Public health concerns: an OLA eviction myth

January 5, 2012

(MC Barnes / LA Activist)

An LA Activist investigation has revealed that an oft-cited justification for evicting Occupy Los Angeles, that of concerns over public health, doesn’t reflect documents obtained from the health department.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and multiple news media outlets repeatedly alluded to the issue as a necessity for ousting the two-month long sit-in demonstration at City Hall. However, reports from the LA County Dept. of Health tell a different story, showing that minor issues were quickly dealt with by occupy organizers.

Angelo Bellomo, the department’s director of Environmental Health, told LA Activist that the health dept. made daily visits to the occupy encampment. He said occupiers routinely complied with the department’s orders and that issues were dealt with on the same or next day of notification.

Bellomo said the occupiers were “fairly well organized” because they had committees that dealt with serving food and portable toilet inspections.

“We would bring [code violations] to their attention and the organizers would respond immediately to correct the conditions,” he said. “In fact, they had shared with us it was their intent to comply with the basic health and sanitation laws so that it did not become a basis for their removal.”

Despite the occupiers’ efforts, public health was made an issue. In a Oct. 27 article, the Los Angeles Times reported that Mayor Villaraigosa “decided the camp could not stay after Los Angeles County health inspectors expressed worries about the cleanliness of the camp.”

But on the same day of the Times’ article, Bellomo sent a letter to Gaye Williams, Villaraigosa’s chief of staff, stating quite the opposite. In the matter of toilets, wastewater disposal, food safety, personal hygiene and refuse and debris removal, Bellomo reported minor infractions that were quickly remedied, and noted that bottled water had been “in adequate supply.”

According to Bellomo, the letter was an attempt to lay out the agency’s standards so as to avoid any miscommunication with city officials and the occupiers. The letter gave an overview of the department’s actions, as well as their findings, at Occupy LA.

Although Bellomo acknowledged the potential health risks with the sit-in demonstration, he told LA Activist the health dept. was never worried. He said the agency treated the demonstration like an encampment caused by a natural disaster, such as a wildfire or earthquake.

“We did have our finger on the pulse with regard to any diseases that could have resulted,” he said.

A day after the Times’ news article and Bellomo’s letter, the Times editorial staff raised the issue of public health.

“There are obvious sanitation, vermin and public-health problems that come with an impromptu encampment in an urban zone,” said their editorial, urging Occupy LA’s removal.

On Nov. 18, the Times editorial staff went a little further by reporting that “lice have been a problem” at the encampment.

However, there exists no health dept. report of lice at Occupy LA.

Bellomo explains that after hearing a rumor of head lice at the encampment, health dept. nurses went to City Hall and interviewed protesters. They couldn’t find anyone with the critters. Instead, nurses counseled people on what to do in case of head lice, similar to what they do when schools have an outbreak.

“The Times must have had a different source of input then we did,” said Bellomo.

They did. Nicholas Goldberg, the Times’ editorial page editor, told LA Activist via email that their information came from an LAPD spokesman, who told them, “There was a lice infestation earlier” at Occupy LA.

“He was describing conditions that the police and health department were aware of in the encampment,” wrote Goldberg.

The invented lice problem wasn’t isolated to the Times. It was repeated by other media outlets, even after the protesters had been evicted. On Dec. 10, KPCC reported that lice had been an “obvious problem” at the demonstration.

During the clean up of City Hall, CBS Los Angeles quoted an unidentified worker who justified the use of hazmat crews by saying, “There were a lot of reports of staph infections and lice and things like that.”

When it came time to evict the occupiers, the mayor, in a  Nov. 25 letter to Occupy LA, said their protest was “not sustainable” on the basis “of public health and public safety.”

LA Activist was unsuccessful in reaching the mayor’s office for comment.

Bellomo explains that, in an encampment with people living in close quarters and in less than perfect circumstances, a situation regarding health can degrade quickly. However, most health issues, he said, could have been dealt with at City Hall.

