LAPD's Choreography of Occupy L.A.
Brian Hakes occupied City Hall all night on Nov. 27 in anticipation of a police raid after LAPD announced, two days earlier, an eviction deadline of 12:01 a.m. Many were perplexed when the raid never came. But long before that hour, Police Chief Charlie Beck had already decided against acting that night.
After staying awake overnight Sunday, Hakes remained at home Monday night. "I wasn't going back on [Monday]," Hakes says. "Fuck that."
More than 1,500 people had the same sentiment. The camp's population dwindled from more than 2,000 on Nov. 27 to fewer than 500; protesters looked exhausted, and most were asleep by 3 a.m. on Nov. 28.
Craig Toennies, an occupier since the movement's beginnings, expected the raid on the night of Nov. 28, telling L.A. Weekly, "If it happens tonight, I won't resist."
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Things were so dead that media representatives amounted to just two. And once again, by LAPD design, no raid came.
Then on Nov. 29, police put their secret plan into play — a plan the media blew open during a series of miscues that left LAPD begging TV news directors to pull back.
Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell, a respected former member of the LAPD brass, tells the Weekly that it makes the most tactical sense to raid when protesters are tired and in diminished numbers. But keeping a crowd small is tricky, because when you assemble a huge team of police, it's all but impossible to keep it a secret. And once protesters know that a raid is imminent, the crowd will grow.
LAPD's cover was, in fact, blown when a KNBC-4 news helicopter traveling above Dodger Stadium happened upon, and videotaped, more than 1,000 cops mustering on the stadium property. KNBC called LAPD Commander Andrew Smith for comment, but after 45 minutes of silence the station aired the story and posted video during the dinner hour. After LAPD complained that the station had blown its cover, KNBC took the story down — but by then its scoop was all over Ustream and other media.
Rumors spread on Twitter about the officers massing at Dodger Stadium, and Hakes and thousands of other protesters responded — by filling the Occupy L.A. camp.
Toennies had an infectious smile on his face. Protesters chanted and posed for photos as fireworks exploded. "This is so fun, dude, I am so excited," one girl told a friend.
Then, at 10 p.m., LAPD called an alert for "an unusual occurrence in downtown L.A.," which tipped off a far wider circle of people that the raid was imminent. The raid came at 12:13 a.m.
But LAPD's lost element of surprise didn't ruin its operation, because LAPD had decided to use City Hall itself as a Trojan horse, a strategy dreamed up by LAPD's elite Metropolitan division.
Hidden inside the historic building were hundreds of cops who were able to surround the camp instantly — even though protesters knew something was coming.
As part of its plan, Smith tells the Weekly, LAPD sent a group of motorcycle officers to begin taping off the road near First Street and Broadway. The unspoken purpose of the motorcycle cops was to draw curious protesters into that corner, creating a tight group — and it worked.
About an hour later, an unseen force of police hidden inside City Hall swarmed in from the east and south and surrounded the group. The use of "City Hall as a Trojan horse" worked repeatedly and quickly on the crowds, says LAPD Commander Smith. He says the building made a great place for police to hide because it has so many entrances. Police arrived unnoticed, using such invisible paths as a bridgelike, enclosed breezeway on the second floor.
Smith says, "I think the surprise and the amount of officers present that overwhelmed everyone contributed to the success."
About three hours later, with 292 arrests and only five injuries, the camp was cleared in time for a press conference at which Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa praised the professionalism and restraint of the 1,400 officers.
After that, national media gushed at the job done by L.A. city government. "I have spoken with people from other cities to discuss strategies," Smith says. "They seem very interested in what we did."
The night before the raid, LAPD had attempted to create a "media pool" that allowed only 12 journalists inside the police perimeter to report on the raid and arrests.
Journalists not allowed in the pool were angry, but thanks to constant updates sent by pool journalists to nonpool journalists via email and Twitter — as well as protesters and others acting as citizen journalists with cameras and video — highly detailed coverage emerged.
"It would have been a media storm no matter what," says Celeste Fremon, editor of Witness L.A., a blog about crime and social justice. "If they'd done it Monday night, the press would have been down there, too, in the same numbers. The minute LAPD called a [tactical] alert, everybody figured it out, plus most of us got tipped by somebody or other."
But could the raid have been handled better?
Paul Wertheimer, founder of Crowd Management Strategies, says it was "refreshing to see nonviolent people treated with some deference." But from a tactical standpoint, he still believes Monday night might have been the better time to raid.
"That is when the tactical operations are easier. When people are asleep and disoriented, they are more likely to follow orders."
Wertheimer also believes LAPD could have saved taxpayers some money by leaving a lot of the riot gear in LAPD lockers. He thinks the brass might have been "itching" to use the bulky gear and hazmat suits acquired following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
"I just don't get the RoboCop approach," Wertheimer says. "Why were weapons being directed at nonviolent protesters?"
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