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Getting to Know Your Councilmember: District 13’s Mitch O’Farrell

A brief primer on O’Farrell and how the Echo Park gentrification endgame has been building for decades.

Jessica Mendez, an unhoused former resident of Echo Park Lake, faces down police ordered by Mitch O’Farrell. (PHOTO: Justin Garr)

On March 24, LA City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell ordered 400 plus armed LAPD officers to enforce a secretive, ultraviolent eviction of over 200 people living in encampments in Echo Park Lake. This hypermilitarized dispossession was a vulgar display of power that made national news as the unhoused were uprooted, organizers and media were detained and arrested, and random bystanders were brutalized.

In the wake of this ignominious displacement, O’Farrell claimed residents of the lake were “housed,” when in fact true housing couldn’t be much further from the truth: many were offered hotel rooms with no privacy and strict curfews, which tenants likened to jail, while others were told that there were no vacant rooms. He trumpeted the fiasco as a “success.” So did Mayor Garcetti, spinning the clandestine and violent forced closure as “the largest housing transition of an encampment ever in the city’s history.” LAPD has since acknowledged the mayor and City’s role in ordering LAPD to administer the eviction and beatdown. 

But while the rest of the city and country are becoming aware of O’Farrell, residents of CD 13 are all too familiar with his patterns of ignoring, displacing, and policing poor communities while trying to uphold a veneer of a progressive-ish balance of interests, a persona he honed working under Garcetti for over a decade.

Mitch O’Farrell is now a household name, for better or worse, as he’s accepted the torch from Garcetti as the new face of LA wanton neoliberal necropolitics and the target of citywide ire. He’s consistently hidden behind the rhetoric of cleanliness and balance, while aping movement language whenever convenient. And he’s mostly been able to set his cruel, centrist agenda without much interference, despite the fact represents the most left-leaning district in the city. 

So let’s get to know Mitch. Here’s a brief primer on O’Farrell and how the Echo Park gentrification endgame has been building for decades as we witness the evaporation and commodification of public space in real time.

O’Farrell grew up in Oklahoma, the son of a Teamster and an administrative assistant, where he was a competitive gymnast. He is a member of the Wyandotte Nation and the first Native LA Councilmember. He moved to LA “to seek fame and fortune” and served stints as a cruise director, dancer, restaurant manager, and trainer of Jamba Juice managers. He claims that if he wasn’t into politics, he’d be an artist. At one point he coached gymnastics at the Hollywood YMCA. O’Farrell has been with his longtime partner George William Brauckman since the early ‘90s, and Brauckman has also held political positions and has been rumored to be eyeing a council seat.

Two decades ago, O’Farrell began volunteering for former CD13 Councilmember Eric Garcetti. It’s here, under the apprenticeship of Garcetti, where O’Farrell learned his particular governance style. He also co-founded the Glassell Park Neighborhood Council and has leaned on the Neighborhood Council network for support in building power. As a staffer for Garcetti, O’Farrell had his fingerprints all over gentrification-projects-couched-as-beautification-upgrades like the Hollywood Walk of Fame restoration, the Echo Park Lake and boathouse restoration, establishing the Echo Park weekly Farmer’s Market, and other such efforts. 

The net effect was that the neighborhoods of Echo Park, Silver Lake, Atwater, Historic Filipinotown, and Hollywood became more amenable to the richer, whiter residents that would be moving in over the past two decades as working class people were shunted away. The Latinx population of Echo Park decreased 10% from 2000 to 2010 and the white population increased 10%. From 2000 to 2014, 5,000 Latinos and 2,000 Asian Americans were pushed out of the neighborhood as speculation, gentrification, and Airbnbs exploded. 

