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Rabbi Yonah Bookstein Headshot

A Rabbi's Testimony: The Repression and Elimination of OccupyLA

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There are many reports, videos and photos online capturing the protests, violence and arrests as the final, large-scale Occupy protest in the country came to end. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to tell my story as a clergy witness to the police crackdown on dissident voices and the disgraceful conduct of Mayor Villaraigosa and the leadership of the Los Angeles Police Department.

It's difficult to describe the entirety of events which took place as OccupyLA was raided and dismantled late Tuesday night, Nov. 29, into the early morning hours on Nov. 30. The protest had persevered for two months camped out at the foot of LA City Hall through torrential rains and heat. OccupyLA was unlike anything the city has ever seen. (See my article "Don't be Afraid of People in Tents, Learn From Them.") As I write these words I am still overwhelmed with emotion thinking of the amazing community of righteousness, giving and tolerance, crushed in one evening by the Los Angeles Police Department and the mayor.

(Photo by Bret Hartman. Protester is pinned to the cement by four LAPD officers during non-violent civil disobedience at OccupyLA Nov. 29, 2011. He had refused the police order to disperse and sat with other protesters in the city park waiting to be arrested.)

When news of the impending eviction of the protest reached me by text message, I rushed downtown wearing a hastily made shirt with "CLERGY" written in duck tape on the back. I intended to be there when the hammer dropped. Having served as a clergy witness at the Bank of America civil-disobedience on Nov. 17, I was intent on bearing witness to the end of OccupyLA.

Police had posted temporary no-parking signs on every street within three blocks of city hall. I found an all-night parking lot a half-mile away and walked quickly to the park. People streamed in from every direction. People were already marching around the park waving signs, swelling the number of suporters of OccupyLA to what seemed like a thousand. Starting around eight o'clock that evening, I stood with other clergy in the center of the park in a circle hoping and praying for a peaceful resolution of the impending conflict. We also offered hugs and spiritual support to those who needed it. We were a mixed interfaith group of clergy -- Christians, Muslims and Jews -- many who were familiar with one another from other social justice campaigns.

Representatives of each faith community were asked to address the thousands of protesters who had amassed that night as word had spread of the police action. Supporters and long time residents of OccupyLA were sitting on the steps of Los Angeles's towering City Hall, spread across the sloping hill and surrounding the center square for the last General Assembly. We addressed the crowd, praying for peace and for the message of OccupyLA -- a call for economic justice -- to reach the broader community. The crowd was as diverse as Los Angeles. Contrary to accusations of anti-Semitism, I was greeted with "Shalom" everywhere and a warm welcome, as I had during my previous visits.

As a looming feeling of vulnerability spread, protesters took to chanting, waiving signs, standing defiant on the corners of the encampment. Someone created a giant mural on the street spelling out "99%" in newsprint.  Others anticipating what might be coming their way, milled about the camp and surrounding streets. An international media circus was underway. Reporters in Spanish, English and Japanese filled live reports from the media line across from the park. The TV journalists' coiffed hair and makeup stood in contrast to the eclectic outfits worn by protesters, and the dark navy uniforms of the riot police. Some TV stations and other media were in collaboration with the police. We heard reporters speaking into the camera saying, "the LAPD has asked us not to disclose details of their upcoming operation."

As the cordon of the police closed in on City hall, street after street, we received reports of supporters halted blocks away by police barricades and check points. We anticipated that this was going to be the largest police action in LA in decades. Planning and training had begun weeks before and it was all going down now.

The "troops," as they were referred to by commanding officers over their radios, had assembled at Dodger Stadium and were bussed downtown in secrecy, 1,400 in all. As more and more reports came in via Twitter, we searched for anyone among the police with some authority in order to arrange our witnessing, but these decision-makers were absent. There were a few police cars milling around but otherwise an eerie emptiness fell on the civic heart of the Los Angeles.

