a houseless person had set up his tent on the front line in protest of the sweep. As we began to back off, he started packing up his things to head back into the park. Before he could fold his tent, officers snatched it from him and destroyed it behind the police line.

This is emblematic of how the police behave at these sorts of events. They seem vindictive, hateful, self-satisfied and smug about what they are doing. They shout at protesters as if we aren’t the ones who pay their salaries. They show up in riot gear looking as if they’re ready to go to war and they act like it too. You can see in the way they point their weapons at us and push us with their sticks that in their minds they’re not at a protest; they showed up to fight the enemy. A protester’s police scanner caught audio that night of two officers joking about how they wished their helicopter could dump gasoline on protestors so that they could light us on fire.

The next night, of course, the park was cleared. Most of the Echo Park residents left without resistance. Though they had been promised hotel rooms, a number of them were denied a room and were simply forced back onto the street. 

In one last stance of defiance, a smaller group of residents stayed to be arrested. I, along with at least 100 protesters, probably more, was told we had to disperse despite again being blocked in on a street with nowhere to go. They arrested all of us. One officer had tried to engage me in a staring contest. As the police line marched towards us, he widened his eyes as if to express joy at the prospect of my arrest.

Fighting for social justice feels like it is always one step forward and two steps back. It seems like the cops, who are so hateful and ideological, always win. But that feeling doesn’t reflect reality. When you’re on the front line, when the cops are holding their batons and their rubber bullet guns with their real guns on their waists, and in the distance you can see the line reinforced by twenty or thirty more equally militarized officers, and now their numbers maybe triple the numbers on your side, it can feel hopeless. But while we lost the park on Thursday, on Wednesday we won. We did stop them, if only for a day.

Speaking more broadly, the momentum of the movement that started last May has slowed but not gone away. Hundreds of people came out to show support for and protect the most vulnerable in Los Angeles last week: the houseless.

The event was covered by The Young TurksDemocracy Now! and the Los Angeles Times, where I was quoted, as saying, “I was on the ground when I got shot, which feels vindictive and spiteful.”

On LA City Council, we still have people like Mitch O’Farrell, but we also have a Democratic Socialist named Nithya Raman who was elected last November. Over the hill in Burbank, another Democratic Socialist was elected to their city council. We have an actually progressive district attorney, named George Gascón, who was elected due to the tireless work of Black Lives Matter LA. When I was detained (unlawfully) on election night, I heard police officers complaining about the prospects of Gascón’s tenure and the new accountability cops would have to face. 

Federally, we have had new far-left candidates win seats in the House of Representatives. Ed Markey beat out a Kennedy. The threat of a total fascist takeover was averted with the election of Biden over Trump. It pains me to give Biden any credit, but yes, he is marginally better than Trump. And on Wed. March 24, we beat out the cops. Our houseless comrades got to sleep one more night in the beautiful community that they had established. Their autonomous zone was not breached by the state and it was the power of the people that made that happen. It’s these tiny cracks in the system that should be encouraging.

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