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Police Overreaction to Climate Protest Reveals City’s Misplaced Priorities

Why did an LA protest over oil and gas investments by Chase Bank draw such a large police response?

(Photo by Merav Price)

On April 6, roughly 30 climate protesters gathered at the JP Morgan Chase at Figueroa Street and 7th Street in downtown Los Angeles to protest the bank’s troubling environmental record. Four scientists chained themselves to the doors, shutting the bank down for the day, as organizers spoke and chanted on the sidewalk. It was a small and peaceful protest, focused on how Angelenos’ own banks fund the climate crisis.

Yet as the protest was wrapping up, between seventy and one hundred police showed up to arrest the scientists, shutting down the street and confronting the protesters in riot gear. Organizers described a deeply chilling scene where a line of police wearing face shields and wielding batons, with dozens more in the background, faced off against a group of protesters not even a third of their size. Despite communication between organizers and police throughout the protest and no risk of escalation on the part of the protesters, the LAPD still felt that this display of their power and resources was an appropriate and proportionate response to a small environmental action.

Many took to social media to express their disappointment at LAPD’s response, including People’s City Council, city controller candidate Kenneth Mejia, Peter Kalmus from Scientist Rebellion, and organizers from Youth Climate Strike LA. The wastefulness, intimidation, and unnecessary display of force exemplified the problematic relationship between the LAPD and the residents of Los Angeles that progressive groups have been vocally decrying for years.

The event, which was organized by Extinction Rebellion LA, was part of a larger day of protest organized by Scientist Rebellion. Globally, over 1,200 scientists participated in a day of direct action in response to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. The report details that we are currently heading toward 3-degree warming by 2100, and it’s exceedingly unlikely that we will be able to stick with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5-degree target.

Over the past decade, governments and corporations have continually delayed necessary actions to address the climate crisis. Instead, those in power have favored pro-environmental rhetoric and gestures, as Knock LA has chronicled. Greenwashing and milquetoast policies are omnipresent, and they’ve allowed the biggest polluters to continue their environmental destruction behind closed doors. It is a terrifying reality that has made disruptive actions like Scientist Rebellion’s necessary to protect the climate.

Scientist Rebellion’s action specifically targeted JP Morgan Chase as one of the worst offenders in a generally ruinous industry. It is the biggest funder of fossil fuels, providing around $317 billion in fossil fuel financing from 2016 through 2020 alone. JP Morgan Chase has financed practically every major pipeline in America. They are also major financiers of tar sands, Arctic and offshore gas and oil, fracking, coal mining, liquified natural gas, and more. As for banking as a whole, in the same four-year period, the top 60 banks funneled more than $3.8 trillion into the fossil fuel industry.

One local bank, City National Bank (CNB), has also attracted attention for fossil fuel funding over the Coastal GasLink pipeline, which is set to be built on Wet’suwet’en land without consent (a project also backed by JPM Chase). CNB’s parent company, the Royal Bank of Canada, is the fifth-largest funder of fossil fuels in the banking industry. Not only do banks like these fund fossil fuels, but big banks are also involved in funding other destructive industries, like defense contractors and police foundations. Banks actively fund destruction, and as a result, calls for bank divestment are a crucial part of the fight for our environment.

Los Angeles has a reputation for being an extremely progressive city, in one of the most progressive states. It has a Democratic city council, with a Democratic mayor, with Democrats representing most elected roles in the city government. And yet, our city continues to neglect climate change policy and significant efforts to combat the climate crisis. In the ongoing mayoral election, almost every major candidate has had a slow roll-out of climate policies that overall lack imperative bold leadership and policy. What the candidates have chosen to focus on is the police — the same candidates have all made funding or expanding the LAPD in some way a focal point of their platform.

Many point to rising crime rates in Los Angeles as a core reason for expanding the police. While it is true that we have seen a recent increase in certain crimes, crime rates remain incredibly low compared to Los Angeles’ historical crime rate. Moreover, funding increases in the past decade or so have failed to decrease crime rates. LAPD’s funding rose from 2.4 billion to 3.2 billion from 2013 to 2021, yet in the same period, murders rose from 296 to 397. Expanding the police suggests police are overstretched and lack resources and funding. But when LAPD can continually divert significant resources and officers against small, peaceful protests, it becomes difficult to square that with claims that the LAPD is underfunded

Police already take up around half of the city budget, and that’s money that comes directly out of other programs that directly benefit communities, and the environment. The most dangerous effect of increased police funding lies in the fact that the communities with the highest crime rates need resources, not more policing. Police do not serve marginalized communities — on the contrary, policing is a source of marginalization itself. LAPD’s extremely high and racially disproportionate rates of police brutality are plainly indicative of this, as are their responses to protests like the one on April 6.

The LAPD’s overreaction to the April 6 climate protest was unfortunately not unique. In the summer of 2020, the LAPD violently responded to citywide Black Lives Matter protests, which remains the subject of lawsuits. Just in the past month, the LAPD and DHS forcefully intervened at a pro–abortion rights protest on May 3, and police arrested over two dozen academic student employees protesting at UCLA for better pay and policies on April 26. This is a recurring issue. LA police repeatedly show up in inordinate numbers, spending excessive amounts and wasting resources, to disperse protests and actions, often violently. The April 6 display alone is estimated to have cost the city roughly $20,000. These demonstrations are costly, and they are unnecessary and cruel.

The LAPD budget has increased around 33% since 2010, and Mayor Garcetti has proposed to increase it by $125 million more in the following year. LAPD’s overinflated budget has directly impeded the extent to which the city puts its money into other vital issues like the climate. Los Angeles severely misallocates city resources, and it’s led to almost no money being devoted to local climate solutions like phasing out oil drilling, funding public transit, and properly investing in a transition to renewable energy. Without a reallocation of the budget, Los Angeles will continue to platform police above all — above our welfare, our safety, our health, and our environment. 

In addition, as the Scientist Rebellion action sought to highlight, LA residents’ own retail banks are fueling climate destruction. Customers and politicians must demand these banks divest from fossil fuels and cut ties with those banks that won’t. Support for actions like the one led by the Scientist Rebellion against these ecocidal banks is a crucial part of the fight for the climate.

The latest IPCC report exhibits the need for drastic and urgent action for our species and environment. That includes taking a second look at both our banks and our police, and what we choose to prioritize as a city.

Overfunded and violent police forces and fossil-fuel-investing banks are two sides of the same coin, propping up each other to keep the existing oppressive and destructive status quo in place. Climate, capital, and policing are all deeply interwoven, and when we treat any as one-dimensional, it keeps us from affecting the change needed for us and the planet we depend on.

The handling of the Scientist Rebellion protest was emblematic of much deeper problems in Los Angeles and beyond, and it is well past time we take concrete measures to address the issues behind both the reason and response to what happened on April 6.