Confrontations with police, paranoia and too much beer are harshing the Venice Beach Drum Circle’s mellow
Story by Joe Piasecki | Photo by Ted Soqui
The Venice Beach Drum Circle used to be about peace, love and music.
Lately, however, the recurring Sunday night celebration of Venice’s bohemian spirit has developed a lousy reputation for boozing, unruly behavior and clashes with police.
Los Angeles police officers ordering drum circle crowds more than 400 strong to disperse after nightfall have twice been met with refusals to move, verbal taunts and flying glass bottles. Two people, including one who police say rushed a crowd-control line, were arrested on March 16 after an officer was struck in the leg by a thrown bottle. Police arrested two others on April 6 for allegedly obstructing officers, including at least one person who attended the drum circle with Wave of Action, a fledgling activist group formed only days before whose members affiliate with the Occupy and Anonymous movements.
Drum circle veterans say newcomers who get drunk, use drugs and antagonize police are to blame.
In addition to the two arrests, police officers monitoring the drum circle long before sundown have in recent weeks detained, cited and released numerous participants for public intoxication and open containers on the beach. Near the end of the night, an LAPD helicopter performs low-altitude flybys that are almost noisy enough to drown out the drummers.
Younger drum circle participants, including a few who were cited for alcohol possession last Sunday, blame police for provoking anxiety and stirring up resentment through heavy-handed enforcement of a buzz-kill noise ordinance that prohibits drumming after dark.
Police say standoffs with the crowd have been instigated by a few bad seeds rousing the intoxicated to defiance.
“There’s been social media attention on the drum circle that you can come out and do whatever you want. There’s been a very small number of people who have been agitators trying to incite the group. I was told [that on April 6] they were yelling ‘riot, riot,’” Capt. Brian Johnson of the LAPD’s Pacific Division said. “The musicians, they want nothing to do with it.”
Johnson, who said the department responds to regular disturbing the peace complaints related to the drum circle, didn’t name any specific individual or group.
For their part, Wave of Action members claim that on April 6 they were just passive observers who stumbled into a tinder box of paranoia ignited by the popular public safety blogger behind Venice 311, who they accuse of riling up police by suggesting the group had planned to get violent.
Inside the activist circle
Wave of Action returned to Venice Beach last Sunday.
After 1 p.m., a group of about 15 people and assorted homeless passersby scoring free rice-and-bean burritos attended the group’s Facebook-organized People’s Populist Political Café of Proletarian Power & Popsicles on a grassy hill near Dudley Avenue and Ocean Front Walk.
Wave of Action facilitator Alissa Kokkins, a 37-year-old screenwriter who had been entrenched in the Occupy LA movement, said the loosely affiliated group came to Venice Beach on April 6 to monitor police activity at the drum circle after hearing reports of confrontations there.
She said the group didn’t exist in March and held an inaugural meeting of fewer than 20 people on April 4 at the formerly Occupied grounds of Los Angeles City Hall.
“It was brought up what was going on in Venice at the drum circle, so we said let’s meet in at Venice Beach and do a copwatch: just show up and record the cops and make sure they respect other people’s rights. When we showed up there were news vans in the alley already. We had a very short meeting because cops were already putting people in handcuffs every two or three minutes,” Kokkins said.
Kokkins said she witnessed one man who was not part of her group be arrested or detained after crossing the bike path toward the beach after the police dispersal order.
Juan Zuleta, a Wave of Action member arrested at the drum circle on April 6, said he had filmed three men who appeared to be undercover police officers attempting to mingle with the crowd.
“That was really the main reason I was targeted. For them, the most important thing is to quash your willingness to speak out,” said Zuleta, 26.
“We saw three plainclothes undercover agents, with earbuds and everything, basically harassing people. They would get very close to [people near the drum circle] and pretend they were trying to become part of the group,” he said. “I have my iPhone with me and I’m recording a gentleman in a gray jacket and two gentlemen in black jackets and jeans. Both of them have skateboards, and the skateboards are brand new, so that’s another sign. They bunkered up next to one of the lifeguard stands, looking toward the drum circle … and we walked over to them and began to ask them questions.”
