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Witnessing Occupy L.A.’s final night at City Hall

by Jonah Lowenfeld

November 30, 2011 | 1:30 pm

A protester during a police raid of the Occupy L.A. encampment at City Hall Park in Los Angeles on Nov. 30, 2011. Photo by REUTERS/David McNew

The eradication of the Occupy Los Angeles encampment at City Hall last night by 1,400 Los Angeles Police Department officers was historic in its scope and remarkable for having been carried out without causing too many injuries to protesters—but for reporters trying to cover the event, it was, in at least one way, a typical Los Angeles experience.

I say typical because the first question was where to park, the last worry was about how long it’s going to take to get home, and in the middle, one had to wonder when the bouncers were going to clear the place. A bit like a club night, or a Dodger game, except that the parking lot attendants outnumbered the cars, and they were dressed in riot gear.

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t so typical. The streets around City Hall were already closed off to traffic by 10:30 pm on Tuesday evening, when my colleague Ryan Torok and I arrived downtown, but one of the police officers blocking the intersection at Temple and Broadway let us through when we showed them our press passes. We parked near a couple of news trucks on the side of the street.

Occupy L.A., and the Occupy movement in general, had, from the very start, been very decentralized events—and the final night of the occupation of City Hall Park was no different. The leaders of this leader-less encampment began hearing about the planned police raid in the early evening hours, and they put out a call on social media outlets for “reinforcements”—supporters of their cause—to come downtown and add to their presence.

But by 10:30, the LAPD’s perimeter kept any additional protesters from entering, leaving those already inside to spread out and try to find something to do. There were occasional bouts of chanting, dancing and singing in the streets. The largest groups of protesters gathered along First Street, where most of the news trucks had set up shop. Occasionally a protester would lie down in the middle of the street and people with cameras—and nearly everyone not holding a sign or a candle had a camera—would swarm around and take photographs. One guy with a gas mask and a protective neon yellow jacket seemed to really relish this attention.

Media members were out in force, many of them still—more than two months after the start of the Occupy movement—trying to make sense of what was going on. A reporter from Bloomberg was scrutinizing a few handwritten sheets of paper that had been posted on the glass walls of a bus shelter on Spring Street. One sheet had a neatly handwritten diagram of the Rockefeller family tree.

Were the protesters prepared? Sort of. Many wore bandanas around their necks, and the designated medical response team—a group of 30 people identified by red duct-tape crosses on their t-shirts—were equipped with bottles of Maalox in their backpacks, in case the police used pepper spray to clear the area.

As additional police officers massed in front of LAPD headquarters across the street from City Hall’s South Lawn, rumors swirled among the protesters about what the law enforcement’s next move would be. Protesters on bikes, one organizer said, had spotted LAPD officers massing at Dodger Stadium earlier in the evening. At around 11 pm, someone mentioned that Homeland Security troops had been spotted leaving the Federal Building.

And around 12:15, things began moving very quickly. Following a tip from a protester with a megaphone, Ryan and I watched and then followed as swarms of police with their batons drawn ran onto the South Lawn of City Hall Park, quickly demolishing the makeshift barricades that had been set up by protesters. With the barricades gone—and they were so small, and not manned by anyone from the occupiers, so it’s hard to imagine that any of the protesters expected them to hold against the LAPD force—the officers formed two lines and divided the camp.

“This is what a police state looks like,” chanted the protesters at the center of the encampment, sitting around a single symbolic tent. But to the degree that the LAPD officers were very restrained in their use of force and very calm in their clearing the area, it’s clear that this was no UC Davis, and Syria and Egypt might be better examples for police states. And while the LAPD did kick most of the reporters out of the area before making their 200 arrests last night, they were pretty polite while doing so. Most of those on the lines looked very young—cadets, perhaps?—and the cops in the white Haz-Mat suits, who got to stand aside seemed far more experienced, and at ease.

The strictly enforced and many blocks-wide cordon laid out by the LAPD around the park made it difficult to get back to our car—but eventually, the cops let us through, escorted us out—for members of the media, even the non-profit media, the police treatment was pretty good.

So…now what? Will the occupiers mass somewhere else? Will the movement end without the space that it has called home for the last two months?

Unclear. But rest assured—riot gear and media frenzy or no—we’ll be watching.

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