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LAPD, Occupy movement face new friction

After they were forced out of City Hall park last year, some members of Occupy L.A. made their stand half a mile away on a sidewalk on Towne Avenue that became known as “Occupy Skid Row.”

The encampment, which included homeless people and activists from around the region, took on more political significance in recent months as Occupy made the issue of homeless rights and downtown gentrification its new rallying cry.

But this summer, the Los Angeles Police Department began cracking down, with more citations and arrests on the block and seizures of unattended belongings. The move came as part of a larger cleanup effort on skid row, where crime has risen this year along with the number of people living on the streets.

PHOTOS: Police, protesters clash at 5th and SpringThe standoff on Towne ended a few days ago, when the activists finally succumbed to the pressure and abandoned the camp.

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But some members of the group now say they’re already looking for a new home base, either in another part of skid row or in a more visible portion of downtown. And Occupy L.A. is planning another protest Thursday, to coincide with the monthly Art Walk downtown. Last month, a similar demonstration led to a melee in which four officers were injured and more than 15 people were arrested.

The conflict reflects the heightened tension between protesters trying to make a political statement and LAPD officers trying to clean up skid row.

Police officials argued that the encampment posed a threat to public safety. They said officers found a gun hidden in one of the many shopping carts at the site and arrested a man there who allegedly hit a female officer on the head with a drum during a protest earlier this year.

“Their activism has nothing to do with it,” said Central Division Capt. Horace Frank. “The fact is we’re going to enforce the law.”

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But activists accused the LAPD of having a political agenda, saying officers harassed the camp’s occupants and targeted homeless people on the block because of complaints from local businesses. Becky Dennison, co-director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, an advocacy group that has partnered with Occupy L.A., called the arrests on Towne “wasteful and ridiculous.”

“This is absolutely part of a much larger issue, in terms of folks fighting for their rights, fighting for solidarity, versus these amazing joined political forces who want to roll out a whole new downtown,” she said.

Data from a new skid row census conducted by the LAPD this week showed 1,214 people living on the street without shelter. That’s nearly double the number in 2010, but less than earlier this year.

With the population increase has come more crime — and an aggressive response from police. In April, 40 additional officers were assigned to cover downtown. During the first half of 2012, the LAPD’s Safer Cities Task Force, which covers Skid Row, made nearly 2200 arrests. Reported crimes have increased more than 40% from last year, largely due to a surge in theft reports.

The formation of the Occupy Skid Row encampment dates to November, when the city staged a dramatic eviction of protesters encamped around City Hall. On Towne Avenue on the eastern side of downtown, a group that ranged from 10 to 20 transients set up their belongings near 4th Street, putting up signs with messages like “We are the 99%" and “Charlie Beck is a Fascist,” referring to the LAPD chief. They were periodically joined by Occupy protesters and others who trekked downtown to help hold down the fort.

About this time, skid row’s sidewalks were becoming more cluttered with personal belongings of homeless people.

A court decision had blunted the LAPD’s ability to collect objects from the streets, and in the ensuing months structures fashioned out of shopping carts, furniture, wheelchairs, baby strollers, bicycles, tarps and blankets began popping up around the area.

Business groups were among the first to complain to city officials, saying the situation was harming their operations. Jim Merry, a vice president at a sea food distributor across the street from the Occupy encampment, said people there were regularly defecating on the street and harassing his employees.

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“We used to do quite a bit more will-call customers, who’d put in an order and come pick it up on their own,” Merry said. “But they just got to the point where they were being challenged, or felt like they were in harm’s way, so they stopped coming here. Sales on those types of orders, he added, “went down to about zero.”

In May, workers from the county Department of Health Services observed piles of feces throughout skid row, along with signs of rodent infestation and over a dozen needles.

A widespread cleanup was conducted the next month, and the LAPD launched its “Operation Clean Streets” to try to make sure conditions didn’t deteriorate again.

Frank said the LAPD was incorrect in its initial interpretation of the ruling on property belonging to homeless people on skid row. While it cannot take and destroy people’s belongings, the department is still allowed to make arrests for people “storing” their belongings on the sidewalk, he said, and he has instructed his officers to do so.

The policy change was particularly evident on Towne, where in recent weeks activists complained about repeated arrests. Mary Czerepuszko, a homeless and disabled woman, said she had been living with the activists but decided to move around the corner to 5th Street after she was arrested twice in July for blocking the sidewalk. At her new spot, she set up a row of three shopping carts with a shaded area for her dog, Precious. She was storing food and clothing inside the small structure.

“If the police think that’s junk, then I’m junk, because those are the things I need to survive,” she said.

After weeks of tension with police, the remaining Occupy activists pulled out from what was left of the encampment last Wednesday. They deny police claims of criminal activity at the camp and said they are now trying regroup.

“How can we do this broader movement if we’re all locked up?” said Jo Jo Smith, an Occupy protester who had been living on Towne since last year. “We had to back away and regroup because of all the arrests. Right now, we’re just floating around…. But they haven’t run us away. It’s a struggle, and we are going to regroup.”

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Police are preparing to be out in force for the Art Walk on Thursday. During the event last month, officers fired nonlethal weapons at a large crowd. Activists from around the state are expected to descend on downtown for what Occupy describes as “an international day of chalking.” “Chalking” involves protesters writing slogans and messages in chalk on sidewalks, streets and walls.

Occupy L.A. member Julie Levine said that although she couldn’t speak for her entire movement, she believed “the emphasis is on keeping it peaceful.”

Frank said the LAPD is hoping for the best, but preparing for the possibility of another clash.

“Obviously, because they’ve been talking about it, we cannot ignore it,” he said.

sam.allen@latimes.com


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