Against the LAPD
If the protesters at the Republican Convention in
Philadelphia were characterized by their flesh-pierced
scragglyness, the ones at the Democratic Convention are
glossed with Los Angeles glam. And Hollywood special effects.
Plus a few stars. When I arrive at Pershing Square -- the
designated safe protest spot -- the setting is chic.
Skyscrapers shoot into the cloudless sky, ringing the colorful
modern-art dotted park.
There's a rehearsal going on. One
protester-slash-choreographer is directing: "We have to show
them. This is what democracy looks like," and then each
performer is to flash the audience a sign. The morning's
scheduled protest is for the U'wa people of Colombia.
Occidental Petroleum has an oil-drilling project on its native
lands -- and Al Gore has close ties to Occidental. All the
show's extras are decked out in matching anti-Gore, pro-U'wa
shirts. The puppets and props are sensational -- a giant
monster with two heads (one Bush and one Gore), a musclebound
police officer puppet whose puppet-club brandishes over my
head as I try to interview the person inside, and an enormous
Ralph Nader that boogeys to the rally's music.
When the rally begins, a string of hip advocates each take
their three minutes. Terri Swearingen could be trying out for
the role of the next Erin Brockovich. This striking activist
gets up -- her makeup and hair perfect even in the broiling
heat -- to ream Al Gore for his failure to keep a promise to
shut down a toxic waste incinerator next to an elementary
school in Liverpool, Ohio.
John Sellers, the director of the Ruckus Society, has come
almost straight from a Philadelphia jail to protest in Los
Angeles. (When he was first arrested, Sellers' bail was set at
$1 million. Just in time for LA, it was reduced to $100,000.)
With his buzz cut and Ray Bans, he looks far more like a
Malibu surfer dude than the dread-locked protesters in
Philadelphia. Sellers tells me that he won't let his six days
in jail scare him away from coming to the protests in Los
Angeles. He won't be participating in any of the civil
disobedience that his organization teaches either; he's on
probation from the protests in Seattle and bail from
California State Senator Tom Hayden -- sporting a goatee
and a green button-down -- also takes the mike. But when I try
to interview him afterwards, he's belligerent and uninspiring.
The uber-protester doesn't want to compare today's marches to
the anti-Vietnam War rallies he honchoed as a founder of
Students for a Democratic Society. And though he is now a
Democrat who has endorsed Al Gore, he won't give me one reason
why any of the protesters who are voting for Ralph Nader -- or
have given up on government altogether -- should change their
minds. Then he cuts the interview short, blurting, "I attract
people. There's a drunken lunatic following me. I have to keep
The U'wa protest marches to the Staples Center, where the
convention will be held tonight. Amidst the U'wa/Labor/Nader
throngs trots an 11-year-old with a scribbled purple, red, and
black "Rage Rules" sign. I ask what he's protesting, and he
says nothing; he's here to see Rage Against the Machine. It's
12:30, and Rage isn't supposed to rage until 8pm. In the
meantime, Bonnie Raitt performs (despite the dearth of "Raitt
isn't until the way back to Pershing Square that the marchers
have a run-in with some other well-known Angelenos: the LAPD.
If the scene weren't so sinister, I'd think they looked just
like police action figures. They have their riot helmets on,
billy clubs, gas masks, and dozens of silver canisters
strapped to their chests. A few carry what look like green
plastic rifles. The only problem is that their appearance
ratchets up the tension far more than would cops not menacing
enough for Mattel.
A few protesters sit down in the street, and the police
immediately seal them off. Vinegar must be the smell of fear,
because suddenly the air is fragrant from the vinegar-soaked
bandanas that serve as makeshift gas masks. One preppy
Chicago Tribune reporter makes a nervous cell phone
call with a giant gas mask strapped to his head. Quick
movements nearly start stampedes.
dressed in a pink furry pig suit carries a sign that says, "Go
Vegetarian. Nobody gets hurt." But as a police officer
announces over his megaphone, "You may be arrested or be
subject to other police action," I start to think maybe
vegetarianism won't be enough to protect us.
