A night and a morning with Occupy Skid Row
An LAPD patrol car parks in the middle of Towne Avenue just south of Fourth Street in Skid Row. The empty street begins to fill with anticipation.
From its loudspeaker, an officer in the patrol car barks orders at a cadre of occupy activists and homeless advocates who are in the process of staging an act of civil disobedience: “Take the signs and tents down.”
It is a familiar sound, the stern voice of authority. It travels through the air, supported by implied consequences too ugly to name.
The activists roll their eyes.
City ordinance dictates that homeless people are allowed to sleep on the sidewalk from the hours of 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. After that, the indigent must move, pack up their sleeping bags, tents or other belongings.
Activists from Occupy Skid Row, Occupy the Hood, Occupy LA and the LA Community Action Network, or LA CAN, have joined together to fight against it with what they are calling “No Tent Take-Down Days.” On these days, demonstrators gather on Skid Row the night before and camp with the homeless; others arrive early the next morning to show their support.
According to Occupy Skid Row, the protest is “in response to the daily injustices and criminalization experienced by the homeless population in the form of daily stops and ticketing, daily warrants checks, mass probation and parole sweeps and mass arrest.”
The action is the brainchild of Skid Row resident TC Alexander. It is the morning of Monday, Feb. 20 and he is wearing a cocked LA Dodgers cap, a San Francisco ’49ers jacket and a black bandanna around his neck that bears a Che Guevara button. In his coat pocket, and carefully protected by a plastic bag, is a copy of the U.S. Constitution.
Alexander stares down the street at the police car and says calmly, “This is just an intimidation tactic.”
Some respectfully refer to him as “General,” but most just use “TC.” His voice booms as he addresses the protesters.
“They have us up at 6 a.m. until 9 p.m., because they want to sweep us under the rug and say the homeless problem doesn’t exist. It does,” he says.
It’s 8:30 p.m., the night before their protest, and activists are gathering. Some are homeless, others are not. They set up their tents or sleeping areas.
Among the tents sits a tiny desk more suited for toddlers. On it are pamphlets for various causes and a small, battery-powered radio. This is Occupy Skid Row’s office.
The air is cold and a low of 46 degrees is predicted. Almost everyone is smoking. A street light flickers on and off. Frivolity fills the air as activists chat each other up. The mood is light, a pleasant offset from the dingy surroundings. The radio groans out distorted rock and pop music.
But it is the melodies of Skid Row politics that can be heard most clear. Alexander explains that during the day, homeless people cannot sit or lie on the ground per city ordinances. Even standing too long in one area could be cause for police harassment, he says.
“There are only three positions that a human being can be in, and that is sitting, standing or lying down,” he says. “They’ve taken away two of those. Who are they to do that in the so-called ‘Land of the Free?’”
Like any endeavor within the occupy movement, Occupy Skid Row has no specific bone of contention, but a general collage of issues that together communicate a profound demand for justice and democracy. Tomorrow’s civil disobedience is in solidarity with the ongoing prisoner hunger strike at Corcoran State Prison, but it is not the only issue on people’s minds.
Judging from his topics of conversation, one could almost mistake Alexander for a homeowner. Standing in the gutter of Towne Avenue, he rails against the recent $25 billion settlement between states and mortgage servicers, which shielded banks from some lawsuits resulting from the foreclosure crisis.
“The bankers stole the people’s money, and now they are getting leniency and amnesty so they can’t be prosecuted,” he says. “It’s just irresponsible government.”
Alexander is also no fan of Sheriff Lee Baca’s desire to spend $1.4 billion on expanding and renovating two jails — especially while the LA County Sheriff’s Dept. is under a federal investigation for prisoner abuse. According to Californians United for a Responsible Budget, Baca’s plan will cost $2.66 billion after interest.
“That $2.66 billion could go to teachers or health care. It could go to a lot of things,” says Alexander. “They don’t deserve that money.”