A group of 20 police suddenly exited a door behind us, and stood adjacent to the $246 million Police Administration Building. Soon after, senior members of the police came out including the head of public information, Commander Smith, and Incident Commander Deputy Chief Jose Perez. When we found Chief Perez, the clergy group discussed the possibility of serving as Clergy Witnesses and Peacekeepers. After some negotiation, four members from the interfaith clergy group were allowed to witness, "once the park was secured," said Chief Peres. It was those ominous words which proved to be the difference.

The police acted with tactical precision, using diversion tactics, overwhelming force and airships circling overhead. Five hundred police troops in riot gear poured out of city hall, pushing over tents and protesters and at times beating and tackling the media and those caught in the melee by accident. Other forces moved in from east and west surrounding and diving protesters into smaller groups. There had been no warning. There was no announcement. There were no final appeals by the police for the protesters and the others who had supported the protest to disperse.

Within minutes the police occupied the entire park. The police divided the park into smaller sections and lined all the pathways. They established long skirmish lines and began pushing protesters that were peacefully demonstrating off the sidewalks and the streets. These demonstrators were not in the park, but they were nonetheless quickly isolated and pushed away.

The police brought in two vehicles to make announcements. The first, a golf-cart fitted with a small toaster-sized speaker, announced the city municipal code that made staying in the park past 10 p.m. a violation of Los Angeles Municipal Codes. It was inaudible except to those standing next to it. Then the police brought in a larger pick-up truck sized vehicle equipped with a loud speaker announcing that an order to disperse had been given. The ominous, unmistakable, booming loudspeaker voice announced that the protest was now illegal. Police gave 10 minutes for people to disperse before arrests would commence. We learned later that arrests had already been made during the initial raid, before the dispersal orders were given when police came upon some protesters who defied their orders to move.

All this time that while the police were adding layers to the cordon of the park and the streets, through the two announcements and the 10 minute window to get out, our group of clergy were kept away from the park. We knew that we were being played at that point, but had no recourse. We were not allowed to get closer, but forced to watch from a distance across the street at the base of Police Headquarters. Media that were not embedded with the police -- some nine media crews received pre-raid orientations and were allowed to document the raid -- were forced to film from a distance.

Our clergy witness group was finally escorted into the park, around the skirmish lines, beyond the police cordons, escorted by two officers. We witnessed a scene of devastation like one might see after a tornado or natural disaster. What had once been a community of tents, art, a medical clinic, community kitchen, media center, performance and meeting spaces, lay in shambles, overrun by the massive police force. Isolated groups of protesters were cowering next to trees, surrounded. Protesters had climbed up trees to evade capture. A group of almost 100 were sitting, arms linked, in the center of what was dubbed Liberty Square, surrounded by hundreds of police with batons drawn, shotguns with beanbags and rubber bullets pointed at the sitting protesters.

High up in a tree-house, 30 feet from the ground, a group of merrymakers mocked the raid and police. The tree house was built from wooden pallets and bamboo poles, decorated with American flags, peace signs, Occupy signs. Protesters built the tree-house on the Sunday before the raid, behind a large tarp to obscure the construction from view. The three yelled down triumphantly through a megaphone to the police and media quoting American Constitutional law about sovereignty, drank beer, smoked cigars and would prove to be the last of the protesters arrested.

We were an imam, a priest, a rabbi and a Jewish lay leader. We were there to witness. We were there to preach peacefulness to the police and the protesters. To the credit of the police at this point we were allowed to speak with all the remaining protesters. We explained that they would be imminently arrested and they could still leave if they were afraid. We gave hugs. We encouraged everyone to be peaceful in order to avoid unnecessary conflict. We prayed. Two had a change of heart, and while we directed them to safety, they were escorted from the park and promptly arrested. The remaining and defiant core of occupiers were at peace with their decision to be arrested. While I was inspired at their resilience, I was very concerned that so many were willing to be arrested. It was not going to be pleasant judging from the force used to break up the protest. We could not guarantee their fair treatment once they were in police custody. The arrests were not going to postpone the results -- OccupyLA's existence as a permanent protest was finished. On the other hand, their arrest and treatment would lead to empathy with their cause, keeping the movement and its goals in the public spotlight.

