Buscaino launches run for mayor with focus on homelessness. Woman with a knife interrupts

Los Angeles police officers wrestle a knife away from a woman during Joe Buscaino’s mayoral campaign launch in Venice on Monday morning.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
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One of the first in-person events in the 2022 Los Angeles mayoral election centered on the issue likely to animate the entire race: homelessness.

It ended with a homeless woman being arrested Monday after she pulled out a knife a few feet from City Councilman Joe Buscaino.

Buscaino had trekked from his harbor area district to the Venice boardwalk, where he spoke starting at 7:15 a.m. about how tents on sidewalks, in parks and beaches were inhumane and should be banned more forcefully. He spoke for 10 minutes as supporters — fed up with the state of homelessness in Venice — held signs and cheered him on.

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After speaking, Buscaino began shaking hands with the roughly 75 to 100 constituents who had come out to listen when Venice resident Nico Ruderman caught sight of a homeless woman standing behind Buscaino holding a knife.

“She said, ‘I’m gonna start killing people,’ and I jumped forward and grabbed Joe,” Ruderman said. He was wearing a “Recall Bonin” sticker, in reference to the campaign to remove the current councilmember for the district, Mike Bonin.

That’s when two private security officers pulled their guns and grabbed Buscaino and hustled him to a black SUV nearby. Police officers quickly detained the woman as the crowd looked on, filming with their cellphones. A roughly 6-inch blade dropped to the sand as the woman yelled that she had the knife for protection and to cut fruit.

A woman was arrested on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon during Councilman Joe Buscaino’s mayoral campaign launch Monday.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Ruderman and other people at the scene gave witness statements to officers.

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Officer William Cooper, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department, identified the suspect as Alaia Smith, 19, a resident of Washington state. Smith was arrested at around 7:50 a.m. on suspicion of carrying a concealed dirk or dagger, Cooper said. As she was being detained, the suspect told the crowd watching that her name is Angel.

A police captain who was cut during the arrest is stable and receiving medical treatment, another LAPD spokesman said.

Afterward, Buscaino issued a statement expressing gratitude for his safety and “the quick action of the Los Angeles Police Department.” He added: “This is exactly why I was in Venice Beach today, charting a new course for our city, and I am convinced now, more than ever, that bold action is needed to make our city safer for everyone, regardless of housing status.”

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Buscaino, who represents a district stretching from Watts to San Pedro, served in the LAPD for 15 years and is currently a reserve officer. He is the first City Council member to enter the 2022 mayor’s race. His appearance in Venice was the latest indication that homelessness would be a central issue in the June 2022 mayoral campaign.

Activists, business owners, nonprofit groups and homeowners are now locked in a debate over where homeless people should be permitted to camp and what type of strategies should be employed to address the crisis.

In Echo Park, the city’s recent decision to clear an encampment with nearly 200 tents has drawn protests from advocates for homeless people. In downtown L.A., a federal judge recently instructed city and county officials to provide shelter to the more than 2,000 homeless people living on skid row — an order that is now on appeal. And on the Westside, a plan to evaluate several public parks and beach parking lots as sites for homeless facilities has sparked a backlash from neighborhood groups.

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Buscaino has favored restrictive rules that dictate where homeless people can sleep, arguing that such rules ensure that the sidewalks will remain passable for everyone. He also has pushed to resume cleanups at homeless encampments, a process that was paused because of health concerns during the pandemic.

A federal court order in Boise, Idaho, that set a legal precedent also has restricted the extent to which cities can stop people from camping if there are no housing alternatives.

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Buscaino’s own district is grappling with homelessness, as are many parts of the city. But Venice Beach has emerged as a flashpoint in the debate over where to put services for homeless people, and has some of the most vocal critics of the city’s homelessness policies.

So far, only two politicians have entered the race for mayor — Buscaino and City Atty. Mike Feuer. But several others have been weighing a run in recent months, including City Council President Nury Martinez and Councilmembers Kevin de León and Mark Ridley-Thomas.

Since entering the race, Buscaino has railed about what he considers the ineffectiveness of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, a city-county agency that coordinates the region’s response to homelessness. He called for the money being spent by the city to be diverted to other homelessness responses.

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Steps from the border with Santa Monica, which has kept homeless people from camping on its beach or boardwalk, he noted how no tents lined the beach looking north.

“Behind me in Santa Monica is common sense,” Buscaino said. “Here in Venice is nonsense.”

Protesters also came out to voice their discontent with the tone and tenor of Buscaino’s campaign. They set up a table on the boardwalk to hand out food and hot coffee to people sleeping nearby.

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“This is a hateful rally in front of people struggling to survive,” said Jane Nguyen, a member of the homeless outreach and advocacy group Ktown for All.

Shortly after the Buscaino event wrapped, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva walked by in a cowboy hat, giving an interview to a local television reporter. He railed about the failures of local elected officials “to properly regulate public spaces” and said he’d like to see the boardwalk cleared of tents by the Fourth of July.

The Venice boardwalk is usually policed by the LAPD, not the sheriff’s office, so it is not clear what Villanueva’s role would be in any clearance.

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But a few hours after the event, Villanueva wrote on his Twitter account that the Sheriff’s Department’s homeless outreach services team would be assessing Venice on Tuesday in order to “triage the crisis and develop an action plan.”

Times staff writer Kevin Rector contributed to this report.

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