“It depends on the situation,” he said. “If there is an infestation of head lice then people can be treated right there. You wouldn’t simply say, ‘OK everybody, we got to get out of here.’ I think it really depends on the type of problem you are dealing with.”

But there never was a health situation to begin with, a fact that is not missed by occupiers.

Carlos Marroquin, a homeowner advocate and occupier, said the public health excuse was created to malign the protesters and obtain a political objective. He feels the news media were actively seeking to portray an unstable environment at City Hall to capitalize off of the sensationalism.

“It was bogus,” he said. “The excuses they used were just absolutely outrageous.”

Occupier PJ Davenport sees the concerns over protesters’ health as disingenuous. Both her and Marroquin talked about a real public health issue only a few blocks away from City Hall: Skid Row.

“Those people on Skid Row are not part of an organized campaign against greed and corruption in this country, to hold banks accountable and demanding to get money out of politics,” said Davenport. “So those people didn’t seem to matter. Their health concerns were irrelevant to the media and the mayor.”

For Davenport, the eviction of Occupy LA also came down to politics and to an entrenched establishment desperately seeking to rid the city of a 24/7 reminder of their own shortcomings.

“When you are tampering with people’s free speech, you’ve got to come up with a mighty, mighty reason to do that,” she said. “And their mighty reason was health concerns. So when they come in and they do this ridiculous, over-the-top, very costly raid, they can say, ‘Well we did it for the good of the people.’”

“It’s bullshit,” she added. “They did it to maintain the status quo.”

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17 Responses to Public health concerns: an OLA eviction myth

  1. Owen Blank on January 5, 2012 at 10:21 am

    Bullshit. Sorry, I’ve been to Occupy Lansing and Occupy Baltimore. Just for giggles. You are dirty dirty people. Please get your crap out of public parks. And stop hanging you laundry up to dry or air out. Seriously. Have a nice day.

  2. Amber Stephens on January 5, 2012 at 8:51 pm

    Owen- you’ve been to two occupations once out of over 300 in the country. Congrats you are now an expert of the movement! You win…two multibillion dollar wars, a collapsed economy and a melting planet!

  3. Mike Peake on January 5, 2012 at 11:12 pm

    Sounds like #Occupy Los Angeles have a potential libel suit against the city, in addition to wrongful eviction.

    (Owen, I visited the encampment a few times before it was raided, and I found a healthy, positive, clean, supportive, smart, happy community…one which also extended a welcoming and supportive hand to the homeless, which considering the thousands on skid row just four blocks from city hall, is far more than the city ever did.)

    Which of course is quite likely part of the reason the city could not bear the #Occupation’s existence. Helping people? God forbid!

  4. PJ on January 5, 2012 at 11:30 pm

    Just for giggles I go to Occupies and cruise the comments section of articles written about them, so I can say they are dirty… just for giggles? Owen, have you ever considered a hobby?

  5. PJ on January 5, 2012 at 11:38 pm

    Thanks for the read, Dan. You have cracked the shell. Enough cracks and the entire thing will crumble before our eyes. There is a web of deceit being spun at the Trifecta on Spring and 1st. Look at their books. L.A. has a 72 million dollar budget shortfall for 2011. They have a short fall every year. Wait till you see the sh*t hit the fan in 2012. L.A.’s projected budget deficit for the year beginning July 1, 2012 is about $250 million, while the cumulative budget deficit over the next four years is approaching $1 Billion. One of two things is true, L.A. City Hall is either inept or criminal. No one is that bad at balancing the books and now we are supposed to overlook the bigger issue and focus on the negative press they have drummed up regarding the cost of Occupy LA. Dead grass and head lice. Puleaze!

  6. Liz on January 6, 2012 at 12:00 am

    We were dirty because the health department took our showers away. True story.

  7. Scott on January 6, 2012 at 12:43 am

    I visited Occupy LA mulptiple times and was always impressed with how clean it was given the circumstances. Trash was in trash cans, the portable toilets were maintained, and they had a place to wash your hands with soap and water next to the toilets.