A surfeit of police on Glendale Boulevard. (Photo: Justin Garr)

In 2011, O’Farrell was gifted the “Hero of Hollywood Award” by the Hollywood Chamber Foundation, presumably for how attentive he was to Hollywood business interests, and by this time was no doubt strategizing his own run for a council seat. Once on council, O’Farrell would again take after his predecessor and would also align himself with any Hollywood celebrity who paid for a star on the Walk of Fame, like Harvey Weinstein, Ellen, Lana Del Rey or whatever Scientology ghouls he’s cozied up to. It seems like he made good on his goal of being famous, or at least famous-adjacent. 

Once the 2013 election cycle heated up, Garcetti and Wendy Gruell were in a tight race for mayor, as Gruell secured labor’s support. This dynamic was mirrored in the race for CD13 as O’Farrell was sparring with Jon Choi, who also had the backing of the LA County Labor Federation. O’Farrell received Garcetti’s endorsement, as well as the support of LA’s number one cheerleader Tom Labonge. The O’Farrell v. Choi race would later be described as a “bruising campaign laced with accusations of homophobia, threats and voter fraud, [with O’Farrell] winning on his record as a City Council aide.”  Choi’s campaign accused O’Farrell of exploiting anti-Asian racism.

In addition to his record and insider status, O’Farrell had a modest war chest, thanks to donors like alleged serial murderer and LA Democrat sugar daddy Ed Buck. O’Farrell would also get a little wind in his sails from the “unbelievable string of assholes” at the Tronc-ified LA Times who graced him with the following endorsement

The district improved during the nearly 12 years it was represented by Eric Garcetti, but much remains to be done. Nearly 35% of its children live in poverty, and the median household income is just under $38,000…[O’Farrell] is highly regarded for his responsiveness and his ability to deliver service to residents and business…. At the district level, he has not — nor have his opponents — focused much on the needs of residents other than those with clout, money and the right to vote. Nevertheless, he seems more ready than his rivals to perform effectively on the City Council. O’Farrell is steeped in the needs of district residents and better positioned to advocate for the city on crucial budget issues. He is the best choice for the 13th District.

O’Farrell won with 13,940 votes in a local election year which saw historic lows for LA voter turnout. 

First Term

Upon his promotion in 2013, O’Farrell celebrated the re-opening of Echo Park Lake after a two year, $45 million renovation as a part of Measure O. The problems cited? Gang presence and neglect. The goal was to turn Echo Park Lake into something like Silver Lake Meadow, which had opened under Garcetti in 2011, in order to accelerate gentrification. Garcetti waxed poetic about the Echo Park renaissance

“It was the heart of Echo Park, but it was in need of a triple bypass” Los Angeles Mayor-elect Eric Garcetti said at a morning ceremony marking the formal reopening of the lake and park. He recalled some of the past troubles with crime and pollution but predicted a safer and cleaner future. “Today we celebrate the rebirth of a lake, of a park and of a neighborhood,” said Garcetti…

Later that fall, the Echo Park Gang Injunction began, which on paper made it illegal for suspected gang members to associate (among other stipulations). In practice, this was just a further push to criminalize poverty and BIPOC residents. Over time it became clear that the lake closure/makeover and injunction were both weapons of gentrification. This  pattern is being repeated as we speak at the same lake not even a decade removed, even though this time they can’t use injunctions as currently LAPD is barred from using the system.

It didn’t take long for the two major O’Farrell motifs—cleanliness and balance—to surface. The Lake was being cleaned up, and his “Clean Team,” a crew that still exists today, was dispatched across the district for aggressive sidewalk cleaning, graffiti removal, and trash disposal. Cleanliness is a product of “balance,” which for O’Farrell means placating business interests through the removal of signs of poverty from public sight. O’Farrell has long been a booster of LA’s 2024/2028 Olympic bid, and this year became the chair of that Ad Hoc Committee, which is contractually tasked by the IOC with delivering a “Clean City.” To deliver a clean city means the acceleration and expansion of policing and gentrification to remove poor people en masse.  

