For Los Angeles locals, Venice has always been both a cheery and dirty daycation spot. The beach is filled with decades-old locals who are mostly leathery hippies, peacefully maintaining it as their own, plus a permanently homeless population just looking for a grassy spot to get drunk and nap.
Ever since the gangs of the 90s were priced out by techies and "creative professionals" creeping in from neighbouring white-bread Santa Monica and yacht-bred Marina del Ray, there’s been a calm, commercial peace with the police, allowing the street vendors to hawk their handmade wares.
Unfortunately, the anything-goes, free-love vibe also attracts drug addicts and loud party boys looking to get fucked up, with no regard for cleanliness or spiritual enlightenment via drumming.
In 2012, I briefly lived in a coke dealer’s unfinished house off the beach, so I knew the background police presence was nothing new, but new ordinances on vending and excessive noise have ended in a series of violent altercation between cops and locals at the infamous weekend drum circle. The most recent was on Sunday, so I drove down to see what had changed.
When I arrived, at 4.20PM, the drumming was just picking up. Concentric circles of decreasing levels of involvement defined their participants. The final circle consisted of vulture-like cop SUVs in slow orbit around the celebration, picking off those drinking from glass bottles or sucking down blunts in plain sight.
I approached an officer idling in his car some 20 feet from the edge of the drum circle. He seemed more than willing to talk – friendly, even – behind menacing wraparound shades while his partners prepared for the worst.
I asked him if they expected a bigger police presence than normal: “Oh, yeah,” Officer Mark said. “Last week, people got drunk and high and started throwing bottles at us when we shut down the drum circle.”
The relatively recent noise ordinance allows the LAPD to stop the drumming, but in doing so it effectively pushes the crowd off the beach, despite their right to stay until midnight, as long as they're not making “excessive noise". Mark continued, “Now, you’re not allowed to smoke weed or drink alcohol, and you’re definitely not allowed to throw glass at police officers.”
Something crackled over the radio, and Mark excused himself before gunning it toward the boardwalk. Three more cop cars whipped past me with their lights blaring, and some ten officers piled out to descend on a potentially homeless guy and his unleashed dog. Clearly, he was a local.
While two cops put him in handcuffs, the rest milled around. An artist building the Sphinx out of sand on the sidewalk told me it was just a couple of dudes in an argument, nothing serious. Fights on Venice Beach are a regular occurrence, but the flurry of police out of seemingly nowhere felt new.
The latest ordinances – and the increased police force – were bolstered by a wealthy community looking to preserve the cultural epicentre they’d paid through the nose to live in, missing the point that the original community existed solely because of a lack of such ordinances. Hippies, performance artists, street vendors and that guy on roller skates playing Hendrix see curfews and permits as antithetical to their very existence.
The previous lack of a police presence hinged on the cooperation of Venice’s residents, the ringleader of whom appeared to be an older orange-ish gentleman with long white hair and a matching beard. He was standing on an upturned metal barrel waving a “Peace to All Nations” flag, dancing and occasionally fist-bumping with similarly tanned locals.
The 66-year-old "Eagle Soaring Chief" of Venice Beach wore a security officer badge on his tattered, open shirt. He looked like he’d been ripening in the sun for the past 12 years.
As a self-appointed ambassador to the people, the Chief says he's earned the right to peacefully regulate “his” beach, working with the locals to take care of problems the police either can’t or won’t deal with. “If they don’t like it, I’ll ban them from the beach. The police can’t ban people; I can,” the Chief of the Beach told me.
“I’ve been here for 66 years; [the police] just showed up six days, six minutes ago. I don’t blame them, and hey, I don’t want alcoholics on this beach either. I don’t want drug addicts on this beach. If I catch anybody fighting – see my teeth? That’s why they’re all knocked out, sir.”
The Chief explained that the previous week’s altercation was the result of three “knucklehead” drummers nobody knew, and that the police crackdown was in response to three plastic bottles thrown from the boardwalk, not glass.
Despite the encroaching presence of the LAPD, many of the locals seemed content with their presence, as it meant fewer drug addicts and troublemakers, although they too seemed oblivious to the effects of increased regulation.
For the next few hours till sundown, the crowd doubled in size, splitting into two interconnected circles. The Chief wandered around, smiling and laughing. Every hour another police SUV would pull up to the crowd and empty a few officers onto the sand.
With 20 minutes to go, half a dozen officers surrounded the officer in charge, Sergeant Brian Gura. I asked him how many he had prepared, and he gestured toward the boardwalk: “Enough. We want to avoid a repeat of last week.”
I hadn’t noticed before, but lining the boardwalk must have been at least 30 officers ready to grab the incoming crowd if things got ugly. As the sun dipped into the water, the cops on the beach piled into their cars and turned on the Christmas lights, driving slowly and deliberately towards the crowd.
The Chief waved toward the drummers and sliced his hand through the air as if to say, “We’re done!” A few other regulars did the same, and about half the crowd dispersed toward the boardwalk as Sergeant Gura exited his car, flanked by three officers, and made his way toward the still dancing centre. He smiled as they cleared out.
One guy came up to them filming on his iPhone, demanding an explanation for the intimidating police tactics. Gura replied, “I'm not trying to intimidate you. You're just very short, and I'm very tall; there's nothing I can do about that.” People laughed; order had been restored. A few idiots kept shouting, “TURN DOWN FOR WHAT?”
Back at the boardwalk, as police began to leave, a few stayed to talk and joke with the regulars. Tensions were gone, and the night was falling. The Chief came up behind me, put his hand on my shoulder, and pointed at the diminishing tail lights. “We’re all right now,” he said with an air of eternal hope. “It’s mutual.”
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