October 23, 2018

Clergy object to LAPD’s methods of clearing Occupy L.A.

The members of an interfaith group of clergy who ministered to Occupy Los Angeles protesters throughout the two-month occupation of the lawn around Los Angeles City Hall are objecting to what they call a distressing “level of violence and brutality” used by the 1,400 Los Angeles Police Department officers who cleared the encampment from City Hall Park in the early morning hours of Nov. 30.

“Occupiers were pushed and hit and corralled and hunted down by police in a military fashion,” the Occupy L.A. Interfaith Leaders Support Network wrote in a letter delivered to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Dec. 1.

“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 who signed the letter. 

“People were knocked over, pushed around, pushed with batons, chased down, corralled,” Cohen said, citing reports about police violence that were related to him by other members of the interfaith group who witnessed part of the police action. “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.”

In addition to objecting to the tactics used against protesters by police officers, the letter from the group of priests, imams, ministers, rabbis and other faith leaders called the city’s decision to hold the 292 nonviolent protesters arrested on Nov. 30 in jail on $5,000 bail “unacceptable.”

The Christian, Muslim and Jewish clergy established a presence at the encampment very early on. Every Wednesday morning, they met at the Interfaith Sanctuary at a structure that began its life as a sukkah. 

The group objected to the protesters’ being held on $5,000 bail, which, for many, Cohen said, represents an impossible sum of money to procure.

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

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

On the morning of Nov. 28, hours after the initial deadline to vacate was allowed to pass, a group of 14 clergy and laypeople calling themselves “the interfaith affinity group of Occupy L.A. supporting the occupation” met with 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 among those at the Nov. 28 meeting.

In the end, the eviction went forward, and only the police, the Occupy protesters and a select group of reporters pre-approved by LAPD got to watch it from start to finish. A number of clergy members, Cohen said, had reached an agreement with the incident commander on the scene on Tuesday night, in advance of the LAPD raid, that should have allowed them to witness the arrests of any protesters.

That deal was broken.

“Clergy were not allowed entrance to the park during the crucial period in which they could have been helpful to occupiers who had not previously decided to be arrested,” the interfaith leaders wrote in their letter to Villaraigosa.

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 Nov. 30, and neither did 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 from swelling.

After being turned back, Cohen headed home and kept track of developments from there, but Grater remained at 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, he 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, Grater said, 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,” he 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, Grater said, the protesters held fast to Occupy L.A.’s commitment to keep their protest activities nonviolent.

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

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

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