The Fight for Echo Park Lake: Fences and Neighbors
Approximately 400 police officers descended on Echo Park Lake’s unhoused community last night.
See bottom of article for information on how you can help.
At sunrise yesterday, the Echo Park Lake Tent Community held a peaceful action alongside hundreds of local allies. By sunset, 60 cop cars, two buses, and sanitation trucks were poised to destroy the community that had been building in the park for the last year. Then, around 400 cops descended and kettled, using force and entrapping anyone left.
This is not public service, and this is not public safety. You should be angry.
As you read this, those still living at the Echo Park Lake Tent City are fenced in and trapped, by the LAPD’s own admission.
“The fencing is being installed tonight and people currently staying in the park will be allowed to stay overnight, but will not be allowed to come and go,” LAPD HQ tweeted late Wednesday night.
There’s… there’s another way of putting that. Until further notice, the unhoused remaining at Echo Park Lake today are prisoners in their own homes.
Who is at the helm of this sweep? It’s Mitch O’Farrell, City Councilman for District 13 whose last major effort to enact a CARE+ sweep at Echo Park Lake in January 2020 was thwarted, then delayed by over a year due to COVID-19 restrictions. In the absence of this danger, the Echo Park Lake Tent Community has grown and thrived, enacting a jobs program, free food initiatives, and a community garden.
O’Farrell’s impending sweep and the police violence deployed against unhoused residents and their allies alike to enforce it stands to undo the community’s progress, and stands to displace and uproot as many as 85 unhoused people who currently call Echo Park Lake home.
This severe escalation endangered lives in the interest of protecting the anti-unhoused complaints of O’Farrell’s wealthiest residents. To accomplish this, he worked with the LAPD to create an unprecedented show of force, all to force his own constituents with nowhere to go out of a thriving community he had failed to support.
One protester was shot in the leg after agreeing to disperse. Another officer broke a protester’s arm. Unhoused residents are now being fenced into a place that was their community 24 hours ago. You should be angry.
So how did we get here, and what can we do now?
The short story? Keep showing up. The long one? Let’s look at the events of Wednesday, March 24, 2021.
Just as the sun crested over Echo Park Lake on Wednesday, hundreds of activists assembled alongside their unhoused neighbors in unprecedented numbers to stand against a massive impending CARE+ sweep directive coming from O’Farrell’s office.
Wednesday morning’s direct action was intended not only to draw media attention to the unhoused community in a way that centered them, but to implore Councilmember O’Farrell to meet with organizers and directly address their concerns. Ahead of the action, a representative from O’Farrell’s office indicated that Echo Park would be swept, fenced in, and closed for several weeks in the interest of “renovations,” with spokesperson Tony Arranaga suggesting that the park had incurred over half a million dollars in damages. (The damages were not expanded upon.)
The unhoused community in Echo Park Lake has requested meetings with O’Farrell for years at this point, but to no avail. Organizers estimated that O’Farrell’s office received over 400 emails from constituents opposing the sweep, and the event’s hashtag #EchoParkRiseUp had trended on Twitter and received attention from major media figures, including former presidential candidate and orb enthusiast Marianne Williamson.
To kick things off, Echo Park Lake resident and organizer Ayman Ahmed spoke to supporters and the press as protesters held signs reading “We Need Long Term Solutions” and “Dignity, Not Displacement” to make the objectives of the action centered on voices of the unhoused community, and the positive effect living in the park has had on his life since moving there in late 2019.
“It’s been so refreshing to live like a normal citizen again, not like a second-class citizen,” he told the crowd, echoing the sentiment expressed in the Echo Park Tent Community Statements. “It has been so refreshing to own my days.”
When the crowd headed to O’Farrell’s office shortly before eight in the morning, community member and advocate David spoke to a rarely addressed issue from the city—the myriad reasons that many unhoused people feel unsafe going to city shelters, and the risks it can present to one’s safety and dignity.
“There are women who have been raped in city shelters by city shelter staff,” he told the crowd, echoing the well-documented concerns that many unhoused people have had for years, but are rarely reported on in mainstream media. David shared the experience of an unhoused female friend who had been assaulted by a male city shelter employee who was asked to accompany her to the shower, resulting in long-standing trauma.
“She’s not shelter resistant,” he said, “she’s shelter aware.”
Shortly after 8 AM, O’Farrell hadn’t arrived, and the crowd peacefully returned to Echo Park Lake, where they were encouraged to consider camping out at the park overnight to prevent additional speculated CARE+ sweep activity the next morning. Throughout the day, organizers planned a safe “solidarity sleepover” that would provide the unhoused and their allies with both supplies and Signal text threads to stay in contact. It was a well-attended event, both by the media and citizens alike—the only person who had failed to materialize was O’Farrell himself.
The remainder of the day was marked by a series of escalations by O’Farrell and the LAPD that led to the violence and retaliation of Wednesday night.