Skid Row resident Adonis Peña joins the crowd. He has human rights on his mind. He says he’s seen the private security forces set up by the Downtown Center Business Improvement District roughhouse the elderly and dismantle people’s tents with their owners still in them. Called BIDs, or “Red Shirts” because of the color of their uniform, they act as the corporate eyes and ears of the LAPD.
“Their job is to tell these people they need to roll it up, not snatch them while they are in the tents,” says Peña. “It’s basic human rights. The person is old, let him sleep. If you were an old person, would you want to be fucked with? No. You’re about to die, your life has been hard enough. The last thing you need is some 18- or 20-something-year-old person picking your tent up and dragging you.”
Joe Smith’s ears perk up as he sits behind the office desk smoking a cigarette. He is an activist with LA CAN and lives on Skid Row. He pounces on the conversation.
“But you know what, Don, LA CAN had it so they can’t do that shit anymore,” he says.
Illegal searches, detentions and “move-alongs” have long been an issue with the BIDs going back to the 1990s. It was through a lawsuit filed by LA CAN that forced the private security force to stop carrying 9mm handguns, stop their illegal activities and undergo sensitivity training.
But despite the sensitivity training, Peña says some injustices still occur.
“Regardless of what LA CAN did or did not do, it is still happening, brother,” he says to Smith.
“Here, there, over there,” says Peña pointing.
“When you see it, call me,” says Smith. “Because I will be right there with a camera on their asses.”
Sitting across from Smith in a black leather jacket is General Dogon, an organizer for LA CAN. He was born and raised in downtown LA. After a drug addiction and a prison stint, he got sober and began working with LA CAN.
Skid Row, says Dogon, is his community, whose population he sees as being under threat from misguided policing tactics. According to Dogon, a new LAPD captain at the Central Community Police Station takes a tougher stance on the homeless. It is a roll back of gains made with the previous captain, he says.
Dogon suspects the change in attitude may, in part, have something to do with the city’s covert war on Occupy LA. He said many occupiers came to Towne Avenue after their sit-in demonstration was shut down.
“First there was five of them, now it’s 10, now the whole block is laced up,” he said. “So, [this captain] is going to try and target folks, attack folks, because he doesn’t want the occupy movement to get large on Skid Row.”
As the evening begins to wind down, Dogon heads home. Some begin to turn in, others head out for a bite to eat at Jackets for Jesus, a Skid Row charity that feeds the homeless every Sunday night and, like the name implies, provides jackets for those cold winter LA nights.
Monday, 5:45 a.m. Skid Row is far from quiet. This is the Industrial District, after all, and delivery trucks are making their rounds. A few people walk the streets, some burst out into tirades against unseen, yet very real demons.
Occupy supporters begin to show up while the ones who spent the night slowly contemplate facing the cold morning. Six a.m. comes and passes, but no police show up to enforce the rules.
Hunter-gatherer instincts begin to kick in within the tribe. Money is pulled together — a few dollars here, a few dollars there — and several of them set out to get something to eat.
The protesters are in high spirits. Some began their day with an impromptu soccer game to get their blood pumping and stay warm. A few gatherers return with bread. The others, the ones with cash, return with what they call an “LAPD Special” for breakfast: coffee and doughnuts.
The first round of LAPD patrol cars doesn’t show up until 8:10 a.m. An edict is announced: “It’s past 8 o’clock. It’s time to take down your tents.”
A few homeless further south on Towne Avenue begin to scurry. The protesters don’t budge. Thus begins a game of anticipation where the sight of each passing police car bears a bad omen — possible state violence and incarceration.
So far, they only drive by.
Then the BIDs — aka “Snitches” or “Wanna-be Pigs” — show up on bicycles. First two, then four, then six to monitor a group of protesters who are refusing to take down their tents. One of them, a particularly anxious, well-adjusted man determined to do his job, feverishly writes in a notebook. He inspects three shopping carts that are tied together and, with make-believe dominance, asks to speak to the owner. His request is largely ignored by the activists, who say the security guard has no right to touch someone else’s property.
