In the City of Los Angeles about 41,000 folks are unhoused, according to a count by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority conducted in 2020 - although there are people unaccounted for. Ashley Balderrama is a photojournalist based in Los Angeles and often documents protests surrounding human rights issues.
Echo Park Lake was home to an estimated 200 people, according to ABC News, before they were served an eviction notice in March. A sweep, often referred to by authorities as a “homeless sweep” or a “clean-up”, is the forced removal of a houseless peoples’ encampment. This effort by the city was set to take place at Echo Park Lake on March 24th, 2021. However, the sweep did not take place until March 25. Perhaps because demonstrators led an effective protest that blocked the sweep. Balderrama was there to photograph.
A large protest was organized in response to this removal. Balderrama documented and recorded the events of the nights to come. According to Balderrama, on the morning of the 24th residents of Echo Park Lake declared that they would stand their ground and not allow the city to conduct the sweep. Protestors mobilized across social media and finally at the scene. Police officers from the Los Angeles Police Department gathered in a nearby parking lot. They assembled their rubber bullet guns and zip ties, and eventually marched in formation to where the demonstrators were gathered.
Balderrama states that police stood in a line formation as protestors chanted. Although this protest did not present as much violence as the following night, the Los Angeles Times reported that an officer’s baton swing broke the arm of a protestor.
Balderrama says the evening became calm again as demonstrators began to leave. The following night however, brought targeted arrests and police brutality.
The next morning, gates around the park went up and residents were now locked inside. Protestors again came together, determined to keep the residents safe.
Balderrama used her camera and iPhone to cover the events of the night. She saw a clear line between police officers and protestors form. Protestors chanted and officers stood firmly in front of them. Other officers strategized behind the police line. An unlawful assembly was declared and a dispersal order was called from a megaphone. “Leave the area or be subject to arrest.”
This is when Balderrama says the situation escalated. LAPD began to conduct targeted arrests as select officers crossed the line in order to arrest people from the opposite side. This is often used as an intimidation tactic. An arrest squad of 6, two carrying batons and one with a rubber bullet gun in hand, rushed many times to the opposite side of the line, each time taking a person back behind the police line.
Balderrama recalls at one point officers attempted to move the group of 400 forward and that she was fiercely shoved from behind. At this point she realized she was in between protestors and police, a dangerous position to be in. Police pushed her forward, into the crowd of protestors standing shoulder to shoulder. She then felt a baton strike her right shoulder blade. An officer again pushed her forward. She stumbled towards the crowd, and saw that there was nowhere for her to escape the violence. All the while, officers were yelled, “Hold the line!” Protestors then grabbed her backpack and pulled, so that she was not subject to more baton swings. She heard protestors saying, “Don’t push her!”
Balderrama then heard a police officer announce, “You are all under arrest. You are no longer allowed to leave. Do not resist.”Balderrama noticed she and the group were kettled, meaning they were surrounded by police with no exit route except to be arrested. She says protestors then began to put up their hands as officers moved towards them. Another announcement was made, “Do not resist. No force will be used. You will be handcuffed and transported.” She then witnessed violent arrests of protestors, journalists and a legal observer, and estimated that 180 people were arrested. The arrest squad continued to aggressively take people from one side of the line to the other and back to an LAPD bus.
At this point the squad gained speed and was more consistent with its arrests. Balderrama notes the arrest of a man standing next to her, which was particularly brutal. As LAPD hustled to the opposite side of the line where this man was standing, three officers of the arrest squad tackled him to the ground, his hand slamming into Balderrama as he hit the ground. His hands were zip-tied behind his back and he was dragged to the arrest bus.
Rubber bullet guns were pointed at Balderrama’s head from a distance that would cause severe damage, if not death, when fired. These bullets are steel and rubber coated.
The group was continuously told through loud announcements to leave the area. However, there were no given routes to do so. Baderrama recounts that she displayed her journalist credentials to an officer and asked to leave. The officer said, “Too late”. About two hours later journalists and protestors were allowed to leave the area, while protestors were arrested.
In the following days LAPD officers were stationed around the perimeter of the park. The unhoused people's belongings were seized and discarded with large dumpster trucks as they were torn from their homes.
Balderrama feels “honored and privileged to capture such an intense history… Being able to document everything that happened at the park, and tell its story to those who weren't there is so important to [her].” She says there were many perspectives from that night, “but any that didn't come from someone directly on the ground will never fully understand the emotions of the protestors, cops, or the community it all took place in.”
The residents of Echo Park Lake were removed, some relocated, some left to find a new home on their own, and the housing crisis persists. Moving folks from one place to another, or evicting them, does not attempt to solve the epidemic of houselessness, but only makes it worse. Balderrama believes housing and resources should be given to those who need them. She feels that defunding the police would be a start to reallocating funds for low income housing, mental health resources and veteran programs.