LA Taco reporter Lexis-Olivier Ray caught an incident with “an alleged NIMBY” confronting those at the lake with a metal bat, though the situation diffused. Elsewhere in the park, free food was distributed by community members and Riot Kitchen (free grits and French toast to “everyone but cops and racists”).
O’Farrell broke his silence just before noon.
“More than 120 people experiencing homelessness at Echo Park Lake have been successfully moved into transitional housing,” said a statement released to social media, citing both non-congregate shelters and a Project Roomkey site. “This work to provide housing and a pathway to stability is ongoing.”
The post went on to encourage those who had assembled at the lake that morning to ally themselves with his office’s efforts.
“I urge people gathered at the lake to be a partner in these efforts and allow this ongoing work of housing our most vulnerable to continue without interruption,” he said. “We must work together.”
Advocates for the unhoused community vehemently disagreed, with most pointing out that temporarily housing a portion of the Echo Park Lake community did not make those who had not been housed any less retaliated against, and less than nothing to examine the myriad valid reasons for resisting services like Project Roomkey that an unhoused person articulated in front of O’Farrell’s office just that morning.
Others took to social media to invoke past examples of actions O’Farrell’s office had taken that were openly hostile to unhoused constituents in his district. While those back at Echo Park Lake continued to commune, eat, and wait to hear more, users online remembered a 2016 effort to ticket any adult who sat on a bench in a park without a child, as well as the planned January 2020 sweep that threatened to displace the same community prior to COVID-19 shutdowns.
A video of O’Farrell surfaced later in the day. When asked if he would be open to meeting with those who said they’d be staying at the park through the evening and into the next morning, he said, “I am open to meeting with anyone once we have the solutions in place. I’ll be making the rounds.”
Advocates from Echo Park Lake, including Ahmad Ayman, returned to O’Farrell’s office seeking a meeting. This time, they were stopped by guards from Urban Alchemy and told by a representative from O’Farrell’s office that they would need to schedule a meeting over the phone—a time was not offered when asked. Ayman recalled the encounter immediately after with local reporter Sean Carmitchel.
“I didn’t expect Urban Alchemy to be bodyguards as well, I didn’t know that was in their job description,” he said. “We’re dealing with snakes and weasels—people who would rather meet behind closed doors and would rather meet with people with money.”
During a City Council meeting later in the day, O’Farrell doubled down on his intent to sweep Echo Park Lake yet again, saying that, “The park has, in fact, devolved into a dangerous, chaotic environment for all users.” An explanation about how displacing unhoused people would address this accusation failed to materialize.
“No one is being criminalized, but criminal activity is being addressed, as it should be,” he continued. While callers continued to press O’Farrell on this, his fellow council members did not.
By evening, Echo Park Lake boat rentals announced they were closed for the rest of the day “due to current and forecasted high winds.” At the Echo Park Lake encampment, advocates were tipped off that the LAPD would likely send in cruisers to displace and arrest people at the park that night, instead of the next morning as most originally believed. Plans to hold a sleepover with residents and activists were suspended and organizers were forced to reassess safety measures in real time to protect residents and activists alike.
The swan boats called it as the sun set, just as activists located what appeared to be a staging area of around 60 police vehicles and two buses at Dodger Stadium. As police cars began to dispatch to the lake, a single laminated sign all but confirmed that Echo Park would be closed that night:
“Due to unforeseen circumstances we were forced to close at the last minute. We are so very sorry for the inconvenience.”
Then came the dark, and the retaliation.
Word spread quickly among activists that the police raid on Echo Park Lake was confirmed, and a call was put out for as many bodies as possible to get on site to peacefully stand against the impending sweep. As people began to arrive, other activists spotted 60 cop cars and two buses staging to dispatch to Echo Park Lake to confront those assembled. While it’s impossible for the LAPD to have a “good week” in regard to the public’s best interest, this has been an especially bad one – the department has shot six people in the last week alone.
As hundreds assembled in Echo Park for the second time that day in solidarity with the unhoused community, it became clear the cops were not waiting until Thursday but instead, would attempt a sweep at night. Activists on the ground prepared protestors for what to expect, many of them volunteering to risk arrest in attempts to protect the community there.
“And let’s be clear about what’s happening here,” said Ayman, “We are getting arrested for trying to love each other as a community. So let’s make that abundantly clear. When we’ve got those cuffs on us, and they are putting us in that truck – say it, shout love at us, let us know that you love us because we love you because this is what it is coming down to. Literally we are just trying to be a community. And they are doing this. Alright? So let’s get it.”
One of the activists and a resident of Echo Park Lake, Queen, gave a speech to set the tone, about the importance and value of what they were fighting to maintain at Echo Park Lake.
“Tonight they are trying to intimidate us. They are trying to put fear in our hearts. They cannot do it—you know why?—because we do not fear them. We came from nothing—there are families here that didn’t even know what it was to have meat on their tables. And we have everything. If you are going to try and sweep us under the rug, we’re not gonna let you. We’re not just a number, we’re not just a person, we’re a family. We’re a community. We’re Echo Park.”
