LOS ANGELES, July 13--Last night, the LAPD shot not-as-lethal projectiles, either bean bags or rubber bullets, at people chalking on downtown streets and sidewalks. One observer reported a woman sketching a stick figure didn't get to finish her street art before she was beanbagged. Her partner lunged at the responsible cop, and he was beaten to the ground. Another witness told of a young man who was dropped from his skateboard by police guns. Some of the amateur and impromptu artists responded to the assault with rocks and bottles. Reports estimate fourteen arrests, four injured police, and an unknown number of injured chalkers.
The official event was Art Walk, a monthly art and pub crawl in downtown L.A. But last night Art Walkers transformed it into an Occupy Los Angeles action dubbed Chalk Walk.
In recent weeks, OccupyLA has protested the recently intensified police raids of the houseless residents of Skid Row by camping at night in front of the Central City Association, a local variant of the infamous American Legislative Exchange Council. Like ALEC, the CCA deploys the collective money and influence of international and national corporations to “speak” about elections and write regulations, in this case for the City of Los Angeles. CCA has been instrumental in the recent police harrassment and property removal on Skid Row, the city's ban against tents, and the removal of the Occupy Los Angeles encampment at City Hall that resulted in nearly four hundred arrests. Twelve Occupiers, deploying sticks of pastel chalk, were arrested over several nights for writing their messages in front the CCA offices and on the sidewalks in front of CCA events.
OccupyLA took free speech to Art Walk last night, and LAPD swallowed the bait, hard. What was planned was simple and ingenious: use the sidewalks and pavement at the Art Walk to spread word of the police crackdown on chalking. OccupyLA would either have grounds to claim selective enforcement, or people at Art Walk would see the police cracking down on the mildest of protest. The event and virtually all the plans evolved and emerged as a public Facebook event. The police took the second option, with riot gear and weaponry.
Chalk Walk started at somewhere around 8:00 p.m. when LAPD deployed a double row of cops to face off people chalking on the sidewalk. LAPD detained a handful of people for writing chalk messages on the streets outside the galleries, along with one African-American bystander, and they disappeared into cop cars and into the system. The cops warned children who were chalking that it was vandalism. In front of the amassing crowd, one of the kids turned to the officer and asked, “Why? It washes right off.” Predictably, word spread among the Art Walkers, a generally young and hip group: the police were arresting random people for chalking. Chalking.
The buzz had an hour or so to spread before the cops in cars and on bikes appeared at intersections. People took to the intersection at Fifth and Spring with the classic chant of “Whose streets? Our streets!” Cops poured into the intersection and streets surrounding it. At first, the rows of cops, in helmets and clubs at the ready, allowed foot traffic through the cross streets. Then the blockade started. At one intersection, Officer Martinez explained that some people were inciting a riot. He didn't say who. Locals huddled at intersections trying and failing to get to their trendy downtown lofts. Crowds formed at the blocked off corners, about five hundred or more at Fifth and Spring alone, tense, unsure, and decidedly unhappy. Videos show some people dispersing, others holding their ground, a few making dashes into the no-man's land between the people and the police.
The chalkers were pushed north and out of sight. Word that “rubber bullets were fired” raced through the crowd like a very adult, very frightening version of the childhood game Whisper Down the Lane. The remaining crowd was edgy, but the police were oddly offhand. In a side conversation, Officer Alvarez confirmed that the problem was chalking. His sargeant leaned in and added, “Bottles and rocks and urine were being thrown.” He didn't mention that the beanbags came first.
A young man ran into the street between the cops and the people and drew a dashed line in chalk on the street with the word “OUT” on the cops' side of the line and ran back into the crowd. He ran back again when a couple of cars drove through, nearly erasing his work. With some care, he rewrote it, and added the word “IN” on the people's side of the line. The crowd cheered. Four cops tackled him and took him away.
“This is what a police state looks like.”
It turned out that almost none of those arrested had been associated with Occupy Los Angeles before last night. Hundreds of Art Walkers, hearing of the police clampdown on speech, spontaneously joined in the Chalk Walk protest. Some dispersed when the police moved in. Others stayed to witness or learn first-hand what happens when you chalk your sentiments on Los Angeles's sidewalk.
Years ago, when former LAPD Chief Bratton headed the New York Police Department, he initiated an infamous policy called “broken windows.” It called for the use of disproportionate police force for minor offenses, in theory to prevent escalating criminal activity. In fact, “broken windows” in New York and here became an excuse for the notorious stop-and-frisks that target young people of color for harrassment, and for responding to minor incidents with sufficient force that de-escalation becomes virtually impossible. The policy is coupled with justifications for militarizing the police, post 9-11 criminalization of dissent, and burgeoning L.A. police payrolls when just yesterday the local news had to assure residents that bankruptcy was not the city's the immediate future,. In 2002, when Bratton arrived in Los Angeles, according to the Los Angeles Times he promised he would target graffiti especially in L.A.'s Central District. Chief Charlie Beck kept that promise and more.
Last night, Chief Beck took the next step in broken windows policing, initiating the Chalk on the Sidewalk response: incidents that cause no harm or damage at all, with merely the potential to stimulate anti-government discussion, bring with them fully armed and confrontation-ready riot police, literally. That was Chief Beck's response to Art Walkers and residents of the City of Angels who claimed the small but inalienable right to write with chalk in public spaces, and that's what we heard. Chalk was met with guns.
Occupy Los Angeles is receiving messages of support, encouragement, and participation from around the country and all walks of life. Chalk Walks are in the works across the country, and youth in Los Angeles are offering to carry chalk in solidarity. It may be that the security state has crossed that dashed line the guy drew in the street, and people are about to push back. Tipping points, after all, are small events that trigger collective decisions of “ya basta.” Enough.