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Who Keeps Us Safe?

The LAPD arrested over a dozen members of the press covering a protest at Echo Park Lake, including two of our reporters.

Officers armed with less-than-lethal weapons and zip ties at the March 25 Echo Park Lake protest. (Photo: Shanley Kellis)

On March 24, approximately 400 LAPD officers descended on Echo Park Lake to forcibly displace the unhoused community that lives there. By the early hours of the next morning, city employees were erecting fences around the park and blocking anyone from coming or going, effectively turning it into an open-air jail for the residents still inside. The remaining residents of Echo Park Lake were told to leave the park by that evening or they would be arrested

To prevent interference from activists, police blocked off the streets around the park with cruisers and barricades. Glendale Boulevard was closed down for blocks. LAPD choppers continuously circled overhead. It seemed like the entire neighborhood was on lockdown.

Still, at 5:30 PM, housed and unhoused protesters held a vigil outside CD13 Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell’s office at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Lemoyne Street.

“It was peaceful, it was nice just to see the amount of people who came from near or far to Echo Park to provide some physical support,” said Echo Park Neighborhood Council President Zarinah Williams.

The crowd chanted “Who keeps us safe? We keep us safe!” and “What do we want? Permanent housing now!” Another chant, “Four a day, ain’t okay!” rang out, referring to the fact that four unhoused people die on the streets of Los Angeles every day

(Photo: Kate Gallagher)

Due to the police presence, demonstrators weren’t allowed near the park, but at 6 PM, the park’s unhoused residents addressed the vigil live via the @echoparkrising Instagram. One of the speakers said that there was no real basis in public safety for shutting down the park: “It’s not because of safety, it’s not because of construction, it’s because of community,” referring to the shared garden, kitchen, and showers the unhoused community built after the City of Los Angeles failed to provide for their needs. 

Regarding the tents that remained in the park, Echo Park Lake resident and organizer Ayman Ahmed said, “What you see here is not trash. What you see here is refugees displaced out of fear because their government came to attack them. All of my neighbors fled. We were a vibrant, happy, loving community, and now all of my neighbors fled. For what?”

“We need more solutions that come from the community, that come from the people that know what homeless needs are, those of us who experience those needs,” said unhoused resident David Busch. 

Meanwhile, just a block south of the vigil at O’Farrell’s office, police held a skirmish line at the intersection of Lemoyne Street and Park Avenue. Dozens of demonstrators gathered to confront the police about the situation just a block past their barricade at Echo Park Lake.

(Photo: Kate Gallagher)

An unhoused veteran attempted to speak to the police captain at the skirmish line about some property of his that was taken. The officer turned him away. 

“He said he’ll deal with me later after they deal with crowd control,” the man said. “He’s not gonna do shit here. All he’s going to do is stand around and talk. These cops don’t listen to none of this. They don’t care about us… They’re treating us like we’re a bunch of gangs or something. I served this country – I don’t have to kiss their ass.”

Apart from verbal encounters between the police and a small crowd of protesters, there was no sign of imminent violence or destruction near the skirmish line. Yet despite the peaceful mood, at around 6:35 PM, the LAPD declared the gathering an unlawful assembly.

(Photo: Shanley Kellis)

However, they did not give an immediate dispersal order. For the next hour, demonstrators continued to congregate around the skirmish line. By approximately 7:40 PM, members of the crowd were flashing strobe lights at the police. In response, reinforcements arrived, armed with less-than-lethal munitions and zip ties, apparently ready to make arrests. 

Police relayed a message using a cruiser’s loudspeaker, but the crowd’s chanting and bongo drums made it difficult to understand. Even without the crowd’s cries, the cruiser’s speaker was muffled and apparently broken, as the audio cut in and out. We only learned from Twitter that this announcement was an order to disperse.

The crowd was still peaceful at 8:05 PM when an officer announced over a loudspeaker, “All members of the media or the National Lawyers Guild, disperse to the north now.”

(Photo: Shanley Kellis)

Several members of the press and NLG observers did not heed the ominous request, as they were used to being exempted from such orders. “I generally don’t disperse in response to a dispersal order because I’m generally not supposed to, at least in my understanding of the law,” says James Queally, a reporter for the LA Times.

On the other side of the street, Zarinah Williams saw a scene she described as “horrific.”

(Video: Kate Gallagher)

“I saw hundreds of police officers emerge from two alleys behind us and throw people over, slam them into the ground, come at you with less-lethal rounds pointed at your head, as most of us were walking backwards and trying to disperse as ordered,” she said. “I watched the legal observers kind of step out of the circle a little bit, to make a space to observe, and they were grabbed and snatched up. I watched press step out of the circle and make space because they’re press, they’re usually protected. They were snatched up.”

