Trash or treasure? Describing items left behind at Occupy L.A.

Since the Occupy L.A. encampment first formed at City Hall on Oct. 1, readers have given us an inbox full of their opinions on Times coverage.

Views, as expected, were mixed: Several Occupy L.A. detractors said the paper threw in its lot with the protesters, while supporters accused the paper of harboring an anti-Occupy bias (some in the latter group created the Facebook group “Occupy the L.A. Times.”)

Karen Pally of Santa Monica took issue with language used in the stories about the eviction of the protesters early Wednesday.

“Several stories refer to the ‘debris’ and ‘garbage’ strewn around Occupy L.A.’s campsite at City Hall,” Pally said. “This language creates a distorted and negative image.

“Before the police stormed the site, most of the tents were used as spaces for sleep, conversation, work, learning, worship or storage, and the contents were personal possessions, bedding, clothing and supplies.”

If one man’s trash is another’s treasure, then the opposite is probably true too. As Pally said, what city workers dubbed trash included items that were part of daily life at Occupy L.A.

An article in Thursday’s Times by David Zahniser and Nicole Santa Cruz described some of the things left on City Hall grounds after protesters were removed: “There were sleeping bags, luggage, cutlery, a small red guitar with a broken neck, and a collection of Ernest Hemingway stories … mattresses and dining chairs, luggage and boom boxes, books and CDs, cellphones and electric razors.”

However, there also clearly was garbage. “The city said it collected 30 tons of refuse, from vats of urine to old furniture to discarded food,” Assistant City Editor Steve Marble said. “Some of the items that were left behind looked like they were actually personal items that people probably would have taken with them — had there been time. But the city was concerned enough about what was left behind that refuse workers were ordered to wear hazmat suits.”

Times photos also showed tents, blue tarps, blankets and pillows. Whether police should have saved those for the city’s homeless, as some critics have charged, is a separate debate.

Once the items were left behind for cleanup, they became debris.

“The lawn was certainly a mess after everyone was evicted,” Marble said. “Whether it was the occupiers or the police created that mess, I can’t really say for certain. But I do think what we saw in the broad daylight — by any logical definition — was a mess.”

This column was originally published on on Dec. 3, 2011.

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