Bilal Ali, a homeless and civil rights advocate, is slow to get his “legal-observing ass” out of bed, as one activist put it. He wakes up two hours later than anybody else, but he is right on time for the action. Before anyone realizes he is awake, he is confronting the BIDs in the middle of the street.
Ali has been conducting several acts of civil disobedience on Skid Row surrounding the issue of “no sitting or lying down,” which got him arrested last week. It led to a “Free Bilal” demonstration and money was raised for his bail.
He comes back from giving the “Snitches” a piece of his mind. He joins his fellow demonstrators, somewhat drowsy and wearing his black hoodie, jeans and socks — somehow his boots didn’t make it to the party.
It was a rough night for Ali, who is without at a tent. During the night he felt someone pulling on his jacket, assuming it was his friend. In his slumber he attempted to brush away the nuisance with his hand. When he felt fur and a long skinny tail, says Ali, he realized it was a rat.
“He was trying to jack my hoodie,” he says, maintaining his usual facetiousness.
Someone from the group pulls out a large, red boombox and rock n’ roll gets pumped into Towne Avenue. The group begins to dance, sing, play air-guitar and otherwise, let it all hang out. The B-52s’ “Love Shack” gets everyone moving: “Bang, bang! On the door, baby!”
Then it’s The Clash with “Rock the Casbah,” but Ali injects his own lyrics into the chorus: “The pigs don’t like it! … Rockin’ the Po-Po, rockin’ the Po-Po!”
Even though the police could come at any moment, which by all accounts would be a serious downer at this point, the mood amongst the protesters is care-free. It’s a distinctive feature of Occupy Skid Row, a sort of shoot-from-the-hip, buy-the-ticket-and-take-the-ride attitude. It is Skid Row, after all, and, as Kris Kristofferson once wrote, “freedom is just another word for nothing left to loose.”
Several police patrol cars come and go. Some officers give menacing glares at the protesters, which is interpreted by the homeless activists to mean there will be trouble once their supporters leave. Still, some police officers attempt a friendly, if cautious, face. It is President’s Day and the protesters are beginning to realize the police are probably short-staffed and won’t mess with them today. Besides, there are too many supporters with video cameras.
“This is kind of getting anti-climatic,” says Ali. “Fucking police never do what you want them to do.”
But, maybe Ali is wrong.
Finally, the showdown occurs. The black-and-white patrol car is still parked on Towne Avenue. The BIDs, whom the activists figure are the ones who called the police on them, are across the street, watching.
Another police car arrives. It is the area supervisor. He meets with Alexander, who explains what the protest is about. Before he can get his copy of the Constitution out, a détente is reached. The police acquiesce and the tents remain up.
Which is fine. The activists have a long day ahead of them. At 1:00 p.m. they will head over to the men’s county jail and join the solidarity demonstration for the prisoner hunger strike, which has allegedly claimed the lives of five inmates, according to activists.
But before the police leave and they set out for the county jail, the activists rally. A reluctant Adam Rice is given the floor to speak. He has been active with LA CAN and Occupy the Hood, while producing news reports for “Occupy Shadow Media” on Facebook. All morning he had been doggedly videotaping the BIDs and police cruisers as they passed by.
Wearing a peacoat, and slightly hunched over with his long, red hair tucked behind his ears, he begins slow and cautious, but warms up and is soon at full-throttle. He speaks of “enforcing the human right to housing,” which is stipulated in Article 25 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“We use human rights to start wars all over this world, yet we can’t have any human rights in this nation,” he says.
A quietness hangs in the air as everyone contemplates their bleak surroundings: the nation’s capital of homelessness, LA’s Skid Row. They had partied the night before, played in the morning and displayed a robust insouciance while tempting the law. But the reality sinks in.
According to the Los Angeles Times, it is estimated that more than 23,000 homeless people live in LA, and City Atty. Carmen Trutanich wants police to have the right to seize and destroy their unattended property. Many of them are veterans, and a growing number of those are women. And instead of hospital beds, the drug-addicted and mentally-ill get jail cells.
“This is some bullshit,” says Rice, “and we are not backing down.”