Leave Now, Please: The Deadline Comes for Occupy Los Angeles

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Jason Redmond / AP

A Los Angeles police officer stands near the illuminated city hall as a large group of anti–Wall Street demonstrators remains at the protest camp in Los Angeles shortly after midnight Nov. 28, 2011

This morning, time ran out for the U.S.'s largest surviving Occupy encampment. After allowing a tent city to inhabit the lawn outside city hall for nearly two months, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa ordered protesters to vacate the premises at one minute after midnight on Nov. 28. While some campers fled, many defied the deadline and risked possible arrest. After midnight, police blocked demonstrators who flocked to the streets, and Occupiers chanted, "Back to the park!" But there was no immediate confrontation, as the officers appeared to respect the mayor's promise that protesters would have "ample time" to remove their belongings.

The lack of a midnight raid was consistent with the city's notoriously friendly attitude toward the protesters. (The Occupy camp in Philadelphia, facing a similar deadline, was reportedly equally calm into daylight Monday.) While other cities have witnessed violent clashes between police and Occupiers, Los Angeles has prided itself on cooperation; its city council has even voiced support for the movement. The mayor's advance notice of the planned eviction was an almost civil gesture, especially when compared with New York City's unannounced raid on Zuccotti Park. And the mayor has kept up a pleasant tone, saying he sought a "peaceful and orderly departure from the park."

Still, eviction is eviction, and the mayor made it clear that the encampment was "simply not sustainable indefinitely." In other words, it seems a matter of when, not if, police will force out the remaining Occupiers, and it remains in question whether there will be unnecessary force.

So why did the mayor turn? Was he fed up with the damage done to the park lawn? Was it the vague safety and health concerns he cited in a statement? Or did it perhaps not look good to the rest of the nation for L.A. to continue being nice to its Occupiers? Some protesters thought the city might have grown frustrated with negotiating with a leaderless movement that often struggles to reach consensus. Indeed, the city backed away from a deal it had proposed that would have given the movement indoor office space and land to garden in exchange for vacating the park. Other demonstrators, however, suggested more sinister motives. Jim Lafferty, director of the National Lawyers Guild, which gives legal advice to the movement, accused Villaraigosa of acting in favor of corporate interests to ensure getting future campaign contributions in case he decides to run for higher office. "The banks have been pressuring him to do something about this encampment because it allows people to go out and protest at the banks," Lafferty said. A city spokesman declined to elaborate on the mayor's motives.

Whatever the reasoning, and despite the looming deadline, the mood was festive in the park Sunday, Nov. 27. Occupiers organized a "block party" on the central part of the encampment, where droves of people — many of whom weren't dedicated campers — snapped photos and nodded their heads to house music spun by a DJ. Towering over the square was a large mural depicting the Federal Reserve as a giant, snarling octopus about to devour the earth. Off to the side, a yoga-and-meditation class proceeded as usual.

As night fell, the area swelled with even more supporters, and it became clear that many weren't going to budge. Those who took the microphone at the jam-packed general assembly spoke about the next evening's meeting, not considering the possibility that there might not be one. "This is Day 58," one Occupier announced to hundreds of cheering supporters. "Don't forget, we'll see you all here tomorrow night for Day 59." Many people outspokenly declared they were ready to get arrested, prompting the moderator at the assembly to give out the National Lawyers Guild's phone number in case people found themselves in jail and needing help. Standing near his tent, protester Larry Hageman scoffed at the notion that he might give in. "They'll be breaking the law if they try to move us," he said. "We will ask them to take an oath to the constitution, and if they don't answer us, we will charge them with treason."

Still, underneath the party atmosphere lurked a melancholy that even tended toward cynicism at times. Some people had decided to pack up their tents, as evidenced by bare patches of dirt in the park. "I'm not ready to be incarcerated," said Wade Gardner, 58, who was putting away his tent. The media area, once five tents long, with throngs of equipment, was reduced to one small tent with a couple of laptops. Clark Davis, a 43-year-old carpenter who has become a spokesman for the movement, said he was disappointed that people were leaving and said infighting and an inability to reach consensus kept protesters from accomplishing more. "I'm absolutely disillusioned that people are fleeing, that in the last 58 days we couldn't truly get organized," said Davis, who was the first person to bring a generator to the camp. "We could've put a lot more pressure on the system, on public officials, on getting at the core issues dragging the nation down."

The eviction brings to the forefront the question of whether the movement has achieved its goals or not. If it hasn't, does Occupy have what it takes to keep moving forward even without its original encampments? Posed this question, many protesters said they had no doubt they would keep building on their successes. "We're just going to re-occupy somewhere else, because this is a revolution," said Regina Quetzal Quiñones, a 42-year-old camper.