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Occupy L.A.'s chalk protests prompt melee, free-speech debate

July 14, 2012 |  7:34 am

Chalk protest

The melee that occurred in downtown Los Angeles on Thursday night over a chalk protest by Occupy L.A. and homeless-rights advocates has raised questions over freedom of speech.

A small group of activists gathered at the corner of 5th and Spring streets during the heart of downtown's popular monthly ArtWalk, handing out chalk to passersby and using the sidewalks as their canvas for more anti-gentrification and some anti-police slogans.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, clashes began between some activists and LAPD officers, resulting in a melee that left four officers injured and more than 15 people arrested. The LAPD called a citywide tactical alert, streamed hundreds of officers into downtown and used rubber bullets to disperse the crowd.

PHOTOS: Confrontation at downtown L.A. ArtWalk

The incident highlights long-simmering tensions as downtown L.A.'s major revitalization — after decades of decline — has ushered in thousands of new residents as well as upscale lofts, restaurants and galleries to the city core. The gentrification has transformed large swaths of downtown, but it has spread into areas that were traditionally home to some of L.A.'s poorest residents.

"They decided they were going to turn ArtWalk into a protest," LAPD Capt. Horace Frank said. There were a small number of demonstrators, he said, but the crowd grew to about 300 as word of the conflict spread. The department set up a skirmish line, and dozens of officers then donned riot helmets and systematically moved the crowd away block by block.

"Our officers then started taking rocks and bottles from the crowd," he said. "At that point, we fired some less-lethal weapons and eventually gave the order to disperse."

Frank said "chalking" is not a protected form of speech, calling it "vandalism."

Occupy supporters dispute this, adding that the "over-deployment" and "saturation" of police earlier in the evening set the tone for the rest of the confrontations.

"Within 10 minutes of getting to where we wanted to be, there was an arrest," said
Cheryl Aichele of Occupy L.A.  "It wasn't even 7:30 yet, and police were using intimidation tactics and pushing us — I got pushed into a garbage can."

She stressed that the group wanted to be peaceful. "In our meeting beforehand, we said our goals were: Have fun. Stay safe. Speak out. Stand up. Reach out. Make friends. Chalk."

Activists argue that they have the right to hold their "chalk protests" under a 1995 court ruling involving speech rights.

But L.A. Chief Deputy City Atty. William Carter said the state law governing vandalism was changed in 2000 to include the use of any medium, including chalk.

Police had made 12 chalk-related arrests before Thursday's confrontations, and the city attorney's office has filed charges in five of those cases. One was deemed an infraction, and four other cases are pending, Carter said. Prosecutors did not file the other cases.


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Photo: Juan Garcia with Graffiti Control Systems spray-paints over a wall on 5th Street near Broadway in downtown Los Angeles after it was covered with chalk scrawlings Thursday night by Occupy L.A. members. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times