LOS ANGELES (AP) — When Occupy LA demonstrators recently proclaimed a downtown intersection "our street," police watched as annoyed drivers honked horns and tried to maneuver around gyrating protesters. Officers only moved in after the third intersection takeover — telling protesters they had to quit or face arrest. The activists turned around and marched back to camp chanting slogans.
That hasn’t happened in some other cities and may not have been possible in Los Angeles that long ago.
Occupy LA, a 485-tent camp surrounding City Hall, has marched to a different beat in its drum circle after protesters, police and city officials established a relationship based on dialogues instead of dictates.
As camps in other cities degenerated into unrest that led to mass arrests, Occupy LA has remained largely a peaceful commune. Police arrive on site only when called in to investigate petty crimes. Marches have resulted in only about five spontaneous arrests — the other 70 or so involved protesters who deliberately got arrested to make a political statement.
City leaders are now hoping for a peaceful end to the 7-week-old camp, announcing Wednesday that protesters will be given a 72-hour deadline to leave sometime next week, a tactic that stands in stark contrast to middle-of-the-night police raids used in other cities.
"Los Angeles has had a real history of heavy-handed tactics with police," said Richard Weinblatt, a police procedures expert and former police chief. "They’re taking a very good approach with this. It’s a good political sign."
The hands-off strategy perhaps underscores the liberal leanings of a city that has often been known for counterculture movements. But it marks a departure for a police force still striving to emerge from the shadow of the 1991 beating of Rodney King, the Rampart corruption scandal of the late ’90s, and more recently, the 2007 crackdown at an immigrants rights rally in which demonstrators and reporters were injured with batons and rubber bullets.
This time, even before the first tent was set up on the City Hall lawn, Jim Lafferty, a lawyer who has been representing Occupy LA, said Police Chief Charlie Beck assured him protesters would be left alone if they remained peaceful. Beck promised no surprise raids would be carried out, said Lafferty, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild’s Los Angeles chapter.
Elected city leaders initially embraced the campers. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa handed out plastic ponchos one rainy day. The City Council passed a resolution to support Occupy LA. Officials found an alternate site for a farmers market that the camp displaced.
Protesters have done their part to cooperate. They’ve readily complied with health inspectors’ demands for more portable toilets, trash pickup and food sanitation. They’ve also worked to tamp down anarchist inciters in the camp who want to provoke authorities, as well as activists with hot tempers.
On one march, when two protesters started an argument that appeared ready to flame into fisticuffs, marchers started yelling at the instigator to "focus" and "keep to the mission."
Organizers have implored riled crowds to keep within the peaceful guidelines of the group and to return to camp when threatened with arrest.
Occupiers say they realize violence is not going to win any points in their struggle for greater economic equality and could alienate many supporters.
"What is most important is that we win the hearts and minds of the people of this city," said organizer Mario Brito. "We’re all going to have to remain non-violent."
Police, meanwhile, have held off making arrests while giving protesters ample time to make their statement through civil disobedience, such as lying on the sidewalk in front of a Bank of America branch.
They’ve negotiated with organizers, sometimes for hours, to end actions without arrest, and assigned veteran detectives, clad in riot helmets, to man front lines against protesters instead of younger officers who may be more prone to act rashly when baited with name-calling.
Police Cmdr. Andrew Smith said officers have set out to build trust.
"We really worked hard to establish a dialogue with people at the camp," he said. "We have a command-level officer assigned to it every day. I’m over there three, four times a day, sometimes just to address rumors."
While acknowledging that violence has been avoided in Los Angeles, some question the precedent set by official leniency.
"You have these people staying out weeks at a time, and police let them break the law. They’re encouraged to go further," said John Hawkins, who has tracked the Occupy movement in his blog Right Wing News. "The government has to enforce the law."
Occupy LA has found a powerful ally that holds a lot of sway in City Hall: labor unions. The Service Employees International Union and others have turned out hundreds of people to several marches, giving the Occupy movement needed credibility and numbers. The unions even adopted tents as a protest symbol.
Union leaders have been instrumental in persuading Villaraigosa, a former labor organizer, to hold off on acting against the camp, said Peter Dreier, politics professor at Occidental College.
In conjunction with that, city leaders have had few vocal opponents against Occupy LA, which is located in an area of Los Angeles that comprises almost all government buildings, he noted. In some other cities, such as New York, complaining residents and businesses mounted pressure on officials to clear out the tents.
But as Occupy Los Angeles entered its seventh week with no end in sight, the dialogue started getting strained.
City Hall still made friendly overtures, trying to make a deal with the activists by offering them 10,000 square feet of office space and empty lots for a garden if they would pack up their tents. Fallout after the proposal was made public caused the deal to be rescinded.
On Wednesday, city leaders took a tougher stance: The camp must go the following week, but police said they would give protesters a 72-hour deadline to pack up or face arrest. Even then, remaining protesters will be given two opportunities to change their mind before they are placed in handcuffs.
"No one else has seen fit to do it like this around the country," Lafferty said.