In the streets surrounding the lake, many cops began to trickle in and assemble ahead of the 10:30 PM formal park closure. The plan, most there realized, was clear—wait until it was legal to declare the assembly illegal, kettle the protesters, and arrest people on “failure to disperse” misdemeanor charges. On social media, many struggled to find an exit as police began to line the perimeter, some becoming aggressive early in the night. Other police officers sent protesters attempting to leave on a wild goose chase from dead end to dead end, met with more cops where they were told a safe exit would be located.
Then there were the helicopters. Five flew over Echo Park Wednesday night, costing $1,200 an hour to operate with no discernable function other than to mock the population they were using city funds to displace. Protesters documented helicopters above Echo Park beginning around six at night, remaining above the area until the official disperse orders were given by the LAPD around 11 PM. Some even got some audio of the helicopter pilots from a scanner as they were circling Echo Park Lake.
There’s no doubt that the prevalent media narratives that have grown around Echo Park Lake had an influence against the severe escalation of Wednesday night. Knock LA has reported on the efforts of groups like Friends of Echo Park Lake to illustrate a false narrative of the unhoused that portrays them as hipsters who don’t want a home, rather than poor and under-serviced members of the community who want to live with dignity while the city has repeatedly failed to rise to the occasion of a homelessness crisis only made worse by COVID-19. These narratives are also present in mainstream media—outlets like NBC presented protesters as unreasonable in their reporting on the peaceful early morning action on Wednesday—and encourage continued anger and unwillingness to communicate with unhoused people living in their community.
These narratives bleed into the antagonistic, often childish rhetoric of the LAPD, as demonstrated by helicopter communications captured and documented by Knock La contributor Kevin Varzandeh:
It was not until much later in the night that other public servants came to Echo Park to address the protesters’ concerns. CD4 Councilmember Nithya Raman tweeted about her frustration around the sweep around 8:30 PM, then arrived at the scene around the 10:30 PM dispersal announcement in support, though it’s unclear whether LAPD permitted her to enter the park. No other city councilperson has spoken out against O’Farrell’s sweep as of this reporting.
Also reportedly on the scene was LAHSA Executive Director Heidi Marston, who Twitter user @KevinNye alleged was telling unhoused people that their homes and community would be swept by O’Farrell the next night at 10:30 PM, not Wednesday night. Given that she is in charge of the city’s largest publicly funded agency to combat homelessness, her arrival in the middle of a violent confrontation to inform the population she serves that they would be displaced in a second violent confrontation the next day was met with criticism. Considering that a former LAHSA employee, Ashley Bennett, was removed from her position by Marston at the request of O’Farrell last year, the gesture became a ghoulish spiraling vortex of empty intent. (More on Marston’s spotty record at LAHSA here.)
Four hundred cops came to Echo Park to fence in and displace a peaceful community of unhoused people. Four hundred cops blocked exits, lied to and misled protesters, and became violent when 10:30 PM finally arrived. A number of protesters stood the line until shortly before midnight on Thursday, at which point the LAPD stood down. As the final protesters were leaving, the fences intended to close unhoused people into the park were brought out.
Before the night was out, one protester was shot, another’s arm was broken. Media was pushed back by police. Last night, the unhoused community got to stay in their tents, and protesters went home injured and furious at the systems in place who were empowered to let it happen. Street Watch LA estimates that the retaliatory intimidation tactics of Wednesday night cost taxpayers over $120,000—money that may be better allocated for, well, you know where I’m going with this, come on.
Tomorrow night, O’Farrell, LA SAN, and the LAPD are planning to sweep the Echo Park Lake Tent Community permanently. LAHSA knows it, the City Council knows it, and Mitch O’Farrell has a well-documented pattern of deflecting criticism and obscuring his intent to displace his own constituents.
What can you do? Well…
Tell Mitch O’Farrell what you think about it. If he’s not your city councillor, put pressure on your city councillor to address the injustice and rage projected onto a vulnerable community O’Farrell is supposed to service. (Here is a thread of resources to do that.)
Don’t stop speaking out on social media. Use the Echo Park Rising social media toolkit.
Contact O’Farrell’s deputies and tell them what you think.
Email your own reps and deputies even if you don’t live in CD13.
Contribute to the Echo Park Rising GoFundMe.
Seriously—show up, act with empathy, and listen to the Unhoused Activists on the Ground.
Here’s what Mitch O’Farrell had to say late Wednesday night following the police confrontation: “Our homeless service providers will return tomorrow morning to continue their work.”
Here is the reality from Street Watch LA: “We just talked to unhoused EPL residents in their tents who are scared and didn’t know this police raid was coming. No notice has been posted anywhere.”
A worthy public servant does not target the most vulnerable members of their community with violence, displacement and rage. When Mitch O’Farrell argues that there is just cause for violence against a community he refuses to even speak with, to even look at, it is on the community to respond.
So let’s respond. Stay engaged.