Lessons from Echo Park Lake Confrontation Include Costs and the Role of the Media

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Echo Park was cleared of its homeless encampment in March. More than 35 tons of garbage was removed. Five people died in the park in 2020.
Photo: ABC News

(Editor’s note: A CTN reader sent me a link to a 101-page Echo Park Rehabilitation After Action Report, compiled by the L.A. Police Department. The report has a lot of statistics and money figures — and speaks about how LAPD is going to have to figure out a way to deal with journalists/bloggers/livestreamers at marches and protests. Here are some excerpts from the report.) 

 Echo Park Lake was completely renovated in 2011 for $45 million.

Now L.A. City taxpayers are on the hook for at least an additional $4.3 million, after the homeless were allowed to destroy and foul a portion of the park.

According to the LAPD report, homeless encampments in that park resulted in public bathrooms, sinks and toilets ripped out and plumbing modified to be used as showers. Streetlights and electrical boxes were broken open and live electrical lines were run across the ground to power televisions, personal electronic devices (such as computers and cellular phones) and operate microwaves.

Visitors, as well as the park’s maintenance staff, reported seeing drug paraphernalia (needles), buckets of human waste, trash, rotting food, and animal carcasses in heavily frequented areas.

Statistics cited in the report noted that five people died in the park in 2020 – three were from overdoses (one an 18-year-old girl set to start college in a few days), one was a drowning, and one is still under investigation.

It was reported that the costs for homeless outreach in Echo Park from January 2020 to February 2021 was almost $1,4 million and included money for a storage facility, hygiene sites and a contract with Urban Alchemy to help people off the street.

When the park was closed March 24-25 this year to start the cleanup, the salaries for DOT and LAPD (including overtime) was reported by LAPD as more than $1.3 million. The cleanup costs for March 26-27, including LASAN personnel and disposing of 35.70 tons of garbage: $823,674.

The report stated that park rehabilitation, which began on March 28 and is continuing, includes lawn refurbishment and irrigation repair (homeless ripped out lines, so the sprinklers wouldn’t go off by their tents), replacing light poles, replacing restroom fixtures, restroom doors and the lighting, repairing the bridge and painting restrooms, bridge and the boat house, on-site security during rehabilitation, perimeter fencing and the installation of 33 security cameras, cost: $735,500.

At a May 2021 Board of Recreation and Park Commissioners meeting $810,000 was approved for the demolition of an existing field restroom building, hazardous waste material abatement and construction of a new building. At that same meeting about $1.1 million was approved for improvements and replacements.

Activists for the homeless led a rally to try and stop the removal of encampments from Echo Park.  Photo: Twitter

According to the LAPD report, in November 2019, an organized and well-equipped group of homeless people took control of the northwest corner of Echo Park when they began erecting tents and make-shift shelters near Glendale Boulevard and Park Avenue. Although there had been some homeless in the park prior to that date, the new group that arrived were well equipped with new tents, camping supplies and electronics. Additionally, the group was regularly supplied with food and water by activists.

Using social media, homeless activists organized protests on a regular basis to demonstrate against the removal of the homeless. Activists began claiming ownership over the public space.

LAPD said that at the beginning of December 2019, the Twitter account @StreetWatchLA began regularly posting regarding the encampment at Echo Park.

The report noted that by the fall of 2020, the park was in shambles and people who lived nearby feared for their safety. Outreach started, and a plan was devised to offer housing to the homeless, so that the unlawful encampment could be moved. An announcement was made that the park would be closed for renovation starting the end of March 2021.

The City wanted to keep the cleanup out of news, but the Los Angeles Times published an article on March 23 (“City Plans to Close Echo Park Lake and Clear Homeless Encampment”), warning that “Under a veil of secrecy, Los Angeles city officials and homeless services providers are rushing to move as many homeless people as possible from Echo Park Lake this week in advance of an expected sweep to remove more than 100 tents and fence the entire park for repairs.” The Times said that the park would be closed and fenced on March 25.

An activist in that article stated, “If there are folks who don’t want to go into the system of housing that currently is being offered to them and that is very restrictive, I’m of the mind that they should have a right to public land. Public land for public good is a phrase I like to say.”

In response to the article, the LAPD report said, “social media activists began calling for reinforcements to flood the park and ‘stand in solidarity with our unhoused neighbors.’” And at 7 a.m. on March 24, some 100 protestors gathered outside of Councilman O’Farrell’s office. They joined with 200 additional protestors in Echo Park. The group would grow to 500 people before dispersing in the afternoon.