Policeman, donning protective vests, helmets, three-foot long batons used for riots, swat gear and plastic gloves, descended on the groups of protesters occupying the central part of the park. Methodically, they wrenched apart the protesters who sat arm-in-arm, ordering them to obey and not resist. When the protesters refused to let go of each other, the police tore them apart, dragged them on their fronts across the brick ground, and pressed their arms painfully backwards, affixing plastic restraints. Sometimes the protesters already had a knee in their back, but the policeman was still yelling "do not resist." It was obvious to everyone that no one was doing anything to resist. We stood powerless, and were kept at a further distance than some of the media. Six officers descended on each protesters. We initially called out to the police to show more care and restraint. We were ignored, and after a dozen arrests realized that this was futile. The brutal and forceful arrests continued against peaceful protesters. Most of those who voluntarily held out their hands to be arrested were marched off without incident. What we saw at times could only be described as abuse and willful harm.

The arrests continued for hours. Two hundred and 92 protesters where arrested.

Some protesters were carried out. Most yelled as the plastic handcuffs were pressed into their skin. Not one protester attempted to escape arrest. Not one. I watched every arrest that I could of the peaceful protesters, praying with my colleagues that once they left our sight they would be treated as the peaceful protesters that they were. As I write at the end of this article, I now know that was not the case.

While the sitting and peaceful members of OccupyLA were being arrested one by one, it became apparent that the police were ill-prepared for protesters camped in three different trees. In order to bring them out, the police shlepped in a police cherry picker that belonged to the bomb squad on a flatbed truck. In order to bring the large machine into the park, the police began to clear a path in the debris created from the raid and make-shift roadblocks. The cherry picker basket ascended carrying two police with batons drawn, and one policeman pointing a rifle containing bean-bag rounds aimed at the protesters. Eventually, the police pulled the protesters out of the trees.

The mayor appeared. After two months Mayor Villaraigosa finally descended from City Hall and toured the encampment that had once been OccupyLA. Not once in two months did the mayor ever visit the camp. While he paid lip service originally to the grievances of the protesters, he gradually become tired of being the last city with a serious Occupy presence. It has been reported that he participated in a multi-city conference call on how to end the occupations with members of Homeland Security. The mayor arrived on the scene escorted by the Chief of Police Beck. As they walked quickly through the debris, I wondered to myself if he was proud of how this ended. Side by side, the mayor and Chief Beck stood in the middle of the street for an impromptu press-conference. The mayor justified the crackdown, praised the police and ignored the peacefulness of the protesters. The triumphant mayor and his army had completed the victimization and dehumanization of the longest continuous protest in Los Angeles history.

By 4 a.m., everyone seated in the park or in a tree was arrested and detained on buses parked nearby. However, one group remained the focus now of the police and the media -- the treehouse sitters. The creativity, resilience and peacefulness of this final group were a microcosm of the whole OccupyLA movement. Surrounded, outnumbered by forces far greater and more powerful, yet they did not cower in fear. They revelled in their platform to address the issues, even if few were listening. While prepared for all kinds of violence that never materialized, the police had no idea how to get them out of the tree, whose top story gave the protesters the opportunity to peer into the third floor of city hall. The tree-house was tarped on all sides and it was impossible to see a way up, let alone to see inside.

The pathway to the palm trees housing was up a steep slope covered in broken pieces of a smashed tent city. Groups of police began the tough work clearing a path to the trees. A larger police rescue truck rumbled on the brick lined pathways of the park. Atop the vehicle was a large hydraulic platform. Behind the rescue vehicle was the cherry picker. Soon the cherry picker was in position, hoisting up three officers to the second story of the tree house. One aimed his shotgun directly at the tree-sitters.

Just before the officers arrived, the three occupants stood atop the structure, one carrying a small dog they introduced as "Lucky." The media and police gasped in unison, "A dog!" "They have a dog!" "They better not hurt that dog!" One camerawoman leaned over to me a casually said, "I don't care what happens to those guys in the tree, but they [the protesters] better not hurt that dog." Her feelings were shared by nodding members of the police and media. It was incredulous, and I was speechless.