This time at least, neither side pushes too far. So I go
into the convention thinking that today's events may live up
to John Sellers' promise that this is not a protest; these
people are trying to build a new society, not tear anything
Inside, it seems convention-goers could take a few lessons
from the Pershing People. No one seems to be paying attention,
for example. Even when Washington Governor Gary Locke tries to
lead the crowd in "Who do we want for president of the
United States," only a few bother to respond. The energy
level is so low that I'm also wondering if someone has told
the speakers that they mustn't out-charisma the nominee for
president. In addition to two snores by Los Angeles Mayor
Richard Riordan and California Governor Gray Davis, several of
the speakers conduct little Oprah-wannabe "American
Dialogues," in which they interview "real Americans" about all
the great things Democratic government has done for them. For
example, when a disabled man explains how great it is that he
can work and keep his Medicare, Locke empathizes, "David,
you're working now, aren'tcha?"
Tonight is also girls' night out, so the Democrats show off
a string of women politicians. Though the crowd seems
genuinely enthused by some of the issues discussed (gun
control, abortion rights, family medical leave) I'm peeved
that like the Republicans, the Democrats have ghettoized their
If I thought everyone was sparkle-deferring to Gore, I was
wrong. Hillary and Bill Clinton give their speeches. Both are
smooth and larger than life. (As President Clinton enters the
arena, the planners have created a little Saturday Night
Live effect, filming him as he walks down a long hall,
with his accomplishments -- lowest crime rate, strong economy,
most diverse cabinet -- flashing on the screen.)
The convention runs late, which turns out to be a blessing
for the delegates. As I exit the arena, someone says I can't
turn right because, "they're rioting."
As Bill Clinton gave his address, protesters and
concertgoers (at least 10,000 by police estimates) got out of
control at the Rage Against the Machine performance
right outside the arena. As the police tell it, "anarchists"
began throwing rocks at the Staples Center, some of them
actually bouncing off the glass. Some protesters started
fires, and others began to scale the fence. The police gave
warnings for the crowd to disperse, and when they didn't, they
used pepper spray, plastic pellets, and "foam baton rounds" to
force them to.
The concert area is covered in trash, and hundreds of
police officers are still rushing around in formation. But the
protesters seem to be gone. When I get outside of the complex,
however, I meet a few who are showing off their injuries to
reporters and yelling to get the delegates' attention. As the
protesters tell it, they were trying to exit, when police came
after them, shooting foam bullets at close range and beating
them with billy clubs. Jeff Fountain brandishes a bloody elbow
and back, charging that the police shot him eight times with
foam bullets while he was fleeing.
At that moment, who should appear but Tom Hayden -- a
veteran of many police conflicts. When I ask him what he
thinks of the standoff, he barks, "This is not a time for
reporters." I disagree. But as the dirty Ragers wander off and
the delegates disperse to their after-parties, I decide that
it is time for this reporter to call it a night.
Tuesday: Gore -- Fighting for Working
Families, Genocidal Maniac
The protests in Los Angeles reflect the city. They are
disorganized, anonymous, sprawling, and not connected by
public transportation. So I spend the morning trying to be
everywhere at once -- frantically hailing cabs between the
"Value Women's Work, Value Women's Lives: March Against No
Pay, Low Pay and Overwork" rally at Pershing Square, the
Ministers Against Global Injustice (MAGI) Public Education
Summit at the Second Baptist Church, and the Bus Riders Union
Anti-Racist Rally at MacArthur Park.
The bus riders are protesting the dearth of buses in the
low-income areas of Los Angeles. Their bright yellow shirts
and signs -- combined with the cheers accompanied by a musical
beat -- make the march a boisterous one. One tiny old woman is
dressed head-to-toe in yellow, with giant rhinestones adorning
her "Billions for Buses" shirt. People join the march from off
the street, and dozens of construction workers come out on the
scaffolding to cheer the marchers on.
try to restrain myself from joining in: "A thousand new buses
-- so we can get to work and classes! Mass transportation --
belongs to the masses!" But in a city where public
transportation is a traffic jam of SUVs, I can't help but be
hooked on the bus crowd's cause. Martin Luther King, Jr.
protested that African Americans had to ride at the back of
the bus; many minorities in Los Angeles don't have a bus --
front or back. Quality public transportation is good for the
environment, and it helps low-income people get to the jobs
created by the booming economy.
The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) already
has buses -- 60 of them filled with protesters from all over
the county, according to their organizers. The next protest is
made up of LA County employees who will soon vote whether to
go on strike. I'm impressed with their organization. Leaders
keep megaphoning for the protesters to grab a sign, a bottle
of water, a little container of suntan lotion, and -- much to
my chagrin -- a whistle. By now, I've sweated myself to
dehydration, and have a raging headache. So the whistles,
bright lime green and purple signs, and blaring Aretha
("R-E-S-P-E-C-T") are agonizing. Adding to my throbbing noggin
are the three skinny girls in short shorts handing out fliers
for the very un-Aretha Spearmint Rhino Gentlemen's
Club, "featuring exotic female entertainment."
