Revolution #276, July 29, 2012

"Free Chalk for Free Speech" Meets Police State—Occupiers and the People Hold Their Ground

In a vicious and brutal show of force against Occupy LA, the Los Angeles police shot rubber bullets, beat, and arrested people as the Occupiers and others were writing and drawing with chalk at the monthly Downtown LA Art Walk on Thursday, July 12. Four people were injured by rubber bullets or beanbags, and many others by batons, pepper-spray, foam grenades, and tear gas. Of the 17 people arrested, a couple of them were Occupiers; the rest came from the thousands of people who attended the Art Walk.

In the month leading up to the Art Walk, the LAPD had been arresting Occupy LA people and other youth for "vandalism" for writing political messages with chalk on the sidewalk in opposition to the Central City Association, a group of businesses, developers, and banks that funnel funds to local politicians and lobbies who want to gentrify the area where the homeless reside. In response to these arrests, the Occupiers called for people to go to the Art Walk where they would "non-confrontationally distribute vast amounts of 'free chalk for free speech' on the sidewalks of Art Walk to raise awareness about political repression, raise funds, and do outreach." People at the Art Walk, including children, took up the chalk. Sidewalks and walls of vacant buildings blossomed with colorful slogans, names, sayings, doodles, pictures and more.

The attack began when police started arresting people and a young woman who wanted to diffuse the situation got between the people and the cops and chalked a smiling stick figure. She was immediately vamped on by the cops, and, as her boyfriend tried to come to her aid, the cops jumped him and fired tear gas, and then a significant section of the crowd, who were outraged that this force and violence was used against people chalking, took to the streets to help those who were being shot and beaten, chanting, "Whose Streets? Our Streets!" and "This is what a police state looks like!" The LAPD called a citywide tactical alert and sent hundreds of baton-wielding cops in riot gear into the area to push people back and clear the streets.

Online videos show riot police facing the people and capture vivid incidents of brutality, including a skateboarder who was hit and had fallen on his skateboard before the advancing police line and then was kicked in the face and trampled before being dragged away and arrested. In these videos you can hear people saying, "It's chalk. It's called sidewalk chalk. It's water-soluble, and it's raining."

This project was physically and politically attacked and criminalized by the LAPD and the mayor, who created a tense situation by putting a heavy police presence into the Art Walk from earlier in the evening. The LA Times quoted a police captain who said chalking is "vandalism." LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said, "That's not free speech, that's criminal behavior."

To be clear, this is about the mayor and the cops criminalizing and eliminating dissent and the free expression of ideas in a public space where the dog-eat-dog relations of this society are not the framework and people are creating different ways of relating to each other. This vicious attack is a continuation of the nationwide, coordinated eviction of Occupy from public spaces to shut down resistance—and to shut down spaces where people are lifting their heads and where dangerous questions about what's wrong with this society and what kind of world is possible are being debated and discussed. Recently Occupy LA has been putting up tents every night at the offices of the Central City Association. The LA Times described this: "With the exception of some new faces and the fact that the tents must come down every morning at dawn, the new encampment feels a lot like the old one." This Occupy struggle has become unacceptable to City Hall, so the cops were called in to raid this encampment and to arrest people who were chalking.

Immediately after the tents in last year's encampment were taken down by the cops, the LA Times wrote an editorial on December 3, 2011, which evoked the "broken windows" theory, stating, "the next group of squatters may be skinheads or anti-immigration zealots—protesters City Hall may enjoy less as neighbors. Going forward, a word of advice to the city leadership: No one should be allowed to sleep in the park. It closes at 10:30 every night for everyone. Enforcing that rule forcefully but thoughtfully—without regard to the message of those attempting to violate it—will save this city plenty of grief." In other words, you better not even let this get started again. (See George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson, "Broken Windows, The police and neighborhood safety," The Atlantic, March 1982 which introduced the "broken windows" theory.)

Despite this brutal attack by the LAPD and its attempt to put down this form of public dissent, the Occupiers and others came back even stronger the next night, gathering in Pershing Square and decorating it with a rainbow of chalked slogans. People were responding to Thursday's attack by the police as they were preparing to march to an encampment at the downtown Federal Building supporting Bradley Manning, whose cause Occupy is taking up.

As darkness fell, people marched. Despite the violent attack of the previous day, they courageously took the street and refused to leave it, defying the many motorcycle cops who were trying to run people over and push them back on the sidewalk. As they marched, people chanted: "Free Bradley Manning!" "Get Up, Get Down, There's a Revolution in This Town! We're Unstoppable, Another World is Possible!"

A reporter from Revolution on the scene that night was told by an organizer of the Bradley Manning events that they were contacted by and spoke with the Department of Homeland Security. It is unclear about Homeland Security's role in the attack that happened on Thursday night, but one thing that is clear is that this attack and the arrests, whether planned far ahead of time or not, are outrageous and completely illegitimate and clearly intended to criminalize and suppress the public expression of dissent.

City Hall and the cops are trying to win people in the downtown area to support this repression by calling the chalking "vandalism." One merchant said, "I'm not against Occupy, I'm for Occupy, but I'm against the riffraff that come through." But it was the police, not Occupy, and not the people in the street, who rioted at the Art Walk. The Art Walk crowd was mainly young, multi-national, artists, "hipsters," workers and students—people who were not part of Occupy but supportive of "Free Chalk for Free Speech" and outraged at the LAPD's use of overwhelming force and brutality to suppress chalking in public space.

Every single arrest at Art Walk was shameful and unjustifiable; every person who was arrested or brutalized should be supported and the illegitimate police violence condemned.

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