These guys had camped out in the park peacefully for two months. Their homes and movement had just been brutally smashed and lay in ruins at their feet. Yet, they continued their protest through it all. They stood peacefully. And now they were going to hurt an innocent dog?

Lucky the dog became the new cause celeb of the media and the police still in full riot gear. Even as the protesters were wrestled by force from the tree house, and shot upon with rounds of bean bags which had not until this time been used, the onlookers were worried only about Lucky.

With the last protesters arrested, teams of detectives in hazmat outfits, dust masks and rubber gloves descended on the wasted tent community. They were tasked with examining the property left behind. I was told they would collect and catalogue personal belongings as evidence. They were to be carted away to some warehouse, and then former residents of OccupyLA could retrieve them once the legal issues had been resolved. I was asked by one man in a hazmat suit if "I knew where they were cataloging weapons they found searching through the debris," as he held up a kitchen knife. That was my last interaction with the LAPD on the scene.

A man with a heavy Spanish accent arrived on the scene. He wanted to retrieve a backpack containing material for his school work. The police would not let him father into the area -- even though he was already in the middle of the park in order to retrieve his belongings. Eventually one of the female officers went to look for the bag but could not find it and sent him on his way.

Conflict reveals the the ugly side of opponents, while peaceful resolutions recognize the humanity in each one of us. My convictions are that most police officers were not acting out of hate or spite, but rather they were following the orders given to them by their superiors. They had been trained to deal with the protesters in this brutal manner. They were issued flak-jackets, riot gear, night sticks, crowd-dispersal arsenal and plastic gloves because they were readied for conflict. This preparation for conflict made their approach confrontational because they had been warned there would be violence. They were not instructed that the protesters had made a vow of nonviolence. They were ill-prepared for dealing with nonviolent protesters. My conversations with some police confirmed that they were not all thugs but that they had compassion and even identified with the Occupy movement. I conversed with one policemen carrying a shotgun loaded with rubber bullets. I asked him if he had ever used the gun. He turned to me, and with compassion in his eyes said, "I really hope I never have to use this." But they had jobs, and they wanted to keep those jobs in this economy. So they followed orders that night, rounded up protesters, formed skirmish lines, smashed through the encampment, dragged off protesters, pacified the already peaceful.

The final police troops in their riot gear and crowd dispersal arsenals gathered and left the park. The hazmat crews were still sifting debris. Huge flatbed trucks parked adjacent to the park carrying huge concrete barriers that would form the base of the fence the city built around the park. As the eastern sky began to brighten with the coming dawn, I walked back to my car, wondering what was the fate of democracy in the home of the free and the land of the brave.

Epilogue

In the hours following the arrests, reports of abuse by the Los Angeles Police began to surface. Detained on buses for sometimes as much as seven hours at at time, hands pinched in plastic handcuffs, the arestees were not permitted water of bathroom breaks. Some were placed in small cages inside the buses. Several women urinated on themselves as they were denied bathrooms. When finally they arrived in jail, treatment varied from bad to worse. Their bail was set at $5,000 -- many times the amount normally levied on misdemeanors -- as a punishment. Two days into the ordeal there were still protesters in jail. Eventually, charges were filed against 20 protesters.

As a member of the clergy, and an eyewitness to the violent end to OccupyLA and the police brutality following the crackdown, here is my list of demands:
  • Demand that charges be dropped against all protesters -- they were never a threat to riot or cause harm. Unlawful assembly is a legal term to describe a group of people with the mutual intent of deliberate disturbance of the peace. There was NEVER attempt to do this. The only one causing disturbance of peace were the "peace officer.s"
  • Demand an apology from the mayor's office and the LAPD and acknowledge that they treated the protesters improperly.
  • Demand that we have representatives that follow any arrestees to final destination in future actions.
  • Demand that future arrests be done without the use of violence and riot troops.
  • Demand an investigation into police abuse, the detention of protesters who had obeyed orders to disperse, and the legality of the decision to shot down the protest.