Commentary and Interview: Houseless Protest Group Occupies Central Park, City Hall

Commentary and Interview: Houseless Protest Group Occupies Central Park, City Hall

Talking with Lotti Hawthorne and Zeke Riesgo of H.O.W. (Heart of Whittier)

Interview and introduction by Jonathan M. Edwards

There are a lot of human reactions to what is happening in our country right now. Some watch the news with fear and anxiety. Some feel that the unrest is long overdue. I have heard some say that America needs to “return to normal”. I am not one of those people.

I have gone to some of the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and I am overjoyed by all the young faces that I see. I am hearing Black leaders say that they have never seen such diverse cooperation in an American movement for civil rights. People are becoming politically engaged not because it is an election year, but because they want to change society at the roots. 

Last week I was walking with my daughter through Whittier’s Central Park when I noticed a group of tents. We like to go there to see the goldfish and turtles, but this was something new. As we approached the statue of the abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier, I noticed familiar signs that read Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police. In his stone hand, someone had taped a piece of posterboard that read, “This is a revolt against classism”.

Photo courtesy Heart of Whittier

I talked to the tent-dwellers and learned about their protest and their organization Heart of Whittier, or H.O.W. They are set up in Whittier’s Central Park and on the lawn of City Hall until the city agrees to build an emergency shelter for those without homes in our community. I felt moved and empowered by their passion and asked if I could return later to record an interview with them. 

I am not worried about the future. The future is unwritten. And the kids are alright. 

Jon: So I went to interview you at Central Park and they told me that you had moved here to City Hall. Is this a permanent move?

Lotti: Yeah.

Zeke: Permanent. 

J: How did this get started for you all? 

Z: It started in LA. I was there protesting and I stayed late one night. I met a bunch of like-minded people. Someone suggested we do an Occupy thing. “I’ll bring a tent.”

J: What were you protesting at the time? 

Z: It was for Black Lives Matter

J: Ok. 

Z: So we started with one tent, and then it became three. On day two, I texted [Lotti] and said, “We are doing an Occupy movement, come out.” And then she came out and we started planning for [Whittier]. At first we were thinking about going into a public building but we noticed that the Occupy movement was successful. 

J: And when you say “Occupy movement” are you thinking of Occupy Wall Street from ten years ago? 

L: And Occupy L.A., D.C. The overall movement. 

J: As a strategy? 

L: Right. 

J: So you were at a Black Lives Matter event. How did it switch to focusing on houselessness here in Whittier? 

[Zeke points to Lotti.]

L: My sister passed away March 30 of 2020.

J: I’m sorry to hear that. 

L: Thank you. She was houseless in Whittier. I actually live in Ithaca, New York where it’s cold nine months out of the year. They have to take care of their houseless or else they will freeze to death. So coming from that where there is a culture of taking care of other people to coming here and realizing that there really was nowhere my sister could go for help, I knew it was necessary. 

J: Well this interview will be dedicated to her then. Do you mind saying your sister’s name? 

L: My sister was Cassondra Rosalee Hawthorne. She was born December 30, 1992 and she died March 30, 2020.

J: [To Zeke] You have a Cornell sweater on. Are you in Ithaca as well?

Z: I am not. She is. 

J: Did you two grow up around here? 

L: Yeah. 

Z: Yes, in Whittier. 

J: And how and when did H.O.W. (Heart of Whittier) start? 

L: We talked with the Black Future Project which is our base in Los Angeles and we decided in order to continue this movement that we would be kind of like a chapter. Their main demand is to defund the LAPD, and now we are bringing their goals to our cities, the cities we grew up in, and asking how defunding the police can benefit individual city needs. For Whittier, we believe it’s a homeless shelter.

J: And H.O.W. is basically a decentralized, leaderless program?

L: Yeah. 

J: Since you are on public land, and there are things people and police might look for in order to have an excuse to remove you, do you have rules for yourselves to make sure that the movement can continue?

L: We have some rules. At the end of the day, they are democratically decided, so as long as it gets a majority vote, it stands. We have a curfew for minors. If anyone wants to drink or use medicinal marijuana, they are expected to do it somewhere else. No sex because of public decency. 

J: Right. 

L: And if you have to go, find a restroom, [laughs] which is really difficult in Whittier! That’s one of our demands, not just for us in Central Park but for all of Whittier, to open the public restrooms. 

Photo courtesy Heart of Whittier

J: Other than opening restrooms, what are some of the other demands? 

L: As far as the campers in Central Park, we only have one demand which is to open an emergency shelter until the planned Salvation Army location is complete. At all times, Whittier should have a shelter open, and they don’t, so we are going to stay until it is open. 

J: And the claim I’ve heard is that Whittier First Day is the city’s shelter. 

L: That is actually not [a shelter], it’s a transitional housing center. There is a huge difference. You actually have to qualify for treatment. They want you to hit rock bottom first, and be coming from rehab or prison first to enter First Day. We don’t believe that’s right. We think that if people want help, they should get it. 

J: Wow, that’s really interesting. One thing I appreciate from you all, is that it seems you have done a lot of research and homework before just showing up and camping out. Who are some of the people you talked to in order to be more informed? 

