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Protesters cut in on Villaraigosa’s skid row speech

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Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is accustomed to being the center of attention when he holds news conferences.

On Tuesday morning, he got upstaged.

Villaraigosa traveled to downtown’s skid row to announce the installation of 100 light fixtures to discourage narcotics sales and other illegal activity.

But when he stepped to a portable lectern at the corner of 6th Street and Gladys Avenue, about five impromptu protesters appeared from a soup kitchen across the street, taking up position directly behind him and drowning out his news conference with chants of “Shame on you” and “Housing, not jails.”

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Not easily intimidated, Villaraigosa soldiered on -- delivering his prepared remarks even though reporters only a few feet away could barely hear him. City Council members Jan Perry and Jose Huizar, who represent downtown, stood at Villaraigosa’s side -- looking mildly uncomfortable.

Two Los Angeles police officials kept a worried watch as the event hovered close to chaos. One of the mayor’s press aides shook his head glumly.

As the event wound down, the disruption finally appeared to get at Villaraigosa. Briefly acknowledging the protesters, he said: “The folks behind me, almost none of them live on skid row.”

As it turned out, Villaraigosa was right. The protesters were volunteers at the Los Angeles Catholic Worker soup kitchen. Two of them live at a Catholic Worker home in Boyle Heights, another lives in West Covina. In addition to the “hippie kitchen,” as the skid row site is known, the group runs a medical and dental clinic.

Their Catholic Worker protest emerged out of thin air.

The workers said they had been preparing beans for the soup kitchen crowd when they spotted people gathering on the street about 9 a.m.

The volunteers, who have protested at City Hall and elsewhere in the past, seized the opportunity to call attention to their cause -- what they say is harassment of skid row’s homeless population by the Los Angeles Police Department.

Several grabbed ready-made signs used on other occasions, including a sit-in at the mayor’s office a while back. One read “Antonio: Lighten up on the poor.” Another said “The poor need more than street lights.”

Soup kitchen volunteer Clare Bellefeuille-Rice kept up a steady drumbeat as Villaraigosa did his best to ignore the disruption.

“We are always prepared,” she said. “We always have our signs ready.”

After the news conference, a few longtime skid row residents condemned the dissenters, saying Villaraigosa and the city have made positive strides to reduce crime and clean up one of L.A.'s dirtiest pockets.

“You can’t speak for me. I live here,” Emanuel Compito, wearing a suit and a large cross, said loud enough for everyone to hear. “They’re only here from 9 to 5. They’re gonna go home to their nice, comfortable conditions.”

But the protesters were undaunted.

Michael Wisniewski followed Villaraigosa as he made his way to his GMC Yukon parked down the street. “Mayor,” he said, “would Jesus incarcerate the poor?”

Villaraigosa ignored the question as one of his LAPD security personnel held Wisniewski off. The mayor hopped into the SUV and sped off down 6th Street.

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duke.helfand@latimes.com


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