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Councilmember O’Farrell’s Staff Lash Out at Local Bookstore for Supporting Unhoused Neighbors

In an incident caught on video, CD 13 staffers harass an unhoused resident and tell the co-owner and employees of Stories to “get jobs.”

Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell with Lin-Manuel Miranda on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (Luke Harold)

Late last Friday afternoon, a confrontation broke out between two aides to CD 13 Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell and the staff and customers of Stories, a bookstore and cafe in Echo Park. In captured footage of the incident, District Director Marisol Rodriguez and Policy Director Christine Peters scream, point their fingers, and berate those affiliated with Stories. It all started over a few basketballs.

Around 5 PM on February 4, Valerie Zeller was walking down the alley behind Stories. She noticed that the Shoe Palace on the corner of Sunset and Lemoyne had thrown a whole pallet of brand new basketballs into their dumpster, and went to investigate. 

Zeller is a longtime Echo Park resident who lived in an encampment at Echo Park Lake before it was swept by police last March. Under Councilmember O’Farrell’s direction, she was evicted from the park, and has since relocated nearby. “Valerie comes to Stories almost every day,” says Claudia Colodro, co-founder and co-owner of Stories. “She’s like family,” says Daniel Crook, a barista at Stories whom Zeller describes as “one of my best friends.”

“I just wanted to get to them,” says Zeller, “to see what they were.” She climbed the dumpster, but says that the force it took to open the packaging sent the basketballs bouncing down the alley. 

Basketballs painted white found up the street from Stories. (Ryan Coleman)

“It was a humorous sight,” says Shani Levi, another Stories barista who was on the patio that afternoon. Levi and other customers and staffers rose to help Zeller pick up the basketballs when a car pulled in behind O’Farrell’s office and the councilmember’s two aides stepped out. The buildings for the council office and Stories are right next to each other, and they share a back alley. 

According to Zeller, as soon as Rodriguez and Peters exited the car, they began screaming at her. “They didn’t give [me] any time to explain myself,” she says. “It was immediate threats.”

Colodro had just gotten off a grueling shift and joined Levi on the patio when the incident started. “I heard someone screaming ‘Leave me alone! Get away from me! I’m not doing anything wrong,’” Colodro says. She recognized it as Zeller’s voice, and rushed with Levi to intervene.

Video of the incident at Stories Books and Cafe sent anonymously to Knock LA.

Zeller, Colodro, and Levi say they witnessed District Director Rodriguez repeatedly threaten to call an ambulance to have Zeller “taken away.” “I said to them, ‘Let me talk to Valerie,’” Colodro explains. “‘She’s not hurt and she hasn’t hurt anybody.’” Levi adds that, “the basketballs were already cleared away. But the woman in red [Rodriguez] just kept saying, ‘Say goodbye, Valerie. Say goodbye.’”

In one video recorded by Levi and another recorded by a customer on Stories’ patio, Rodriguez can be seen yelling at Zeller to “go get help.” Zeller yells back, calling O’Farrell staffers “pieces of shit.” Colodro tries to de-escalate, asking Zeller to “leave them alone,” but Rodriguez then yells at Colodro, “You are mental, just like Valerie.” After vocal pushback from staffers and customers, Colodro then asks Rodriguez to “back that statement up.” Rodriguez approaches Colodro, holding her phone in a filming position, and asks, “What? What? Who are you?”

Policy Director Christine Peters and District Director Marisol Rodriguez harassing Stories staff and customers. (Anonymously sourced video)

Once face to face with Colodro and Levi, Rodriguez says that “you all” need to “stop being intimidating,” and that “you scare us.” She then clarifies: “Your people, who Valerie is, scare us.” A customer on the patio can be heard saying, “You live in this neighborhood. This is where this is.” Policy Director Peters then removes Rodriguez from the fray, and turns around to tell Colodro and her staff, “All of you fucking hipsters, get jobs. Get lives. I was in the movie business, too. Go do your auditions. Do what you need to do.”

Since his election in 2013, Councilmember O’Farrell has angered the district’s progressive community with his actions on homelessness, affordable housing, and transportation. After his decision to send 400 militarized police officers to raid the Echo Park Lake encampment, convert the neighborhood into a police state for two days, and evict 200+ homeless residents with only 24 hours advance warning, things have been outright hostile

Graffiti outside Councilmember O’Farrell’s office on March 29, 2021. (Kate Gallagher)

During his tenure as councilmember, O’Farrell has eviscerated tenants’ rights, attacked the livelihoods of street vendors, accelerated the frequency and brutality with which homeless sweeps are conducted, made it harder for homeless people to receive free meals, prioritized wealthy donors over average constituents, and supported unconstitutional policing practices.

Rodriguez’s public anger toward the unhoused has manifested in private correspondence as well. In early 2020, Rodriguez played a significant role in the likely retaliatory firing of Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) employee Ashley Bennett, who had allegedly angered the councilmember’s office by assisting the unhoused community members of Echo Park Lake. 

(Disclosure: Ashley Bennett is a founding member of Ground Game LA, the parent organization of Knock LA.)

Documents uncovered by Coalition to Preserve LA in 2019 also locate Peters at four backroom meetings between members of O’Farrell’s staff and developers behind the controversial development Crossroads, which will eliminate 82 rent-stabilized apartments.

As to why representatives of Echo Park’s councilmember would act aggressively toward their constituents, Stories manager Laura Kerrigan has a theory: “Stories is like the town square of this entire area. We have a lot of young people, a lot of unemployed people, actors and artists, unhoused people. We are the public. And they are afraid of the public because they have terrible policies that are extremely unpopular. So the public despises them.”

Councilmember O’Farrell’s office did not respond for multiple requests for comment by the time of publication.

LAPD Officers march on protesters at Echo Park Lake. (Shanley Kellis)

“They’re afraid of their constituents,” she continues, “because they are not representing their constituents. If you take them outside of their wealthy donor bubbles, nobody likes them. Especially in this neighborhood that’s been directly affected by their policies and I would say is pretty well educated on their corruption. When they said, ‘You people scare us,’ they were talking about the public.”

For Zeller, it’s simpler. “It’s a failure of leadership,” she says. Returning to the subject of the sweep last March that uprooted her life even further, she says, “Give people housing, absolutely. Give people evaluations on their mental health, check in on them. People that need to be monitored should be. But give people 24 hours to say yes to housing or get kicked out? It’s inhumane.”