Z: One day we were protesting and the next day, it was like we couldn’t look away. Nothing really mattered anymore. We were out in L.A., protesting every day, meeting new people, and we learned a lot along the way. We got arrested…

L: We learned from experience. We wanted to stay close to the Occupy movement [in Los Angeles] so that we could learn from them. They would ask, “What are our demands?” and we would write down “demands” and make a folder, or they would talk about a petition and we would make a folder for a petition. So we really learned a lot from that group. Like Zeke said, we got arrested by the police and now we are represented by lawyers who help us out and tell us what our rights are…

J: Ah, smart. 

L: I’m a pre-law student, so I did my homework, and figured out what amendments the police would be breaking if they were to remove us which are the 1st (freedom of speech, right to peaceable assembly), the 4th (right to be safe from unreasonable search and seizure), and the 14th (no State shall deny a person life, liberty or property without due process of law). We also studied other Occupy movements and their successful lawsuits against their cities. The movements win every time.

J: Didn’t you also talk to the City Manager?

L: No, we talked to City Hall. I think it was the Buildings department. I asked for a list of public buildings in the city and she didn’t have an answer for me, which is why we decided on the park. We went to First Day and every other resource on the site. We checked out every resource to see which ones were accessible and which ones weren’t.

Z: To see what was needed. 

L: Right. 

Z: We also went out to interview members of the houseless population in Whittier to see what they wanted. 

J: Some members of your group have posted videos on Twitter of the times when you were confronted first by the police and then by Mayor Joe Vinatieri. In the video with the police, it seems pretty shocking to me that the officer doesn’t seem to understand that the 9th circuit court’s decision (which allows the houseless to camp on public property if the city does not have a shelter bed for them) overrules the Whittier municipal code.

L: Yeah. 

J: That’s really surprising. 

Z: When we tried to get into a deeper conversation with them, it was clear that they didn’t understand. 

L: I think it upset them when I told them that I am only one-third of the way done with my law degree, and I’ve already done something like six times more study of the law then they have. 

J: Yeah. A police officer in California only has to have a high school diploma and the Academy training. (Which is six months.)

L: Right, and I have to study for seven years to practice law so I don’t understand why they only need six months to enforce it. 

J: It seems awful that you would do seven years of school so that you can later clean up cases where an officer doesn’t seem to understand the ranking of the Supreme Court versus municipal code.  

L: I agree. 

J: Is that video the only interaction you’ve had with the Whittier police since this started? 

L: Well, as far as our demands, there is no negotiating. They came to ask us to move our tents so that gardeners could cut the grass. We didn’t want to because the sprinklers kept going off on us at night. So they agreed that if we move the tents, they would turn off the sprinklers. 

Z: That was only our second interaction. 

J: You obviously escalated your approach last night by moving from Central Park to City Hall. 

L: Yeah. 

J: Is your goal to keep escalating? 

L: If we can, we will. But we are now on the lawn of the police station so I don’t know what else we can do. 

[laughs]

L: We always say that we are not a peaceful group, we are a non-violent group. So we will definitely disturb the peace by protesting or marching when the time is right. As far as those escalations go, you can almost count on it. 

J: Have you had any reactions from the Central Park neighbors? 

L: Zeke can talk about that. 

Z: There are a few that are allies. One has let us shower and brought us masks and come to show out support. But there are also a few who don’t like us at all. They drive by and say they’re going to bring people out here. 

J: What does that even mean, “bring people out here”?

Z: They said they were going to “bring an army out here.”

J: So a threat to do violence, essentially?

L: Yeah. 

Z: Something like that. 

J: Wow. 

Z: They just come around and try to cause problems. But once we start recording them, they seem to check themselves. But it keeps happening. 

L: Another rule of ours is that if someone approaches, you say hello and, depending on their response to the hello, you start recording. It’s just a safety precaution. 

J: Some of your neighbors have “Black Lives Matter” signs, as do you around your tents. One person has a Biden 2020 sign. I get the sense that some of the neighbors are…

Z: Fake? 

J: Well, they are liberals and they believe in law and order…

L: They believe in working within the system, whereas we don’t. We believe in civil disobedience. But Zeke likes to talk about liberals. [laughs]

Z: I don’t even know where to begin with that. They try to do things to make it look like they care, but they just want things to go back to “normal.” They don’t want to have to worry about things. 

J: It seems as if the average liberal who would have a problem with what you’re doing, would like Joe Biden to be president so they can start ignoring politics again. 

L: Right. 

Z: Exactly. 

J: If someone in the Whittier community reads this and wants to help, how can they support you? 

L: The best thing they can do is to come and occupy. 

J: So you wouldn’t mind if there were a hundred more tents here with you? 

L: Absolutely not. That would be lovely.

Z: We would love that. 

L: They can also donate camping materials, money, food, and water. Things that houseless people always need. They can also spread the word and call the mayor using the template on our linktree.

J: Well I appreciate what you all are doing. Thank you. 

Photos courtesy Heart of Whittier.

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