‘This is Why We Fight’: Los Angeles Community Action Network Targets Sit-Lie Law

by Cathleen Williams, Sacramento Homeward Street Journal

“My hometown is located on a flat coastal plain once covered in brush, and intersected by rivers and creeks where pure water has bubbled up from creeks since the dawn of the Pleistocene. As a settled, human place, it has belonged to the Tongva and to three different empires. Once it was a rural outpost of the Spanish crown, and then a Mexican pueblo before it was taken by the United States and became what it is today: the newest and last megalopolis built in the western march of Western civilization across the Western Hemisphere.” – Hector Tobar, “Our Migrant Souls.”

“Segregation’s roots in Los Angeles trace back to when Anglo settlers conquered the indigenous populations of Southern California in the mid-1800s, violently taking the best land for themselves. The professionalized real estate industry, coming into its own after the turn of the 20th century, along with other associated business interests, then significantly deepened and institutionalized this foundation of white supremacy in the housing market. Again we see organizations like the Central City Association lobbying city officials and planners to adopt measures that help the market destroy the low-income housing, and working with the police to aggressively criminalize and expel the unhoused population.” – Andrea Gibbons, “City of Segregation.” 

“Nowhere in this country does Black Lives Matter less than in Skid Row. In 1976 Skid Row was created as a containment zone to ensure housing and services for poor, predominantly Black Angelenos were sealed off from the rest of Los Angeles. In other words, a place to hide the violent outcomes of racialized segregation, redlining, racial covenants, de-industrialization, welfare reform, the introduction and devastation caused by crack cocaine and the building of the world’s largest prison industrial complex to cage Black bodies. A place where no expectation of human rights, dignity and respect was fully warranted.” – Pete White, “Skid Row Responds to Kanye West,” LA CAN website.

A sturdy cement block building houses the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), set back from Sixth Street in the heart of Skid Row. LA CAN is a bulwark—an organizing base and strategy center—for the unhoused people of this city, who were officially counted at over 75,000 in January 2024. Three-quarters live outside, enduring the extremes of the desert climate, the unrelenting hostility of City Hall and the private real estate interests that dominate it. Almost one-third of this population is Black—although they make up only 8% of the city’s inhabitants.

Skid Row is home to one of the largest stable populations of unhoused people in the United States, concentrating up to 8,000 houseless residents within its 50 blocks, just east of downtown. The area is crowded with vibrant life in tents, cars and sidewalk gatherings.  In Los Angeles, what has unfolded in many cities is sharply revealed in all its brutal reality: the loss of the neighborhoods that used to be home to the poor and working class people of the city, the disappearance of the jobs that sustained their families and, finally, their expulsion to the streets. 

This is a place where activists are coming and going, threading their way past the corner where men play basketball in the park, where the “Hippy Kitchen” serves lunch—as it has done for more than 50 years—and where there seem to be  fewer drinking fountains—and more police – than anywhere else in the city. 

On a recent Monday afternoon, the LA CAN Human and Civil Rights Committee met in its spacious conference room to sum up and strategize about the ongoing campaign to repeal the City’s updated initiative to police and criminalize unhoused residents: Municipal Ordinance 41.18, which makes sitting, lying down and leaving personal property in public areas illegal.  Under new amendments enacted to conform the law to restrictions on “cruel and unusual punishment” under the U.S. Constitution established by Martin v. Boise—and currently before the Supreme Court in the Grants Pass v. Johnson case—each city council representative can designate “zones” where no unhoused people can stay. Though Black people account for only a small part of the LA population, they make up 43% of people arrested under the code, according to a report by Kenneth Mejia, LA’s progressive controller.

General Dogon at the LA CAN office. Photo by Cathleen Williams

“I thought Jim Crow was supposed to be abolished, but he’s still running around,” says LA CAN organizer General Dogon, as the meeting comes to order. “Look at Los Angeles 41.18—this ‘sit-lie’ ban been around for decades, based on the old vagrancy laws which were a tool of white supremacy back in the day—and now, we’re trying to show [that] Jim Crow laws must go! You either support humanity or criminalization!” 

LA CAN’s campaign to repeal 41.18 has multiple pieces. Taking advantage of the electoral engagement that has brought new and progressive members to the city council, LA CAN has set up weekly delegations with each city council member to call for the repeal of 41.18. 

Lobbying for the release of an audit of the ordinance’s “effectiveness” that was mandated by the City Council a year ago, LA CAN has issued its own report detailing the failures of the LA Homeless Services Agency (LAHSA), covering which possessions are being taken, determining whether shelter is being offered, exposing the pattern of arrests and sweeps and highlighting the conditions of life in Skid Row, where there are no trash cans, no bathrooms—just “sanitation” in the form of fire hoses and garbage trucks that devastate lives

Members regularly attend LAHSA and police commission meetings to monitor and expose the impact of criminalization, data collection and surveillance. They also work with allied groups, such as the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition and the Downtown Women’s Center.   

At the core of their activism is continuous street organizing, rallies and protests: The organization regularly sponsors “Fight Back Thursdays” and outreach to the Skid Row community and beyond to involve unhoused neighbors by educating, mobilizing and serving their needs.

Dogon, the LA CAN organizer, sums up the discussion: “Endgame is abolition. It’s a long road, it’s a fight, it’s a war. You have to face the city that don’t give a damn about people. That’s what we are fighting against. Educating folks, doing delegations, writing reports, getting the word out. They know we are coming for them. 

“There are tens of thousands of us—our goal is to organize every homeless person to fight back. We aren’t going anywhere without house keys. We need to shut the whole city down. Get rid of these laws. It’s a desegregation of LA—one humanity, one people, one fight. This city is the worst—leads the nation in homelessness, police brutality, lack of housing.”

Laws have been passed or are in progress in other jurisdictions, another member points out. San Francisco officials have put similar exclusion measures on the ballot, which voters approved: a sit-lie ban in 2010 and a sidewalk tent ban in 2016. Proposed bans in six states included language based on a model bill by the conservative think tank Cicero Institute.      “Yeah, this is the heart of the rebellion,” says another member. “These efforts will resonate across the country—positive and negative. There’s a statewide bill in the California Senate as we speak—SB 1011—which is modeled on 41.18. Sacramento passed Measure O, a sit-lie ban. As usual, Los Angeles leads the way, but attacks and sweeps of homeless encampment are up across the country! This is why we fight.”