Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Response of the interfaith community to police crackdown on Occupy LA

Along with many other leaders and members of the interfaith community, I am appalled by the overreaction of the police here in LA and elsewhere to the Occupy movement. I have signed on to a letter of protest to Mayor Villaraigosa that is being sent to him by the Interfaith Sanctuary group at Occupy LA.

What happened at Occupy LA last night is a little unclear because the religious leaders who were supposed to observe the police behavior were taken aside when the police initially invaded the camp.

This is a report from Shakeel Syed, the Exec Director of the Shura Council of So Ca: a person whose integrity and veracity I can attest to. I should also add that he and I were among the 14 arrested on Oct 7 during an ICUJP action opposing the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. At that time, the police behaved appropriately, with professionalism and politeness.

Last night the following religious leaders were present at City Hal: Rabbi Jonathan Klein (Exec Dir  of CLUE); Rev. Peter Laarman (Exec Dir  of Progressive Christians United); Rabbi Yohan, Shakeel Syed, and Stacie Chiaken (a Jewish lay leader). These leaders were not allowed into the camp after almost more than an hour of LAPD's invasion of the camp - contrary to a prior agreement with the Mayor and Chief Beck.

Here are Shakeel's observations:
It's more than obscene to invade a peaceful camp of less than 200 peaceful people with a force 7 times more (1400 by Beck's own admission) armed to teeth in riot & military type gear. Not ONE person resisted arrest. Not ONE person engaged in any verbal or physical abuse of any police officers. Not ONE ounce of any drug or intoxicant was found inside the camp. Not ONE witness - neither reps of National Lawyers Guild nor we the clergy & laity observers were allowed inside the camp at the time of invasion. In fact the LAPD sent a word to us for a conversation with their commander on site (Chief Perez) re: observer rules/ protocols, etc & while we're pulled outside the camp for a meeting with Chief Perez at the base of the LAPD building, the invasion started. We're also guaranteed that "sufficient" notice will be given to us to work with the campers to avoid arrest and "sufficient" notice will also be given to the campers to decide between getting arrested and leaving voluntarily. Both of these commitments were reneged and through deception. So to the extent that we were able to observe from more than 500 feet away in darkness was - extensive use of batons in suppressing the campers, mayhem style breaking down tents, kicking and screaming at the peaceful campers. Even we - the "official & approved" observers were yelled at by several of their officers & at one point I had to get into the face of an officer cautioning them to watch himself who he's talking to. subsequent intervention by their other more sane colleagues calmed this stupid officer down. they were on an obscene display of hyper testasterone  ...

We complained to LAPD that had they given us the time guaranteed earlier - we'd have gotten out many of the campers without arrest. In fact in less than first 10 mins of our getting into the camp - we're able to convince two campers to avoid rest and leave the camp. had we had an hour or two - we're very sure we'd have been a great help to LAPD in avoiding many arrests. one of the campers said "we love you for standing up with us but where were you guys when LAPD raided us?" this tells us that our neutrality and integrity was compromised because of LAPD's deceptive way of inviting us to a meeting outside the camp and then immediately raiding the camp.

I think the best commentary on the behavior of police towards protesters has come from former Seattle police chief Stamper, who said one of the worst decision he ever made in his life was to unleash the Seattle police on demonstrators during the WTO gathering in Seattle in 2000.
In an interview on MPR, Stamper said:

We dress as if the protesters are the enemy. We are equipped with tools and weaponry that suggest that the protesters are an enemy and that our mission is a military one. And it's very important, obviously, that your police officers be made as safe as they can in terms of their training, their equipment and so forth. But it's also vitally important to remember that they are dealing with fellow Americans and, particularly in the case of the Occupy movement, you know, I don't know any police officer who's part of the one percent. These are issues that are vital to the entire country, and certainly to the middle class and those who have been marginalized, especially by poverty or by discrimination. And I think police officers, on one level, really get that. But they find themselves lined up as the enemy."

The protesters made it clear they did not regard the police as  the enemy--indeed, I saw signs supporting the police--but clearly the 1% and elected officials who represent them are treating the protesters as if they are the enemy.

That's why it's important for the religious community to be a witness to what is happening and to speak the truth to those in power.

Dear Mayor Villaraigosa:

We, representatives of the faith and labor communities, are writing to follow up on our previous letter to you and meeting with you and Chief Beck, regarding Tuesday night’s forced eviction of the Occupiers at City Hall.

While we are grateful that there were no major physical injuries, we are distressed by the level of violence and brutality witnessed by the members of the clergy who were present at the eviction. After two months of a peaceful occupation it is unacceptable that this level of violence was deployed. Occupiers were pushed and hit and corralled and hunted down by police in a military fashion. The police invaded the park without sufficient warning in a manner that was designed to create the greatest amount of terror and trauma. Despite the media impression that the eviction went off skillfully and without a hitch, in reality there was psychological and spiritual violence in as well as physical violence.

In addition, the interfaith clergy had obtained an agreement from the incident commander that they would be allowed entry to the City Hall grounds as witnesses in order to support the occupiers in their decisions to stay or leave. This agreement was not honored and clergy were not allowed entrance to the park during the crucial period in which they could have been helpful to occupiers who had not previously decided to be arrested.

Finally, it is unacceptable that the arrested occupiers, who are nonviolent and not a flight risk, are being held on $5,000 bail. They must be released on their own recognizance.
This letter is being circulated among religious leaders in LA, and I am pleased that Dan Strickland, the Clerk of Southern California Quarterly Meeting, has signed it. I also support this letter and urge our Mayor to take more seriously our First Amendment right to assemble peacefully to petition our government for a redress of grievances.


  1. what the heck were they thinking?

  2. Well said, Shakeel and Tony. Increasingly our militarized police forces behave as if we were not citizens to negotiate with but an enemy to be deceived and beaten. Thanks to both of you for refusing to accept this kind of dishonorable behavior on the part of the police.