Watching Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck deal with Occupy LA at the Bank of America plaza Thursday, I was struck by how much the police department has changed for the better.
When I got there about 3 p.m., the plaza was pretty well filled with occupiers, onlookers and the media. Tents and demonstrators were in the grassy portion of the plaza. There were probably a few hundred people in all. About an hour later, Beck showed up, accompanied by a couple of command officers and someone from the departmental press office. He stood on Hope Street, which had been blocked and was crowded with police cars. He looked relaxed as he took in the scene.
There was no command post, which had been the heart of the military style approach the old LAPD anti-demonstration strategy. Nor was there the old police hostility. Several clergy—rabbis, ministers, and priests—walked from the plaza to talk to the chief. I followed them. He spoke quietly, and they did too. So I wasn’t sure what was said. But I sensed the conversation was calm, polite and probably reasonable.
The media then gathered around the chief, and Beck was just as calm. He said the demonstrators had a point to make, and they had a right to make it. But the owners of the plaza and other businesses had a point, too. Negotiations between the police and demonstrators were continuing. Then he walked over to the plaza to talk to the demonstrators as if it were no big deal.
This is a man who is confident with himself and with a department that was reformed by his predecessor, Bill Bratton. Before Bratton, the chiefs and the cops treated a demonstration as if it were the start of a revolution. Unlike them, Beck didn’t fume and fret because the demonstrators are liberal. His attitude seemed to have seeped down to the SWAT officers on the plaza, and the cops on Hope Street.
The SWAT officers on the plaza generally were unsmiling, although I saw a couple of them chat in a friendly manner with the demonstrators. Some demonstrators yelled “This is what a police state is like.” Having recently returned from China, I thought, “No, China is what a police state is like.” One demonstrator handed a bottle of water to a cop, who said thank you. The demonstrators applauded the police officer’s courtesy.
Beck or some other police officer had given them a deadline. By 4:30 p.m. the arrival of motorcycle cops and a bus big enough for those arrested heralded action. Finally, around 5 pm, the cops started arresting people. But the arrests were done pretty peacefully. Maybe the two sides had worked out the procedure.
Beck exhibited the same abilities last year when the Latino community around MacArthur Park protested over a police officer's shooting of a man with a knife, He showed up at community meetings, listened and answered in a direct style, understanding and not defensive.
A word on Occupied LA’s expansion to the Bank of America plaza: It was a good idea. The choice of the bank gave Occupied LA more focus than it has had at city hall. The bank is relevant to our national economic crisis. Not that our lobbyist-campaign- contributor- dominated city hall is innocent of wrongdoing. But its offenses are local. The Bank of America, saved by the bailout, has wrecked the lives of people across the nation, if not the world.
The mainstream media whines about the Occupied movement having no specific goals. I talked to Elise Whitaker, an organizer. She was specific: “No bank money in politics, publicly funded elections. Once we get our democracy back, we the people will be empowered to make decisions again.”
My afternoon at Bank of America plaza and two previous visits to the Occupied LA city hall site doesn’t make me an expert on the movement. But I like what it’s doing. And an afternoon of watching Charlie Beck and his cops doesn’t make me an expert on them. But so far, they have handled things better than their counterparts in New York and Oakland.