Aguirre, the wrath of Mitch. (PHOTO: Justin Garr)

“People have real concerns about growth and development,” O’Farrell said in a forum at the end of his first term. “But the backdrop is that we have an unprecedented interest in investing in Los Angeles. … What I always come back to is, what is the balance we have to strike?”

Here’s the sort of balance he achieved in his first term. In September 2013, O’Farrell tried to ban free meals for homeless at parks through a motion to draft legislation on non-commercial meal distribution (food lines for the homeless) due to public safety, public health, and right of way concerns – supposedly spurred by Occidental Entertainment, Siren Studios, Hollywood Media District BID. In August 2016, he banned overnight parking for RVs through the introduction and passing of an anti-homeless resolution (with future adversary Mike Bonin) prohibiting RVs and oversized vehicles from overnight parking in the Media District BID.  In June of the same year, tenants were displaced by a hotel conversion O’Farrell supported in Hollywood. Working class apartments became a boutique hotel using the Ellis Act. At the end of his first term he also tried to introduce a motion to make it illegal for single adults (read: unhoused) to be in public playgrounds.

Yet he would occasionally switch it up and cosplay someone who cares about poor people, like in regards to pressure from tenants fighting displacement on Yucca Ave., where he claimed he told the developer “I just won’t support displacement.” (Those same tenants are still fighting for the Right to Return to their homes four years later, with little help from the Councilmember’s office). These are just a few examples of a term that was anti-homeless and anti-tenant, and a taste for what was to come next. 

Over the past several years, O’Farrell has consistently pointed to his role in creating Indigenous Peoples Day and replacing Columbus Day in 2017 as his definitive, number one civic accomplishment. The same month the Indigenous Peoples Day motion was passed, O’Farrell, along with his cohorts, rubber stamped the 2028 Olympic bid, which is already accelerating the militarization and expansion of police, as well as displacement and gentrification at large. 

This juxtaposition neatly encapsulates the Mitch O’Farrell political project: self-congratulatory, performative gestures with one hand and securing the undemocratic removal of people with the other, always with an even-keeled, dead-eyed delivery. His demeanor is a sort of forced calmness, another hand-me-down affect from Garcetti. 

When his first term was expiring, multiple leftist and progressive challengers in CD13 emerged for the 2017 cycle, articulating a different vision for leadership in the district and city at large and an “anyone but Mitch” outlook. These challengers included tenants rights advocate and Ground Game LA Co-founder Jess Salans. O’Farrell, with massive establishment backing, managed to narrowly avoid a run-off. O’Farrell ultimately won because he had massive capital backing. His well-heeled donors included real estate interests (Sevag Khatchadourian, Jim Silverwood, Janet Lee, Korus Real Estate Inc.), the California Apartment Association PAC, the Building Owners & Managers Association of Greater LA PAC, and the Central City East Association (which run the Downtown Industrial BID) to name just a few. There were once again allegations he harvested ballots. But these complaints were shooed away. The real estate lobby had successfully purchased another LA election, and O’Farrell entered his second term just as Trump had assumed the presidency and homelessness in LA County exploded 23% in one year (as well as over 70% in Latinx populations). 

Second Term

His second term has been more of the same. In September 2017, he didn’t stop shady legislation that got tenants evicted. O’Farrell took a neutral position on the Central Area Planning Commissioners’ hearing to grant a “hybrid TORS” (mixed hotel & apartment) designation for a development called The Metropolitan, even as City Attorney Mike Feuer warned that residents would not have legal protections against displacement. Its residents were then evicted over the holidays.

O’Farrell helped push an amendment to 41.18(d) (the “Anti-Camping Ordinance”) in 2019 to create huge zones across the city where it would be illegal to sleep. O’Farrell defended the amendment, claiming that housed people are the real victims when it comes to systemic poverty. They are “people that we hear from every day who are understandably upset, frustrated, and sometimes traumatized by the conditions they observe in many of our homeless encampments.” O’Farrell’s four years as Chair of the Homlessness and Poverty Committee were characterized by promoting the idea that wealthy, housed people are somehow simultaneously the heroes and victims of all neighborhood-based narratives. The 41.18 amendment effort was met with fierce community pushback, has been tabled and is possibly returning to council in the coming months.

