At ceremony reopening City Hall park, Occupy L.A. not invited
The City Hall lawn used -- and trampled -- by Occupy L.A. protesters last year was reopened on Thursday with a ceremony led by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Not everyone was invited. While the mayor and other officials praised the park's new grass and native plantings, about a dozen Occupy protesters stood unhappily on the other side of a fence.
"We're discussing how ironic it is that the re-opening of this public park is closed to the public," one of them said.
The protesters eventually were let in -- after officials had finished speaking.
Villaraigosa said he is committed to protecting protesters' free speech, and said there are two places in the park -- on the Spring Street and 1st Street steps of City Hall -- where activists will be allowed to demonstrate.
Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, who was also on hand, said he wants to see the park used lawfully. "Now it's time for people to retake this park," he said. "It is not the property of one group to be used over other groups. It is all the people's park."
When protesters first set up tents outside of City Hall last October as part of a nationwide protest against income inequality, they were welcomed by sympathetic city leaders who granted them an exemption to laws regulating overnight camping in parks. On one rainy day, Villaraigosa had his staffers hand out ponchos to soggy protesters.
But concerns about health and safety, as well as the deteriorating condition of the lawn, prompted officials to evict the protesters two months later.
Since then, Occupy L.A. has held encampments on skid row and outside of the Central Cities Assn., a downtown business group. Tensions have been high recently, with business owners complaining about violence and vandalism by the protesters.
They surfaced last week when 17 people were arrested at the monthly downtown Art Walk after police moved in on a group of protesters chalking the sidewalks. Villaraigosa has said that the incident was not about free speech, calling it “criminal behavior.”
After the ceremony was over Thursday, the gates to the park were thrown open and the protesters streamed in. Several carried a banner that read "Solidarity Park," the name given to the park by activists last year.
As a group of protesters followed Villaraigosa as he strolled back to City Hall, one of them loudly accused him of "criminal behavior" for chalking the streets with cyclist Lance Armstrong at a charity event in 2009. The mayor smiled, and kept walking.
-- Kate Linthicum at Los Angeles City Hall
Photo: Jeneva Dyson with the Smart Irrigation Project sweeps up debris by the new lawn at City Hall park on March 29. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times