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Displacement of homeless population at Echo Park sparks protests, clashes with LAPD

Protesters gathered at Echo Park Lake on Wednesday and Thursday in solidarity with the homeless population displaced to transitional housing by the city, clashing with the LAPD present on the scene. (Finn Chitwood/Daily Bruin)

By Ishani Desai

March 29, 2021 9:35 p.m.

More than 200 individuals experiencing homelessness were displaced at Echo Park Lake, leading to protests attended by the UCLA community starting Wednesday.

Protests on Wednesday and Thursday led to clashes between 400 police officers and around 200 demonstrators – LAPD declared the assembly unlawful on both nights and arrested 182 individuals, including three members of the media.

The whir of helicopters surveilling the area could be heard on the ground Wednesday night. Hordes of protesters shouted “move back” as they refused to let LAPD SUVs pass. Smoke filled the air as protesters recited “services not sweeps” and “house keys not handcuffs” amid scuffles between LAPD and demonstrators.

“The police presence was just massive,” said Amelia Hill, a sociology graduate student who participated in protests at Echo Park on Wednesday. “The ratio of police to protesters and residents was way bigger than anything I’ve ever seen.”

A declaration of victory by a protester shuttered the night’s activities once LAPD Chief Michel Moore said Echo Park’s inhabitants had 24 hours to vacate the premises.

“It was a tense standoff the entire time,” said Jane Nguyen, a participant of the UCLA Activist-in-Residence program and witness to Wednesday and Thursday’s protests.

Nearly 15 individuals experiencing homelessness remained at Echo Park on Thursday. Social workers transitioned 161 individuals to various housing alternatives on the same day.

Around 200 activists and advocates convened Thursday to further resist the evacuation of the remaining unhoused individuals. As the night progressed, the crowd chanted “housing is a human right” to drums played by demonstrators. Protesters flashed white strobe lights onto rows of baton-wielding police officers.

Once LAPD declared the assembly unlawful, demonstrators barricaded themselves behind dumpsters scrawled with graffiti to evade arrests. LAPD fired less-lethal projectiles to quell the crowd – brawls broke out as protesters circumvented swarms of police officers.

When protesters refused to disperse, the LAPD formed a barrier surrounding the group on all sides.

“Extraordinary efforts were made to allow for a peaceful assembly and display of 1st Amendment-protected activity,” said LAPD in a statement on Twitter. “Unfortunately, several instigators in the crowd demonstrated a willful intent to disrupt the peaceful activity and began to use strobe lights against the officers, an activity that has the potential to cause significant injury to the eyes.”

Nguyen, co-founder of Ktown for All – an advocacy group specializing in outreach for the homeless population – said the events on Thursday were scary.

“The existential fear of facing down a horde of riot cops gripping their batons and aiming their shotguns at us was just terrifying,” Nguyen said. “There’s always the possibility of getting seriously hurt.”

Activists called for action after LA District 13 Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell filed a report with the Board of Recreation and Park Commissioners on March 18 seeking $600,000 to repair the park’s infrastructure, lighting and plumbing. O’Farrell had said he would secure housing for those displaced because of the construction and began the process last year.

O’Farrell did not respond when asked to comment on the protests at Echo Park.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, sweeps could potentially violate Fourth Amendment property rights. When conducting sweeps, the law grants these people a period to vacate. LA Municipal Code Section 56.11 states officials must give residents a 24-hour vacancy notice before arrests ensue.

Before 10 p.m. on Wednesday, police officers posted signs calling for the removal of all personal items by 10:30 p.m. on Thursday.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised unhoused individuals in encampments to remain where they are.

Some activists said homelessness sweeps cause harm to unhoused communities.

“Everyone knows that when the city does sweeps and when the city displaces people and sends the police to interact with the unhoused, … it undermines efforts by outreach workers that also work for the city,” said Gabriel Durkin-White, a law student and an organizer with Street Watch LA. “My opinion is that every type of sweep is bad. I think that the government should never displace people.”

Sam Lutzker, a sociology graduate student studying the rights of unhoused individuals, said LA should change how it responds to people experiencing homelessness.

“The city of LA is very intent on using their carceral toolkit instead of programs that utilize harm-reduction principles,” Lutzker said. “Their response to homelessness is totally reactionary and often violent, so there’s a lot of different parts of the system they need to reform.”

The LAPD arrested the final two people remaining in the homeless encampment Echo Park on Friday for refusing to vacate the premises. Both were released. At least 209 people experiencing homelessness previously living in Echo Park moved into a variety of shelter programs as of Friday, according to a statement from O’Farrell.

Noreen Ahmed, co-chair of the North Westwood Neighborhood Council’s Community Health and Homelessness Committee, said uprooting the unhoused community is not the solution.

“It means that social workers, who regularly see those people, can’t check in with them,” Ahmed said. “Getting them individualized plans, individualized help means … figuring out … their circumstances and then working with them toward getting housing.”

Andrew Lewis, co-chair of the NWWNC Community Health and Homelessness committee, said the displacement is destructive to unhoused communities.

“Public space is there for the public good, and I don’t personally believe any constituency should have a monopoly on that,” Lewis said. “There’s no need to move those folks, to potentially kill people via (COVID-19). It just didn’t make any sense.”

Lewis said the events at Echo Park over the last few days were disheartening.

“I was very dismayed and disappointed about how the whole situation was handled on the city side and the response by the Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell for the district,” said Lewis. “I found it outrageous – people, within the First Amendment rights, are able to go out and protest peacefully. I feel like the LAPD was just trying to crush them.”

Contributing reports by Chelsea Westman, Daily Bruin contributor.

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