That evening, signs were posted around the park, notifying those living there that the park would close in 24 hours.

The report states that about 300 protestors gathered and even though the use of lasers is now illegal because they can cause blindness, as are intensity strobe lights that can cause “flash blindness,” protestors turned them on the police.

Just before 10 p.m., protestors set off illegal fireworks and smoke bombs at the police.

LAPD felt that the peaceful protest and right to assembly now presented danger to officers assigned to the skirmish line. An unlawful assembly was declared, and a dispersal order was given. A second dispersal order was given at 10:50 p.m., telling the almost 400 protestors that they had five minutes to leave the area. Two subsequent dispersal orders were given and by about midnight, the protestors had dispersed.

An unlawful assembly was dedlared when protestors started using lasers and fireworks that were directed at the police. ‘Photo: KTLA

The report said on the following day (March 25), at 9:15 a.m., Park Rangers, LAHSA and Urban Alchemy went into the park to offer housing to the individuals remaining within the fence line. Although the City Attorney’s office advised that housing was not required to close the park, Councilmember O’Farrell had made it a prerequisite for closing the park: everyone inside was given an offer of housing.

After the demonstrations the previous night, tensions and anger towards LAPD spread across social media platforms. Despite the fact that the LAPD had not arrested a single person inside the park, social media claimed that the LAPD was armed in riot gear and responsible for sweeping people from the park.

That evening protestors once again used strobe lights, green lasers and projectiles on the LAPD.

An Unlawful Assembly was called, and dispersal orders given. According to the report, “Despite the repeated orders, the crowd, which included members of the media, legal observers and internet “bloggers,” failed to heed the Department’s orders. Instead, the crowd remained, continued to use strobe lights, continued yelling, and continued directing profanity at officers.”

According to California Penal Code Sections 407 and 409, members of the media are not exempt from dispersal orders and are subject to arrest for failure to disperse.

Thirty-five minutes after the first dispersal, a bull horn was used to specifically address members of the media and National Lawyers Guild: “Any members of the media, or the National Lawyers Guild, disperse to the north now!”

L.A. Times journalist James Queally, said he heard the dispersal order (and knew where the Crespo area was – specifically for journalists), but said, “If I’m covering a protest, it’s a fluid situation, I can’t stay in a pen.”

Queally also admitted that he did not identify himself until he was detained. It was at that point, during the process of detaining the large group, that Queally expected to be immediately released.

(After Los Angeles hosted the Democratic National Convention in 2000, the lawsuit Crespo vs. Los Angeles led the Department to re-evaluate how it handles media during crowd control situations. One of the changes implemented was the requirement for the Department to identify a specific area for media to cover the event.)

Despite having identified a Crespo area, during the mass arrest situation that took place at the start of the third Operational Period, six persons who identified themselves as members of the media (internet bloggers and video streamers) were detained when the Department surrounded a large group of protestors that had failed to disperse after an unlawful assembly was declared.

The report states: In the aftermath of the operation, news outlets were critical of the Department, specifically officers and front-line supervisors, for not immediately releasing members of the media who only identified themselves after the group was detained.

“These individuals expect to be given free access during crowd control situations, while antagonizing officers and impeding police action. Currently, Department policy states that members of the media who remain at scene after an unlawful assembly has been declared are subject to arrest. Though policy states that the Department will make efforts to accommodate the media, policy does not state that members of the media should be automatically released after they are detained at the scene of an unlawful assembly.”

(The entire 101-page report can be found at: http://www.lapdpolicecom.lacity.org/080321/BPC_21-145.pdf2. To view additional L.A. improvements at Echo Park (March), which included more than $1.126 million for construction of a skate park, visit: https://www.laparks.org/sites/default/files/pdf/commissioner/2021/mar04/21-033.pdf. At the May 6 RAP meeting, $810,000 was approved for the demolition of an existing field restroom building, the hazardous waste material abatement and the construction of a new building and $1.1 million for improvements and replacements: https://www.laparks.org/sites/default/files/pdf/commissioner/2021/may06/21-083.pdf )

The photo was taken at Echo Park before the encampments were removed and ran in a July 31 Yahoo! story “Dangerous Levels of E. Coli Found in Echo Park Lake with No Warning to Public” The story noted “E. coli is seven times higher than state mandates, thanks to a homeless encampment allowed to flourish there for years, according to a report.”

Photo: Yahoo

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