The LAPD’s Johnson declined to say whether plainclothes officers had been assigned to the drum circle or to discuss deployments, citing the need to maintain officer safety.
“We will use any and all law enforcement resources available to us, whether that is plainclothes officers in an undercover capacity, etcetera,” Johnson said.
A San Gabriel Valley resident who said he grew up on the beach while his father worked as a boardwalk vendor, Zuleta said he later followed uniformed officers into the drum circle, bumped into one’s foot “with the very tip of [his] shoe,” and was arrested for interfering with a police investigation. Zuleta said police charged him instead with possessing a small amount of marijuana despite having a state medical marijuana ID card and jailed him at a South Los Angeles precinct for about 20 hours.
Zuleta said he had been arrested once before — as one of 13 people who allegedly failed to heed a police dispersal order during a January protest in Fullerton that followed the acquittals of the police officers tried in the death of Kelly Thomas, the homeless man who died in 2011 after an altercation with Fullerton police.
“We came out here to do a copwatch. Most of the time it’s silent observation,” he said. “In my opinion, [what heightened tensions] was Venice 311 saying a bunch of anarchists from the Occupy LA movement were going to be coming to the drum circle to create havoc and raise a riot.”
‘Begging for a confrontation’
Alex Thompson — who runs Venice 311 under the motto “Fight Grime and Crime in Venice Beach” and has posted more than 54,000 tweets in three years (about 50 a day) — is upfront about her distaste for the Occupy movement.
In a blog post published before the April 6 Wave of Action picnic, she wrote: “I guess they think jamming the word ‘solidarity’ into their bloodthirsty and misguided desperate need for a ‘cause’ makes them feel like they are doing something noble. As previously reported, yes you can access the beach BUT you cannot violate the noise ordinance and when any member of your group violates the law or incites violating that law, which they always do because they have no self control in the first place, the police can order unlawful assembly and force the dispersal. Occupy LA: it isn’t all about you, ok? The people who live in all those houses don’t care if you are at the beach after sunset, just stop drumming and keep the noise down. All you are doing is begging for a confrontation so you can get video snippets that demonize law enforcement.”
She also tweeted to 36,200 followers: “It would be an interesting turn of events if the residents threw rocks and bottles at Occupy LA today at the drum circle.”
But did Thompson actually call to tip off the police, as Zuleta suggested?
“Yeah,” Thompson said. “Whenever I see someone coming to do something not in the best interests of the park and the people in it, I let the cops know.”
In addition to her police scanner, Thompson intensely monitors social media for Venice-related news and said she will inform police when she comes across warning signs of a potentially dangerous situation. These have included tweets organizing a gang-related brawls and gangster rap music video shoots without city permits, she said.
Johnson didn’t say whether the department in any way acted on Thompson’s tip, but did suggest speaking with her.
Thompson said her style of blogging, which often pokes fun at and denigrates troublemakers, has led people to misunderstand her mission.
“People think I’m like this Republican, gun-loving asshole who just loves the cops. I couldn’t be more the opposite. …. Mostly I’m just so shocked at what I hear on the police scanner every day,” she said. “I don’t want Venice to not be funky; I just want it to be safe.”
Thompson said she’s criticized 911 dispatchers over slow response to her calls about a man breaking windows and trying to force his way through doors at her apartment complex. Thompson said she ended up using a Taser to try and subdue him, but he fled before police arrived.
A play on the Los Angeles city services hotline, Venice 311 is sometimes mistaken for a city website and gets frequent questions about — and disseminates answers to — mundane questions about street cleaning schedules and municipal ordinances. That social benefit is part of the blog’s reason for being, Thompson said.
And when it comes to the drum circle, Thompson is somewhat protective of it: “The drum circle people who actually drum… those guys know how to manage their party. It’s this younger element that comes to try to get away with doing something wrong that leads to the degradation of that spirit,” she said.