This protest is the first I've seen that isn't intended to
be a headache for Al Gore, however. In Philadelphia, all the
protesters agreed that the Republicans were lowlifes. But they
also agreed that they couldn't do anything about it. So the
protests barely addressed the party holding its convention the
week of their protests.
Not so, here in Los Angeles. Many protests -- such as the
U'wa rally yesterday -- attack Gore directly. But they also
make demands on him. Though the chance is remote, they say,
they hope that they will be able to persuade him to rally to
their side. (Meanwhile, they sport green Nader stickers.) One
activist admits that if the LA protests have seemed
disorganized (they have), it's because the diverse groups
planning the protests bickered over how much to stick it to
The Bus Riders Union chanted, "Hey Gore. Take a side.
Racism or civil rights!" They want the federal government to
withhold funds for LA transportation until the city has
purchased more buses. But the SEIU is solidly behind Gore; its
members agree with the union's endorsement of him. Members
even carry signs saying, "Gore. Fighting for Working
hard-core "Save the Iraqi Children" anti-sanctions activists,
who show up next at the Staples Center, are equally unanimous
in their conviction that Bill Clinton and Al Gore are
genocidal maniacs, however. And they're even louder than the
SEIU. With their speakers turned up to an ear-drum-ripping
volume, their speeches go on for more than two hours. And each
speaker reiterates that the sanctions against Iraq have killed
a million children. Only one makes the wild claim that "the
idea that Iraq threatens any country in the world is a
complete joke," however.
To save my hearing, I flee to Pershing Square, where the
few dozen straggling protesters are completely flummoxed.
Dozens of people have been arrested during the day, some at an
animal rights protest, some at a "critical mass" bike ride,
and some who are members of the Black Bloc, the black-clad
anarchist crowd. The police have taken some protesters to a
nearby jail -- though no one seems to know how many, or why.
So the activists are making a plan to go visit them.
"If we march, we will definitely, definitely, definitely,
be risking arrest," says one woman in black boots and army
fatigue shorts. "Come sit in a circle so we can dialogue." One
guy, who is smoking a joint, keeps heckling and giggling. He's
the only one who doesn't seem scared of the LAPD (who proved
last night that they're not afraid of using force). Arguing
that even walking down the sidewalk might be too dangerous if
they cheer, someone suggests a silent walk. Someone else
argues they should all go to the jail separately. Then they
can go and ask to visit their jailed comrades. Except that
they can't use detainees' names because, they're "using jail
solidarity"; the arrestees may not have given their real
Tomorrow is the march against police brutality. It remains
to be seen whether protesters will be enraged or emboldened by
the police response so far.
Wednesday: Whose F--kin'
Tom Hayden and I are in a fight. When I enter MacArthur
Park for the rally to protest corruption and brutality in the
Rampart Division of the LAPD, he and Arianna Huffington are
discussing how violent those naughty policemen were in
breaking up the Rage Against the Machine concert Monday night.
But when I approach him, he's complaining to a friend,
"Everywhere I go, it's reporters." Hayden, in a "Jobs not
Jails. Homeboy Industries" T shirt, tries to interview-dodge,
despite my softball question. I tell him that reporters will
always interview people who choose to be politicians (not to
mention leading anti-war movements and marrying Jane Fonda),
to which he grouches, "I don't want publicity that bad."
Hayden huffs off and does a TV interview before his speech.
Homeboy is the state senator from the district in which I grew
up -- not to mention an alum of my alma mater and the college
paper for which I wrote. I'd like to like him. But now it's
official. I'm the anti-Hayden-biased media.
Press temptress Arianna Huffington is much nicer. I still
can't get used to her transformation from ice-queen wife of an
arch-conservative Senate candidate to outraged liberal. She
says she's here to express her support for the march.
Huffington further castigates the police for taking three
hours to respond to a bomb threat near the Shadow Convention
she organized -- and for temporarily closing down the
convention once they showed up late.