    The people I encountered ranged from middle-aged attorneys, young college students, retired teachers, and yes homeless people who were quite sane, polite, and sanitary with only a handful of exceptions where mental health was clearly an issue. Some of the homeless folk said they had been instructed BY THE LAPD to stay at Occupy LA in order to receive food and shelter.

    My last visit to the camp was the night of the raid and things were still relatively clean. When I saw all the debris on the news

  8. Scott on January 6, 2012 at 12:45 am

    Pardon me. I meant to finish by saying that when I saw all the debris and trash on the news the next morning, I was shocked. That is not how the occupiers left it.

  9. FoCali on January 6, 2012 at 8:02 am

    We know LA Mayor and Chief are shady people. Just curious this is a good story is their anyway of asking Mayor in person of these findings.

  10. FE on January 6, 2012 at 9:00 am

    This article illuminates a tremendous problem for activists who wish to create movements impacting the greater society: We lose because we are attempting to use reason and common sense. The battle for public opinion is won at the most base level of human ignorance. Public opinion can only be made to sway for good or bad when appealing to the most uninformed, or mis-informed areas of understanding. When push comes to shove, and it became obvious that the Occupy LA movement wasn’t fading, an appeal to our most base instincts was made. “The people are dirty.” When this is repeated by major media outlets, and the conversation becomes one about hygiene rather than complex economic law, it becomes impossible to reverse the discourse. Since it is easier to win an argument over bathing than banking, the rest of the citizens look away as the free speech is swept away by police forces at the bidding of self-serving politicians.

  11. Kathy Smith on January 6, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    They will always come up with an excuse. I support the occupiers. You are on the front lines for the rest of us. They will always find a reason. please keep the truth coming….

  12. Ashley on January 10, 2012 at 3:59 pm

    Simply put, we knew they’d have to make something up. We knew what they could claim long before they got tired of us, and we worked proactively to eliminate any reason for any city department to have health concerns. I was told by several LAPD officers on multiple occasions that our upkeep impressed them, and as far as they were concerned, we were keeping things healthy and safe. Unfortunately, it isn’t those same smiling human officers who make the decision of whether or not the mayor is sick of us. I still have the business cards of two different heath inspectors who seemed to genuinely appreciate our efforts. We used donated OLA funds to register many people as certified food handlers in order to play by the rules, and I may never forget how amazed i was by the amount of people constantly volunteering to scrub the porta-potties.

    But none of that matters when the press lies to the people. What really happened may as well not have happened. Our only hope is that the truth will come out on top eventually, but I don’t see these fabrications ending anytime soon. It’s just another speed bump on the road to positive change, and each new lie only makes me want to protest harder.

  13. Daren McCloud on January 10, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    The truth will set the world free. great work LAist.

  14. max on January 12, 2012 at 9:06 am

    This can’t be right. Just this morning on NPR they had a huge thing about how the LA PD has completely reformed and now they’re upstanding defenders of civil liberties.

  15. Diana Davies on January 12, 2012 at 10:05 pm

    Thank you so much for this welcome attempt to set the record straight.

    The LA Times should know by now that the police lie to them. It’s legal for cops to lie and they do. The LAPD is now completely meshed with the FBI, CIA and “private entities” (corporations and pro-business groups like CCALA)to “identify and respond to threats” through the DOJ/DHS Fusion Centers and militarized through the DOD 1033 Program. We’ve lost local control.

    Wise and effective community policing is no longer the goal, just control of a “hostile” population, same as any other third-world country.

  16. Scott on January 13, 2012 at 6:28 am

    Hey Owen: You mean to tell us they were doing laundry??? Hanging their laundry out to dry. As in WASHING THEIR CLOTHES??? Man how filthy can they be? I guess all the people back in the day that hung their laundry out to dry because they didn’t have AUTOMATIC DRYERS were just a bunch of low life filthy scum? You are a natural born MORON.

  17. DocAmazing on January 13, 2012 at 7:56 am

    If the Occupy encampment was LAPD’d over apossible head lice, what does the school district do when head lice show up in one of the primary schools (as they do, predictably, every year)? Send in SWAT?

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