‘A visible posture’
By the time the drum circle got going last Sunday on the sand by where Breeze Avenue meets the boardwalk , two LAPD sport utility vehicles and several uniformed officers were already in place about 20 yards from the edge of the circle.
It wasn’t long before they got to work. Several times before sundown, officers would approach groups of young men hanging out along the outskirts of the drum circle and ask them to step over toward the SUVs.
There, most of them were placed in zip-tie handcuffs, briefly detained, issued citations for alcohol-related infractions and released back into the crowd with a notice to appear in court.
A majority of those ticketed were Latino males in their late teens and 20s, several of whom said they had been drinking earlier but claimed they weren’t doing it at the drum circle.
“We had a coke bottle. They thought there was liquor in it,” said 27-year-old Miguel Gonzalez, who was cited for drinking in public but said he didn’t have any alcohol with him at the beach.
Police, who appeared to issue less than a dozen alcohol-related citations at the drum circle that afternoon, could have written 10 times as many tickets. Inside the drum circle was all movement — hands and sticks pounding on kettles, tom-toms, bongos and cowbells; hips swaying and hands waving in the air. On the outskirts of the circle, hands were often occupied by tall cans of beer and the occasional hash pipe.
“We’re taking a visible posture to make sure people recognize they can’t drink and do drugs, and make arrests accordingly. We don’t want to let a few people disrupt those who want to peacefully enjoy the beach,” said Johnson.
The drinking doesn’t go unnoticed by drum circle old-timers.
“You see 40-ouncers all over the place, all around the drum circle. People drinking a quart of hard liquor. It’s not the regulars,” said Steve Engel, 71.
Dressed in bright orange from head to toe — shoes, trousers, shirt, sunglasses and velvety, feather-decorated top hat — Engel is an elfin dynamo of a dancer who made his living in real estate and has been consistently grooving in the circle for the past 12 years.
“Some of the visitors [to the drum circle] are homeless alcoholics or just alcoholics, and they get drunk and they get pissed off and they ruin it for the rest of us,” Engel said.
According to the Venice Art Council’s recently published book “Art Tiles at Venice Beach,” the Venice Beach Drum Circle first assembled in 1968.
Drumming would sometimes carry on after dark as late as 10 p.m., said a middle-aged drummer who went by the name Alluvur Juputur — that is until a stabbing at the drum circle in April 2011 prompted regular appearances by police to shut down the spontaneous party at dusk.
The new routine: “It gets dark, cops come, they say turn it off and some people don’t stop. It becomes a waiting game, and then here comes the helicopter,” Juputur said.
Wave of Action’s Zuleta blames the “hypergentrification of Venice — Google moving in, the Abbot Kinney effect” for pressures to cap drum circle noise after dark
Drum circle regular Jacob Valley, 19, isn’t affiliated with Wave of Action, but also believes an influx of wealthy residents want to remake Venice in the South Bay’s image.
“It’s like moving into a fire and not expecting it to be hot,” Valley said of noise restrictions.
Johnson said the LAPD’s approach to keeping the drum circle safe and shutting things down after dark has been pretty much the same since his arrival in late 2011.
“Our strategies and tactics as it relates to dealing with the drum circle haven’t changed. Quite frankly, we’d gone six to eight months without any hiccups [until mid-March]. I think the warm weather has brought people out and brought on some level of intoxication,” he said.
“The reality is people are going to go out there and express their First Amendment rights. We’re here to protect that. When it turns into violence, throwing bottles at my officers, using narcotics at the beach, we’re going to take enforcement action.”
After the second pass of the LAPD helicopter shortly before sundown, a beachgoer was flying a RadioShack-style drone near the drum circle. A man in a thrift store suit stumbled away from the circle in pursuit of it, chucking a partially full plastic bottle into the sky before falling over.
“We’ve got some really low, bottom-class people who come out here,” said Engel. “We lift their spirits, but sometimes we don’t lift them high enough.”