LAPD advances during March’s O’Farrell-ordered sweep. (Photo: Justin Garr)

O’Farrell also used 56.11, another thorny LA municipal code enabling the city to seize and destroy any “bulky items” on the street , as a pretense to kick out street vendors from the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the same year that street vending was allegedly legitimized. Despite O’Farrell’s dedication to the law, a federal judge issued an injunction to halt enforcement of the bulky item provision.

And then there was Prop 10, a statewide proposition that would have opened the door to expand rent control as homelessness and housing precarity continued to soar throughout LA and California and which was an all-hands-on-deck push by tenant groups here in CD13. Where was O’Farrell? Biding his time. He conveniently waited until the last minute to endorse, aligning on paper but not putting any actual weight behind the message, effectively adding nothing to the cause. (Another move torn from Garcetti’s playbook.)

In 2018, O’Farrell’s colleague Jose Huizar was the subject of an FBI raid connected to hotel bribery and corruption. O’Farrell, the recipient of hundreds of thousands in donations from real estate interests, took the rhetorical high road, claiming, “The constant stream of pay-to-play corruption indictments and guilty pleas have taken a devastating toll on the ideals of public service that I hold near and dear… The vast majority of city employees chose a career to do some good in this world and work day in and day out with integrity and professionalism. This is a betrayal to us all.” In O’Farrell and much of the establishment’s eyes, corruption or abuse of power only takes place when there’s quid-pro-quo briefcases of money being dropped. 

LAPD block off an exit/entrance point during March’s violent sweep. (Photo: Justin Garr)

As homelessness surged because of policies being unanimously voted for at City Hall, so did complaints to O’Farrells office about an increase in visible poverty and houselessness. O’Farrell, like Garcetti, has always been firmly pro-LAPD, supporting their obscene budgets, and they play a large role in implementing these pro-property policies. Echo Park Lake emerged as one location where unhoused people started settling in larger numbers, due to the Lake’s bathrooms, grass, and other proximity to services. Unhoused residents began organizing, with groups of predominantly housed people like Street Watch LA and Ground Game LA supporting the development of their work. 

There was significant pushback from the unhoused residents of the Lake when O’Farrell locked the bathrooms or consistently trying to sweep and push them out through self-eviction, even though his office would claim “there are no sweeps” in advance of events like Echo Park Rising. As the encampment grew, so did resistance to O’Farrell’s efforts to disappear them. In 2020 O’Farrell retaliated against LAHSA employee (and Ground Game co-founder) Ashley Bennett by getting her fired because she was supporting the movement of the unhoused residents. 

At the same time O’Farrell’s office was conspiring with anti-homeless NIMBY clique Friends of Echo Park Lake for what would eventually result in the current full park eviction and lockdown. This example of rapid, violent park clearance and commodification of public space threatens to become the new model across the region. Shortly afterwards, Inglewood’s City Council unanimously approved new anti-homeless policy further criminalizing existing in public parks if you’re poor. This is probably not a coincidence. 

Mitch O’Farrell is up for re-election to a third term in 2022 in one of LA’s most politicized and politically activated districts. Mitch O’Farrell is also shameless, a persistent liar, and a bootlicker. He’s a habitual line stepper. He’s the Snake of Echo Park Lake. 

But Mitch O’Farrell is not unique. There’s nothing special about him. His behavior and motives are replicated, to varying degrees, in every district in this deeply broken city and across Democrat-dominated cities across the country. He just has power and is submissive to anyone—whether the police, the mayor, or moneyed interests he hands out his private number to—who has more of it. That’s it.

(Jessica Salans and Ashley Bennett are both founding members of Ground Game LA. Knock is a project of Ground Game LA.)