Public health concerns: an OLA eviction myth
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.”