A scuffle between Los Angeles Police and local residents erupted Thursday night after police alleged that citizens were vandalizing public property by, no joke, writing on the pavement with chalk. As tensions heightened, police fired rubber bullets into the crowd and arrested eleven individuals, primarily for chalk-related offenses.
Members of Occupy Los Angeles planned an artistic demonstration to coincide with downtown’s monthly Art Walk event. In recent weeks, twelve affiliates of Occupy have been arrested for writing on public streets and sidewalks with chalk. Feeling that their First Amendment rights were being stifled and that they were being targeted for a harmless offense, Occupiers distributed chalk to passersby in order to illustrate that chalking should not be considered a crime.
Police arrived on the scene and began arresting those who used chalk. They contend that the situation became violent when Occupiers threw bottles and rocks at them. However, Occupiers argue that the situation escalated when the crowd watched a young girl forcefully shoved to the ground and arrested for writing with chalk. They cite that the agitators who threw the bottles were not Occupiers, but unaffiliated community members who were fed up with the police’s tactics, and that most Occupiers had left the scene by the time violence occurred.
Initial media reports noted that two to four officers were injured in the skirmish, but failed to mention the number of civilians who received significant injuries. Democratic Underground has photos of a few people who were struck by the police’s rubber bullets. Witnesses say that one teenager who was not part of the standoff was shot in the face by a stray rubber bullet as he attempted to enter a nearby 7-11 store.
Liz Huston, an artist showcasing her work at an adjacent gallery, gave her account on Facebook:
“I was upstairs, inside, and I felt threatened. Why did [the police] need full riot gear on? They just stood there, in riot gear, for 20 minutes, blocking 5th street, watching the tensions and the crows rise. As a bystander, up above on the second floor, I felt that the police wanted a fight. They looked like bullies in a schoolyard. I’d say that most of the people there had no idea about any kind of Occupy or chalk movement. They were artists and regular people… I didn’t see anyone in the crowd do anything but take pictures of the police.
The police line paused once they crossed the intersection of Spring & 5th. A couple of people were standing in front of the cops, just a few feet away. They were being defiant, but not violent. Suddenly one of the cops shot his pellet gun, missing the two in front of him and hitting someone innocently crossing the street behind them.
The most poignant moment for me was when the crowds parted, before the cops marched across the intersection, words, written in chalk, were revealed. The words were facing the police line and they said, “Who are you protecting?” Great f’ing question.”
Legal precedence on the issue of whether writing in chalk is protected by the First Amendment is split, with court decisions going both ways. Given that chalk is water-soluble and does not inflict any permanent damage, it is debatable whether chalk should be considered an act of vandalism. Of note, it was drizzling in Los Angeles on Thursday night, so nature would have likely cleaned up any Occupy messages and hopscotch grids in short order. One Occupier lamented the fact that unlimited corporate spending on elections is considered protected free speech, while writing a temporary message in chalk is not.
It is interesting to watch a common playground activity like using chalk turn into a criminal activity practically overnight. Many in attendance viewed the police’s violent crackdown not as an attempt to prevent “vandalism,” but as an action to squash protest and dissent.
Photo Credit: Oddharmonic