Will Drugs Kill 'Occupy LA'?

By Ruth Fowler 11/06/11

The LAPD's laissez-faire approach to marijuana has turned Occupy LA into the nation's most stoned-out encampment. So why are protesters paranoid about tear gas, riots and a coming crackdown?

The wine and pot are local, like the permissive policies. photo via

I am standing outside Los Angeles's City Hall on a warm November night. Two blocks away, 11,000 homeless people have settled down on Skid Row for the night. In front of the imposing courthouse, a film crew is shooting a TV commercial for a new sleek silver-colored car. Two cops are on patrol, watching the cameramen, smoking Parliaments and shooting the shit. They decline to give their names when I ask, and claim not to know the whereabouts of the six LAPD officers assigned overtime to watch the Occupy Los Angeles encampment across the street in City Hall Park.

“How long are those guys gonna stay?” one cop asks, nodding over at the tree-covered lawn now crammed with hundreds of sleeping tents in which anywhere from 350 to 400 protesters have been bedding down each night since October 1. “I don't think it’s not fair for the people who want to eat their lunch on the lawn,” the other cop says, offering what is most likely the consensus view of downtown LA’s many city-government workers of the Occupy movement that has caught fire worldwide this fall.

A group of drummers gather inside the City of Tents and launch in to a jam. The cops flick their cigarettes into the street and walk on. The relations between the police and the protesters here have been surprisingly amicable, compared to those in other major encampments, such as Oakland and New York, where the cops have bloodied demonstrators, made mass arrests, and used overwhelming force, including tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray.

Yet there is a growing sense that the city’s gloves are going to come off, and soon. Last Friday, two women were arrested and charged with felonies in two separate—if equally bizarre—assaults: one attempted to set fire to someone’s clothes; the other attacked a fellow occupier with a tent pole. Meanwhile,  at the Occupy Vancouver encampment, a woman was found dead in a tent from a heroin overdose. A few days earlier, emergency medical technicians revived a man in heroin-induced cardiac arrest. Occupiers there said that neither heroin user was a "member" of Occupy Vancouver, although it's hard to tell: membership in the protest is based on a sweetly idealistic come-one, come-all ethic. Now, more than a month into this experiment, tension is growing at all of the major encampments—even here in LA, where city officials have greeted the occupiers with a smile.

Most surprising part of the mayor's ominous warning is that it's based on issues like public sanitation and cost to the city. Drug use has gone largely unmentioned, even though kids pass joints in full view of disinterested cops.

The truth is, anxiety and frustration have gripped Occupy LA since its counterpart in Oakland exploded on October 25, when police tried and failed to break up the encampment. In the process, Oakland police came close to killing a protester—a 24-year-old Iraqi War veteran—who was struck in the head with a tear gas canister. The next day, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa abruptly changed his tune. "Look, our lawn is dead, our sprinklers aren't working…our trees are without water," the mayor said, claiming that Occupy LA’s 500-plus tents cost more than $2,700 a day in sanitation, security, and other expenses (Occupiers have agreed to pay the costs for repairing the lawn, and claim they pay for their own sanitation). “The party cannot continue indefinitely.” The mayor told city officials to draft new restrictions on public hours at City Hall Park, a move viewed as enabling police to clear the park.

Officially, Occupy LA, the LAPD and the city council are working together to keep things peaceful. Occupy LA’s twitter feed glows with positive messages, like “#LAPD and #OccupyLA share a respectful and positive relationship. City Hall supports us, as we continue to grow and organize.”

The LAPD told The Fix, “There has been no arrests, no trouble reported, no complaints of noise from nearby residents. All groups are very peaceful, and we have no knowledge of any illegal drug use on site.”

The city council is on message, too. Richard Alarcón, the council member who has shown OLA the most support, told The Fix that the city is happy to host the group as long as they do not “conduct themselves in a manner which is illegal, unhealthy, unsafe or damaging city property, or beyond the level which we believe they have the ability to repair—but that [doubt regarding ability to pay for repairs] is what you’re hearing from the mayor right now.”

What is most surprising about the mayor's ominous warning about ending the "party" is that it is based on complaints about issues like public sanitation and city costs. Drug use has gone largely unmentioned, even though a permanent cloud of pot smoke seems to hang over the encampment and kids pass joints in full view of disinterested cops.