The plan is to march from MacArthur Park to the Rampart
Division. Organizers are calling this the most dangerous
protest of the week. When we arrive at Rampart, a giant blue
sign hangs above the station proclaiming, "The Community Loves
The Men & Women of Rampart Station." Perhaps it is the
lack of truth to the sign that puts the police on debutante
The "direct action" and ensuing arrests are like an
under-water tennis match. While other arrests involve a flurry
of action and a tinge of fear, this one is in slo-mo. After a
few speeches, an organizer says, "Those willing to risk
arrest, please come forward." Anyone who is not should clear
the way. The willing-riskers have tied white rags over their
mouths, and they form a circle holding hands. They proceed
slowly towards the entrance to the Rampart Division. . The
police on the stairs observe. . . One officer announces that
the protesters will be arrested if they do not leave. .
Approximately 30 riskers stay kneeling with their heads bowed.
Someone is quietly beating a drum. It takes about an hour for
the police to arrest everyone, cautiously, one by one. One
reporter cracks that he expects the police to bring us ice
cream. When the arrests are over, the remaining protesters
form a circle and sing a song; then they proceed to the
anti-police brutality rally at Pershing Square.
The rally rubs me wrong. It's scheduled as a march from the
Square to the Police Station to Staples Center. Protesters
certainly have a point -- some members of the LAPD are brutal.
But their way of responding is the cheer, "Whose f--kin'
streets? Our f--kin' streets! Whose f--kin' world? Our f--kin'
world!" One speaker at the police station screams, "Instead of
running from the police, we need to f--kin' chase their
asses." And a guy brandishes a sign that says, "More Police
Executions." This rally -- and to some extent many of the
others of the week -- is edgy and tense. Rallies work best
when people are having righteous fun.
The march to Staples Center is no fun at all. A thin line
of police hustle down the right side of the street that is
filled with protesters. Periodically, people turn on them and
start yelling. Each time, the tension breaks within moments of
an ugly outbreak.
When we get to Staples, some protesters enter the parking
lot and others remain in the street. The police seal the lot,
splitting the protesters. Though there is no plan for what
will happen inside, marchers take this as an attempt to divide
and conquer. They hold intense negotiations with the police,
demanding that the rest of the protesters be let in.
At one point, someone tries to climb over the cement
barrier between the lot and the street, and the police lash
out. I hear shots -- of either the rubber bullets or beanbags
the police have used -- and we all start running. It's
frightening, but the shots stop quickly. Then we wait some
more. I meet a KCBS cameraman named Don Menzel, who is a gory
sight. He had been standing at the front a few minutes ago
when the police ordered everyone back. He didn't get back fast
enough, so an officer rammed him in the chest with his
nightstick. Menzel has napkins stuffed between his buttons to
catch it, but the blood runs down his shirt from neck to
After an hour, the police allow the protesters to reunite
-- something the activists consider a victory over the pigs.
But once their demands are met, no one knows what to do. So
they begin to straggle towards MacArthur Park. My feet are
killing me; I come to the wise conclusion that if I've
been out since 9am, and they've been out since 9am,
then they -- like me -- are too tired to do anything
newsworthy. On the way home, I hear my first bit of optimism
all day -- Joe Lieberman's convention speech on the radio. He
cheers, Isn't America great?
Thursday: You've Persuaded Me, Now Make
By day four, the bumper sticker slogan, "Practice Random
Acts of Violence and Senseless Cruelty" could pretty much sum
up most of the protesters' impressions of LAPD philosophy. The
force's ubiquitous riot gear is menacing. And considering the
fact that police seem to have doled out their
rubber-bullet-shooting and nightstick clubbing to rowdy
protesters, ACLU lawyers, and reporters alike, people are
pretty scared. In the short term, it seems the police may be
getting what they want.
When I arrive at Pershing Square Thursday morning, the
crowd is small, but spirited. Organizers have planned a mock
award ceremony to grant Citigroup the First Place Democracy
Buyout award. Charging Citibank with ruining the environment,
exploiting workers, supporting genetic engineering, and making
money off of prisons and inner cities, the protesters march to
the Citigroup Building. There, I've heard, people plan to
"lock down" -- lock themselves together in front of Citibank
and get arrested. But they decide not to.
Instead, activists from Billionaires for Bush (or Gore)
conduct another awards ceremony, congratulating Citigroup for
its ability to bribe politicians with campaign contributions.