We repeatedly told the officers that we were reporters, but they remained unfazed. As Jon Peltz was processed, his arresting officer, Wolleck, asked for his profession. “Journalist, with Knock LA,” Jon said. “As I said before, when I said I was press.”

“Ah,” replied Officer Wolleck. 

Queally, who was also seated nearby, commented, “What is this, arrest-a-journalist day?” Ultimately, he was released on-site after about 40 minutes. Queally says that he told the media relations officers about several other journalists who were detained, including Kate Cagle from Spectrum News, Lexis-Olivier Ray from LA Taco, Sean Carmitchel, and Jon from Knock LA. While Cagle and Ray were released, independent journalists Jon and Carmitchel were not.   

Jon was held next to an attorney with the NLG, who was equally confused about the dispersal order, and above all, worried about what was happening to the other detained NLG members. “I guess I did a bad job as a lawyer tonight,” he joked. 

(Photo: Shanley Kellis)

Meanwhile, Knock LA reporter Kate Gallagher was zip-tied by LAPD Officer Lopez, taken across the street, and told to stand facing a concrete wall. “This protest is your business,” Officer Lopez said quietly. “I’m just doing what I’m told.”

While there was an effort to match female detainees with female officers, it wasn’t a  well-enforced standard. “I was on the bus when we were being transported with a young lady who was being handled by a man, and she had told me that the male officer was talking to her about how she’s ‘too pretty to get arrested,’” Williams said. “This is terrifying for anyone who has any sort of trauma regarding the police or any sort of abuse, when you’re in a situation where you’re trying to help people or defend people, or just simply leave, and you find yourself in an experience that you really have no control over.”

After being zip-tied and asked for identification, Knock LA reporters were lined up to wait for the buses and vans that would transport them to booking. By coincidence, the two of us ended up next to each other in line. We greeted each other and one of the accompanying officers asked, “Oh, you two know each other?”

Officer Wolleck pointed out that we were wearing matching red t-shirts emblazoned with the Knock LA logo. “They’re to indicate that we’re both journalists with Knock LA,” Jon replied. “You’re arresting two journalists right now.”

(Photo: Shanley Kellis)

Inside the transport buses, it became obvious that COVID safety wasn’t a priority. Twenty to 30 people were double-seated in the relatively small vehicles. Every window was completely closed. One of the arrestees yowled in pain because his zip tie was too tight, but the officer aboard refused to help at first, waiting around 10 minutes to address the issue.

Still, there was some camaraderie among the absurdly arrested. “It was nice not being alone in the experience, because it would have been terrifying for me as a woman or a person of color, to have been arrested alone and been at the whims of this police force,” Williams said. “I’m happy that I was on a bus with 20 people and there was kind of collective safety there.”

On another bus, one detainee heckled an officer: “Why are you arresting us? You should arrest that barber of yours!” The officer replied that he was okay with whatever we say, he can take it, because we are free to speak our minds with the First Amendment. 

Jon replied, “Well no, we’re prisoners on the way to a jail right now because you arrested us for speaking our mind.”

In total, the LAPD arrested 182 people at the Echo Park vigil, many of them legal observers or members of the press. Carmitchel, in fact, was booked with his press lanyard. It remained visible on his person during the time Jon spent with him in jail. Four busloads took arrestees to 77th Street Jail, while two more headed to the Metropolitan Detention Center.

It was after 10:30 PM by the time buses arrived at Metro, and several arrestees’ hands were numb from the tight zip ties, Jon among them. Still, Jon and Kate were forced to stand in a chilly concrete garage for another two hours while officers booked and released detainees one by one. They were all charged with the same offense: “remained at scene after police declared an unlawful assembly,” a misdemeanor that carries a penalty of up to 6 months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.

Jon and Kate released from the Metropolitan Detention Center (Photo: Shelby Eggers)

We, Jon and Kate, were among the last to be released, at around 12:30 AM. Obviously, we would rather not have been arrested. However, we will not stop reporting. It is our job to cover events like these, which are absolutely of journalistic value to Knock LA’s readership and to the City of Los Angeles. 

Law enforcement response to the unhoused population in Echo Park Lake has been brutal for a long time. As of publish time, no residents remain at the Lake, and according to reports, at least a dozen of those displaced by the LAPD and Councilmember O’Farrell were not provided any alternative shelter by the City. 

It would be hard to argue that the LAPD wants reporters to keep paying attention. But we will.

CORRECTION 3/29/21: An earlier version of this article referred to Jon Peltz’s experience with an LAPD employee named “Wollock.” However, the officer’s name is actually “Wolleck,” according to Jon’s notes. This article has been updated to reflect that fact.