City Hall occupation’s days may be numbered

With Occupy protesters cleared out of camps in Oakland, Portland and New York in recent days, the encampment of tents surrounding Los Angeles City Hall is among the biggest and last such protests still standing. But on Tuesday, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said it cannot stand indefinitely.

Beck said police were working with protesters on a timeline to shut down or move the camp while avoiding the sort of confrontations seen in other cities.

But several protesters said they knew of no negotiations or timeline to end the demonstration. “I’m shocked and I’m horrified at such a comment,” said protester Mario Brito, who has served as a liaison with the city. “They’ve never asked us to leave.”

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Confusion over who speaks for the protesters has underscored the difficulty of devising a workable end game for the nearly 2-month-old camp. Among the hallmarks of the Occupy movement, which is protesting wealth disparities and what participants see as corporate greed, have been inclusiveness and leaderless decision-making.

Police have been talking informally with protesters as they walk through the camp each day and have been meeting more formally with a small group of protesters, said LAPD Cmdr. Andrew Smith. But Smith acknowledged that the campers who attend those meetings, and who have asked police not to reveal their identities, may not speak for the whole group.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa cited health and safety concerns three weeks ago when he said the protest “cannot continue indefinitely.” He vowed to identify another location for the demonstration but has not proposed another site or laid out a target date for relocation.

Villaraigosa and other Los Angeles lawmakers are walking a tricky political line, in part because of the early political support heaped on the protest. The City Council officially backed the demonstration in October. And the influential Los Angeles County Federation of Labor has called on City Hall to let the protesters stay.

At the same time, reports of crime and damage to the city’s lawn are increasing the pressure to act. On Tuesday, City Atty. Carmen Trutanich weighed in on the issue with a press release announcing that five people from the camp have been charged with a list of misdemeanor crimes, including lewd conduct.

L.A. police have promised protesters that they will not conduct a surprise raid.

But given the crackdowns elsewhere, some Occupy L.A. protesters were bracing for the worst. Michael Gray, a 21-year-old student at Pitzer College who took the year off to participate in the protests, said he bought a gas mask after police sweeps in Oakland. He said he’s prepared for the L.A. encampment to be broken up in a similar fashion. “We would be naive to think we were exempt,” he said.

City Councilman Richard Alarcon, an early supporter, said he believes the protest can continue without an encampment. “In this case, the ground is less important than the message,” he said. The city has “demonstrated great restraint and has done a tremendous job of allowing people to express themselves,” he said.

The discussion now should shift to how the Occupy movement can transform itself, he said. “It’s not how they move out. It’s how they move forward.”

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