A unique set of circumstances—a large medical marijuana contingent, courtesy of a lenient interpretation of Proposition 215; Skid Row half-a-mile away; and an uncertain police force still reeling from the PR nightmares of past race riots—has led to this peculiarly relaxed and permissive atmosphere. In the absence of daily, visible LAPD hostility, the encampment has gone its own way—morphing into a melting pot of hardcore activists, young hedonists and society’s most dispossessed, including local homeless people, many with mental health and drug problems. Small-time drug dealers wasted no time in targeting the market.

The occupiers are acutely aware that the city’s tolerance could snap in a moment. Contingency plans, gas masks, meeting point if things turn ugly—these practical matters have largely displaced political issues as the talk of the makeshift town. Meantime, there are also peculiar problems unique to Los Angeles and OLA’s specific location that urgently need to be solved—not least of which is the bad rap they’re getting for noisy partying and the suggested use of illegal drugs. These problems are discussed daily on-site in Livestreamed General Assemblies and committee meetings, blog posts on the Occupy LA website, and in articles and comments in LA Weekly, the Los Angeles Times, and The Fix. It's surprising, to say the least, that the city council and LAPD claim ignorance of the drug angle.

Ironically, some occupiers have come to see the official hands-off policy as a mixed blessing. “If we had the same kind of external threats like Oakland and the other occupations have, we would have much more unity and camaraderie here in LA,” says Daniil Dillinger, a member of OLA’s web team. “There are kids in the minority here who feel alienated from the current system, so they come to us. But then they find that we’re a complicated mass of committees, everyone’s working all the time, the police don’t seem to care if they smell weed, the atmosphere’s pretty relaxed—and so they do what they like best: They drum and they party.”

As in New York, Oakland and other big-city encampments, drugs have been a constant presence. In fact, the park has been a magnet for the "professional homeless," the needy or greedy who persistent test the free-wheeling ethos of the encampment, which offers a place to sleep, free food, health services, a comfort station, even a library. Within days of occupying City Hall, street people started showing up—each for his or her own reasons—and thefts and violence soon followed. It took six policemen to put one raging man in a car and carry him off.

OLA’s Head of Security, Emilio Arreola says, “If I see the hard shit—heroin, crack—I throw those people out. But marijuana? I don’t have the legal right to enforce that.” Arreola estimates that of 370 residents living on-site full time, about 40 are from Skid Row, while 20 are “kids who don’t know how to act. We try to take care of them, but that’s what the media picks up on. They don’t see the majority of us running the show and doing our best to keep the movement together.”

They’re working overtime on what PR pundits call counter-messaging. Last week, the group rolled out a new slogan: “More Revolution, Less Party”—posted on its website and handed out on flyers. The silk-screen printers are designing new logos with a similar theme to adorn a mass of donated clothes, bed sheets and bandanas. A tent village, housing the media team, has a whiteboard propped outside: “Don’t ask us for cigarettes. The only thing we can give you is the news. MORE REVOLUTION, LESS PARTY!” It echoes similar signs which were posted all over Madrid for the 15th May movement, the precursor to Occupy Wall Street. Giant signs on the plaza read "REVOLUCIón NO BOTTELLón!" (“REVOLUTION, no PARTYING”). The party has continued, but more discreetly, according to Esteban Gil, a Berkeley graduate who works on the Facilitation Committee here in LA.

But the spillover from Skid Row has proved less amenable to slogans than the tribe of kids. Yet OLA has shrewdly asked for help from Skid Row advocacy groups like LA-CAN (Los Angeles Community Action Network); together, they launched a Skid Row-focused “Occupy the Hood” affinity group and instituted a policy of self-policing, with the result that safety and security have improved—give or take a crazy assault or two. “A good number [of Skid Row residents] are awesome and help us out with other Skid Row people,” Arreola tells me. “They have their own way of dealing with that shit."

Suddenly a young girl with a determined jaw interrupts. “I think it’s weird to call out all the different groups here. We’re all the 99%,” she says.

“When the city council supported Occupy LA, they were supporting the 99%—and that includes the homeless,” Dennison says. “But it’s not surprising that once all these Skid Row folks most affected by local politics started to emerge, the attitude changed.”

If all politics is local, then the proposition that “we’re all the 99%” is increasingly debatable—especially in the Los Angeles City Council. The group’s early enthusiasm for OLA, when it looked like a relatively homogenous group of earnest if discontent college-educated children of the middle-class, has waned as the encampment became home to the pot-smoking, drum-beating kids and assorted representatives of the generally invisible and ignored underclass.