Then a few of them representing the Republicans, Democrats,
and special interests, put on a skit showing all of them in
bed together. The "billionaires" have been having a blast all
week, dressing in top hats and ball gowns, with fake money
dripping from their pockets. When I try to interview them,
they say things like, "We don't care who wins the election --
we've already bought Bush and Gore," and solemnly give
me names like "Mike Rosoft." They scream riffs on the standard
cheers, such as:
"Big money, united, will never be defeated!"
"This is what plutocracy looks like!" and, "Whose banks? Our
banks! Whose yachts? Our yachts!"
When I ask some of the activists why they didn't do CD
(that's the in-the-know way to refer to "civil disobedience,"
a.k.a. getting yourself tossed in jail), they say they decided
it wasn't worth it.
An organizer of the anti-sweatshop/immigrants' rights rally
later in the day also attributes a smaller crowd than expected
to fear of the police. The march starts in the garment
district and proceeds to the Staples Center. On the way,
people lean out of their tall apartment buildings to cheer the
march on, waving Mexican flags or pieces of clothing.
The marches, cheers, and signs have all begun to run
together. But Jose Vera, a middle-aged man with floppy gray
and black hair and a No on Proposition 187 T-shirt, helps
distinguish this one. He tells me that after emigrating from
Mexico City, he worked in a sweatshop. There, the hours were
long, the breaks were short, and workers were paid minimum
wage. The work "speed-ups" made the job stressful and
dangerous (he worked in the fabric-cutting room, where lifting
heavy reams of cloth hurt your back). Unlike many of his
colleagues, however, he left the factory and went to law
Leaving the march and waiting in the first of two lines to
get into the convention center, I encounter a very small --
but extremely noxious -- group of protesters. They are
screaming at delegates about abortion, brandishing grotesque
signs. I've never seen such unhappy activists; their
bitterness, if not their message, is catching.
Standing in the second line, I can't believe my eyes: A
Republican walking out of the hall. I catch up with
Washington Representative Jennifer Dunn (the GOP's designated
female) and ask -- trying not to sound too incredulous -- what
she is doing in the Democratic Convention. She says
she's doing "contrast" for the media. Later, I think I can see
Dunn's back in the Fox News studio.
Inside the convention hall people are, like, way
revved. They dance, cheer, and wave signs. Much to my
amusement, one person front and center -- in the California
delegation -- has a "Save Mumia" sign, a teaspoon of the world
in which I've spent my week.
Being the wonk that I am, I love Gore's speech. I'm also
very impressed with his line that perhaps he's dished a little
too much policy, but this election isn't a popularity contest.
I've heard of a French beauty trick that says if you have an
imperfection, flaunt it, don't try to hide it. I surmise
that's what the Gore team has decided to do. Make Gore's
seriousness a strength. Likewise with Lieberman's Judaism (no
imperfection, of course). Though many worried that Lieberman's
religion could be a liability; Gore rejoices about it
During Gore's speech, I begin to conduct a highly
scientific survey of the crowds' opinion on the issues. My
method: Based on my impression from the nosebleed seats, I
rate the cheers for each policy mentioned on a scale of one to
Here's a sample of my results:
|Prescription Drug Benefit
|Rebuild crumbling schools and reduce class size
||10 and a "Go Al Go!" cheer|
|Patients Bill of Rights
|Stop global warming
|Campaign finance reform
|Make college tuition tax deductible
||10 plus "Go Al Go!"|
|Eliminate the marriage tax penalty the right way
|GOP tax bill
|Hands off Social Security and Medicare
|Stick it to the tobacco companies
|Right to choose
||10 plus foot stomping|
|(The guy behind me is asleep.) |
|50,000 new police
||2 plus someone shouts, "Big Brother!"|
|Victim's Bill of Rights
|Hate crimes legislation
|Any mention of a state
||10 (These folks love their states. If you
went around the room and said each state's name, you
could start a wave.) |
Why the ranking system? Because I know that Gore himself is
doing the same thing. Who doesn't want to do the things that
get a big cheer?
The cheerometer reminds me of a story I've heard: A
president is talking to an activist. The activist is making
his case, and the president says, "Okay. You've persuaded me.
Now make me." The point is, politicians can't act without
public support. It is not enough to sway the politician -- one
must move the public too. As I watch the speech, and the
delegates' response to it, I am convinced that the party wants
to do the progressive thing (especially the delegates; they
really want to). The candidates just need bigger
cheers. And that's what effective protests could drum up. For
the most part, these activists hate the Democratic Party. But
it occurs to me that if they've done their job, they may just
be doing it a favor.