Interfaith leaders condemn LAPD tactics in shutting down Occupy L.A.

An interfaith group of clergy who ministered to Occupy Los Angeles protesters throughout the two-month occupation are objecting to the “overwhelming force” used by the Los Angeles Police Department when 1,400 officers cleared the encampment from City Hall Park in the early morning hours of Nov. 30.

“The mayor and police chief are patting themselves on the back because we are in Los Angeles and no one went to the hospital,” said Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, an associate professor at American Jewish University and a member of the Occupy L.A. Sanctuary, a group of Los Angeles area religious leaders who advocate for economic justice.

To convey its critique of “the mass use of overwhelming force by the LAPD,” Cohen said that the group has drafted and is in the process of signing a letter to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa expressing its disapproval of what Cohen called a “military-style operation.”

“People were knocked over, pushed around, pushed with batons, chased down, corralled,” Cohen said, citing reports about police violence that were related to the interfaith group by protesters. “It was kind of a ‘shock and awe’ operation, designed to terrorize the people that were there—and it worked. In that way it worked.”

The Christian, Muslim and Jewish clergy established a presence at the encampment very early on. They met at the Interfaith Sanctuary at Occupy L.A., a structure that began its life as a Sukkah, every Wednesday morning. At 10 am this Wednesday, however, with the last protesters having been evicted from the park only hours earlier and the formerly occupied lawns encircled by fences, the group of clerics held a debriefing on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall.

The group of clergy also objected to the protesters’ being held on $5,000 bail, which for many, Cohen said, was an impossible sum of money to come up with.

Cohen said the group would release the text of the letter once it has been signed and sent.

In addition to ministering to the occupiers with a variety of actions—including a Black Friday Interfaith Service held at the encampment the morning after Thanksgiving—the Sanctuary members also played a role in facilitating meetings between the Mayor’s office the leaders of Occupy L.A. in the days and weeks before the massive raid on the encampment.

When Villaraigosa announced on Nov. 23 that the encampment would be removed on Nov. 28 at 12:01 am, the interfaith group drafted a letter to Mayor Villaraigosa asking for additional time—“weeks not days”—to allow the Occupy L.A. group to transition out of City Hall park in a peaceful manner. That earlier letter, the text of which was posted on the Occupy L.A. Sanctuary blog on Friday, Nov. 25, was signed by 179 clergy members, and it got the Mayor’s attention.

On Monday morning, Nov. 28, hours after the initial deadline to vacate was allowed to pass, a group of 14 clergy and laypeople that called itself “the interfaith affinity group of Occupy LA supporting the occupation” met with Mayor Villaraigosa to make the case for calling off or delaying the removal of the encampment.

The mayor, however, did not budge. “Mayor Villaraigosa seemed very receptive to the ideas of the Occupy Movement, even as he said the encampment needed to end, that that had become no longer sustainable,” said Rabbi Joshua Levine-Grater of the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center, who was present at the Monday morning meeting.

Additionally, Cohen said that an agreement had been reached with the incident commander on the scene on Tuesday night, in advance of the LAPD raid on the Occupy L.A. encampment, to allow clergy members to witness the arrests of any protesters—a deal that, he said, was subsequently broken.

“They were not allowed in for period of time while the officers swarmed into the park,” Cohen said of his fellow faith leaders, “during a time when they could have supported the protesters with their decision of whether or not to be arrested.”

The clergy, of course, weren’t the only ones barred from observing the arrests of protesters. Most of the reporters covering the end of Occupy L.A., including two staff writers for the Jewish Journal, were kicked out of City Hall Park before anyone was arrested. Only a handful of media authorized by LAPD were permitted to remain.

For his part, Cohen didn’t make it anywhere near the Occupy L.A. encampment in advance of the LAPD officers storming into the park early Wednesday morning, and neither did Levine-Grater. Both were stopped in different spots by LAPD officers who had established a blocks-wide cordon around City Hall in an effort to keep the numbers of protesters in the encampment on the lawns of City Hall from swelling.

After being turned back, Cohen headed home (and kept track of developments from there), but Levine-Grater hung out on the spot where the LAPD line stopped his progress, at the corner of Main and Aliso Streets. More and more people kept arriving, until the crowd numbered about 150 people, Levine-Grater said.

When a few large buses filled with police officers approached the intersection where the group of would-be Occupy L.A. protesters was massed, Levine-Grater said, “they [the protesters] decided to sit down in front of the buses in the intersection and started singing. They were not going to let those buses go through.”

“The police exited the buses and were standing there,” Levine-Grater continued. “It was about a 20 minute face-off, and in the end the buses backed up and found another way around. A lot of police officers walked.”

Even at those moments, when the potential for a conflict was most palpable, Levine-Grater said that the group of protesters held fast to Occupy L.A.’s commitment to keep their protest activities non-violent.

“A lot of them were chanting, ‘Police need a raise; police need a raise,’” Levine-Grater said. “There was not much animosity.”

Although the faith leaders had failed to convince the mayor to give Occupy L.A. more time to work things out using its democratic process, the advance notice given was sufficient to ensure that the Sanctuary structure itself—a sukkah that belongs to Jonathan Klein of CLUE-LA—could be retrieved before the police took apart the camp.

“Jonathan has it,” Levine-Grater said. “He took it down.”