“The fact that the word ‘homeless’ is thrown into every article about the Occupy Los Angeles movement in order to invalidate it, is just hypocritical,” says Becky Dennison of LA-CAN. She cites the recent frosty statements by Mayor Villaraigosa and certain no longer gung-ho council members as evidence that the city’s political leaders have cooled to the movement as its target has expanded from a distant Wall Street and the abstraction of economic inequality to include certain recent controversial economic policies of the City of Los Angeles itself. An example: the $2.2 million in federal funds earmarked for Skid Row, $1 million of which was diverted to the San Francisco–based architecture firm Gensler, the same firm handling the NFL stadium project. “When the city council supported Occupy LA, they were supporting the 99%—and that includes the homeless,” Dennison says. “But it’s not surprising that once the race and class dynamic of the occupation changed, and all these folks most affected by local politics started to emerge, the attitude changed.”

Despite the fact that drugs have provided a reliable pretext for dissing the movement nationwide, Occupy Los Angeles remains passionately divided about adopting the “zero-tolerance” policy enacted (at least in principle) by the Occupy Wall Street encampment. So for now, along with the “More Revolution, Less Party” signs, OLA medics keep a watchful eye on their residents, whether from Skid Row or Melrose Avenue. Patricia Sanchez, who works in the First Aid tent and offers CPR training, explains: “We have AA and NA running meetings everyday, and we try and make sure everyone is fed and hydrated. Sometimes I’ll see someone covered in a blanket, just lying on the floor, and I’ll sit with them a while, make sure they’re breathing. We actually got one guy into rehab in the first week. That was pretty amazing.”

Yet realistic occupiers recognize that neither medical vigilance nor zero-tolerance policies will prevent the cops from moving on the encampment if and when the order comes down. For one thing, according to occupiers nationwide, undercover agents have, not surprisingly, infiltrated the big-city encampments. Emilio Arreola estimates that there are at least 15 “plants” on site at any one time. “I’ve seen them walk round the block, and get into cop cars. It’s obvious who they are,” he says. “The authorities are playing it smart with us. They’re hoping we’ll eat ourselves from the inside out, saying that the Local Farmers [who have had to move their popular weekly market because of occupiers’ tents] are pissed at us, everyone’s on drugs, all we do is party. It exists, but most of us are on two committees at once, getting no sleep because we’re working all the time.”

As he says this, the orderliness of the General Assembly is broken by an angry chorus of voices that wants to talk about Oakland, the mayor, the police, and what they see as the inevitable attack on their own encampment. The meeting is thrown into chaos until a woman from Oakland takes the mic and starts to talk about what happened “that” night. Pin-drop silence ensues. She’s followed by a man in a suit from Occupation Wall Street who stokes anxieties by urging everyone to load up on gas masks, join more committees, and stay alert.

“It’s kind of like Thanksgiving dinner. Everyone’s family looks crazier than yours. But this, here, the craziness—this is how it works,” Patricia Sanchez says with a laugh.

Daniil Dillinger, the web team worker, chimes in: “The point is that we’re a microcosm of LA society. To deny the presence of drugs and alcohol on the streets of Los Angeles would be disingenuous. We have a very evident problem and it’s been transferred to our camp, but unlike the city council, we’re not denying that problem.”

This weekend, Occupation Los Angeles was all business. On Saturday, joined by labor unions and community organizers, OLA marched to the city’s financial district in support of so-called National Bank Transfer Day, which saw over a million Americans move their accounts from the big banks to credit unions. The encampment has spent the rest of Saturday and Sunday hosting a teach-in, with lectures on income inequality, civil disobedience, and sustainable living.

But the heavy, sweet scent of marijuana still lingers in the air as another General Assembly drifts to a close. As occupiers wander back to their tents, a group passing by starts talking about erecting a tent specifically for medical-marijuana card holders to "medicate" in peace.

A young man newly arrived from Occupy Wall Street turns to the group in amazement. “I can’t believe this is what you guys in LA are arguing about. This is a fucking revolution. When the cops are coming for you, I can guarantee the last thing you’re gonna be thinking about is weed.”

The group stops to considers this. “Yeah, until after the fact. Then everyone’s gonna wanna toke,” one boy responds to the laughing approval of his friends.


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Ruth Fowler is an ex-stripper, Cambridge-grad and writer. Find Ruth on LinkedIn and Twitter.