It’s no surprise, given the press’s sympathy for the Occupy Wall Street movement, that Time magazine named “The Protester” as its Person of the Year for 2011. The magazine’s editors point to the revolutionary uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria—along with riots in Britain and Greece, and those campers in Lower Manhattan. People might not realize that the magazine’s cover illustration, however, depicting a stern woman with a bandanna covering her face, originated not from Cairo, Athens, or New York, but rather from a photo taken at Occupy Los Angeles.
Occupy L.A. didn’t receive as much national attention as did the Occupy Wall Street crowd in Zuccotti Park. In fact, Los Angeles was one of the last major cities to evict the anti-capitalist protesters from a prominent public space. “Two months is way too long to occupy a park, way too long,” said Councilman Dennis Zine after an LAPD raid dispersed the Occupy camp from City Hall on November 30. “You either enforce the laws or you ignore them—these are the consequences. Once you permit this to start, there is no stopping it.” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and LAPD Chief Charlie Beck held a joint press conference following the closure of City Hall Park, praising the professionalism of the police as well as the “peaceful” occupiers. The mayor called the late-night raid “perhaps one of the finest moments in the history of the Los Angeles Police Department.” No doubt the police acted professionally, but the LAPD has had many fine and proud moments in its history (along with some scandals and disgraces). But after a dismaying stand-off—which dragged on largely because of City Hall’s indecisive leadership—an operation to evict 300 or so scruffy leftists, drug-addled squatters, and union agitators would hardly qualify for a list of the department’s proudest achievements.
City officials should be held accountable for their role in this debacle. Occupy L.A.’s final cost to city taxpayers is still being tabulated, but the toll is expected to top $1 million. And for what? The truth is, Los Angeles put up with the protesters for nearly months before officials found the nerve to call in the police. They didn’t merely look the other way; they encouraged and supported the protesters. In the early weeks of the “occupation,” Zine, Villaraigosa, and their colleagues were all too happy to have hundreds of protesters camped out on the city’s lawn. In October, some council members wandered around the City Hall encampment with cameras in tow, glad-handing protesters and listening to their gripes. Zine told the Los Angeles Times that engaging with the occupiers was “the right thing to do.” City Council president Eric Garcetti was even more accommodating, telling the assembled radicals: “Stay as long as you need to. We’ll continue to work with you.”
On October 19, Villaraigosa and the City Council put their official blessing on record with a joint resolution supporting the “continuation of the peaceful and vibrant exercise in First Amendment Rights carried out by ‘Occupy Los Angeles.’ ” The resolution, authored by Councilman Bill Rosendahl, read as though it had been ghostwritten by the protesters. And because nearly every one of the 15-member council is a liberal Democrat—with one or two passive Republicans—the measure passed unanimously and without a dissenting word.
Even after it became obvious that the occupying mob in Los Angeles was adversely affecting traffic and business downtown, city officials held off ordering a crackdown and instead began a futile series of semi-secret negotiations with the protesters. As time dragged on, occupiers drove a popular farmers’ market from City Hall Park; neighboring businesses reported a spike in vandalism and theft; and the local homeless population began drifting into the camp, bringing drugs and lice with them. There was little reason to hold off from evicting the protesters, since the courts had determined in almost every instance that the encampments were unlawful gatherings, violating a long list of city laws and ordinances. Yet despite the obvious nuisance, city leaders reportedly offered Occupy Los Angeles tax-subsidized office space and even farmland if they agreed to decamp peacefully. The talks went nowhere. The protesters, with their idealized notions of democracy, rejected the idea of “leaders” as hopelessly bourgeois.
Despite the happy ending on City Hall’s north lawn, officials are struggling to reconcile their conflicted emotions over the entire Occupy farce. In his press conference, Villaraigosa suggested that “the Occupy L.A. movement can now amplify their calls for social justice and economic opportunity.” This sort of official nonsense flies in the face of everything the American public has come to know about the Occupy protests. Poll after poll, from Gallup to Rasmussen to Pew, has reported that to the extent people are aware of the Occupy Wall Street movement, they don’t like what they see. Californians have been more sympathetic than most Americans, but even their patience has limits. A Field Poll released the day before the LAPD’s raid on the Occupy Los Angeles camp found that 58 percent of California voters agree with the sentiment behind the protest movement, but nearly half said they don’t identify with the protesters themselves. (Even that result is astonishing: it’s one thing to agree with the fairly straightforward idea that government bailouts of big banks are wrong. But do 46 percent of Golden State voters really identify with drum circles, pot smoking, public urination, indecent exposure, violent brawling, and semi-literate rants against capitalism? And did I mention lice?)
Now that most of the tent cities have been torn down, the Occupy Wall Street movement promises that we haven’t heard the last of it. This may simply be bravado, but Cornel West, the Princeton University “public intellectual,” self-styled democratic socialist, and a regular on the Occupy speaking circuit, predicts that—much like the demonstrations in Cairo, Tripoli, Damascus, and Tunis—the occupiers will ultimately settle their grievances “in the streets.” We’ll see. The question is whether Antonio Villaraigosa and L.A.’s City Council will step in earlier next time.