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L.A. bans pepper spray, baseball bats, weapons and other items at protests

L.A. bans pepper spray, baseball bats, weapons and other items at protests
The American flag draped on Los Angeles City Hall is reflected in the windows of LAPD headquarters in September. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles lawmakers voted Tuesday to ban protesters from carrying pepper spray, baseball bats, glass bottles, stun guns and other potentially dangerous items in the wake of clashes in Berkeley, Charlottesville, Va., and other cities.

The City Council voted 13 to 1 to pass an ordinance that would prohibit a long list of items at rallies, demonstrations and public assemblies, including metal pipes, swords, torches with an open flame, bricks, signs that are not made out of soft material or thin cardboard, and shields made of wood, metal or hard plastic.

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Councilman Mitchell Englander, who championed the new law, said the restrictions would protect protesters and police without infringing on free speech rights.

“These are just common sense,” Englander said.

Assistant City Atty. Julie Raffish said the new restrictions expand on an existing ban on wooden planks at protests, which had already survived a court challenge, and noted that they did not single out any particular kind of speech and were based on specific evidence that the banned items had been used to hurt people at demonstrations nationwide.

But the ban has been sharply criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which argued that many of the prohibited weapons were a “red herring” because they are already restricted under existing laws. The group said the new law would end up criminalizing the act of carrying ordinary items such as soda bottles or stiff signs.

Civil rights attorneys have also challenged whether the city can legally ban people from bringing things to a protest that they would otherwise be free to carry on the street. At Tuesday’s hearing, Councilman Mike Bonin grilled Raffish on whether the new restrictions would cover street fairs, farmers markets and other public gatherings.

Raffish said that the existing ban on wooden planks, which has been on the books for decades, had been historically applied to “expressive activities” regulated and permitted by the police commission. The ban would apply to someone if they “were going to engage in expressive activity” at one of the events Bonin mentioned, she said.

“You’re saying that someone who goes to the Mar Vista farmers market who wants to protest the Trump administration … cannot carry a stun gun or an ice pick or bear repellent. Totally get it. But anybody else who’s going, just to buy some apples or mushrooms, they can bring those materials with them?” Bonin asked.

Bonin, the sole council member to vote against the ban, said he didn’t get clear or consistent answers to his questions.

The councilman said he would be fine with banning stun guns, bear repellent and weapons at all kinds of public events — such as youth soccer games and farmers markets as well as protests — but was worried about whether the city was drawing a legally sound distinction.

Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, who had previously questioned whether the new rules could jeopardize immigrants and other people who unwittingly bring banned items to peaceful demonstrations, asked the Police Department to explain how the ban would be enforced.

LAPD Deputy Chief Horace Frank said that people would get a chance to turn in banned items or leave the event before facing arrest. Under the new law, police are supposed to give an initial warning “when feasible.”

The new law, which was passed as an “urgency ordinance,” will probably go into effect within days, according to city officials. Protests against the Trump administration are expected in major cities across the country, including L.A., on Saturday, according to online posts by activist groups and Los Angeles Police Department officials who declined to be identified.

L.A. is banning these and other items from protests:

  • Metal pipes
  • Plastic pipes, except for thin hollow ones to hold up signs or puppets
  • Signs that are not made out of soft material
  • Baseball bats
  • Pepper spray
  • Any aerosol spray
  • Catapults or wrist rockets
  • Firearms, pellet guns and BB guns
  • Knives and swords
  • Razor blades
  • Nunchucks and other martial arts weapons
  • Stun guns
  • Chains longer than 20 inches
  • Balloons or containers filled with noxious material
  • Glass bottles
  • Open flame torches or lanterns
  • Metal, wood or hard plastic shields
  • Bricks, rocks or pieces of asphalt
  • Pellets or ball bearings
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