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Rants and Reflections 

A street-side view of the Democratic Convention

Wednesday, Aug 23 2000
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Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

To anyone who did not spend last week on downtown streets, the activists’ chant “This is what a police state looks like” (a variation on “This is what democracy looks like”) might sound like hyperbole. It was not.

That a government should feel so endangered by its own people that it hides from them behind Hurricane fencing and the collective muscle and firepower of more than 1,000 cops, that it should through its own paranoiac provocations risk riot and widespread violence to secure itself from the very people it purports to represent, does not speak well for democracy. It does not even bring democracy to mind.

 

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I. On the Cops, or The Disgusting Sham of It All

Officers of the Los Angeles Police Department, the county Sheriff’s Department and the state Highway Patrol, and agents of the FBI and the Secret Service filled the streets, sidewalks and rooftops. Afoot and on bicycles and motorcycles, and in patrol cars, wearing full-body armor, bristling with plastic handcuffs, clubs, tear-gas canisters, shotguns and their usual sidearms, they surrounded Staples Center and the major hotels. Dozens lined the sidewalks and hundreds filled each intersection as protesters marched by. Months before the convention, activists were spied on, intimidated and harassed to the point that, in a delightful turnaround, a federal judge awarded protesters a temporary restraining order against the police.

A partial rundown of police excesses: Monday night they beat and fired on a crowd that was, by the time officers got there, peacefully trying to leave. Tuesday they rounded up 45 activists who police claimed were about to vandalize downtown businesses (all but two were released by a Superior Court judge) and surrounded a crowd of about a thousand people marching for queer rights, trapping them tensely at the corner of Temple and Los Angeles streets for more than half an hour before escorting them on a forced march back to Pershing Square. Wednesday they aggressively broke up a peaceful demonstration at the corner of Olympic Boulevard and Figueroa Street, fired rubber bullets into the crowd, and held it for nearly an hour in a standoff that at any moment could have broken into a full-scale street battle. Late Friday night, in an incident that to my knowledge has been reported in no mainstream news outlets, they clubbed protesters getting off the Metro at the Seventh Street Red Line station.

Such tactics served the double purpose of effectively hushing constitutionally protected forms of dissent and dividing activists by making some protesters play cop with their own people to avoid further confrontations. They did not accomplish the LAPD’s main goal: to preserve public order. Police caused more disorder than they prevented, and risked far more by time and again creating unnecessary standoffs with demonstrators.

Throughout the 1910s and ’20s — when, as now, the LAPD acted transparently as hired enforcers of an insipid status quo — Pershing Square and the central Plaza (since tamed and transformed into an appendage of kitsch-bound Olvera Street) were repeatedly the sites of brutal police assaults on nonviolent political demonstrations. The Staples Center parking lot can now join that inglorious history.

 

II. On the Anarchists, or Give the Kids a Break

Widely demonized as bloodthirsty terrorists and/or dangerously spoiled brats, protesters had Mayor Riordan, the LAPD and downtown business owners in a tizzy for weeks and were used as a pretext for handing central L.A. over to police rule. While the media at large unctuously congratulate Chief Parks for keeping order, those who marched in the infamous Black Block deserve some credit too: L.A. saw virtually no property destruction. This was not just the LAPD’s doing. At a Black Block discussion group at last weekend’s North American Anarchist Conference, sincere young anarchists considered various tactics, some expressing concern that Black Block had become “synonymous with property damage,” nearly all agreeing that “it’s not only stupid but irresponsible to bring [potential violence] into communities you haven’t been working with.”

The vast majority of the anarchists I spoke with were smart, idealistic kids who go into such discussions with great seriousness. None was interested in chaos for the fuck of it. They see property destruction, like civil disobedience, as a tactic among tactics to be used or abandoned as situations dictate. The jewelry district wasn’t saved from destruction by barred windows and riot cops: Nobody was interested in trashing it.

Despite being harassed and abused all week by police, journalists and occasionally other activists, only on Monday night, at the Rage Against the Machine concert, did anarchists engage the police at all. The mini–police riot that occurred that night has been widely blamed on the members of Black Block who threw bottles and chunks of concrete over the fence at police lines. In context, their actions are hardly surprising. Having traveled from all around the country to make their voices heard, activists arrived in the designated protest area to find that the government they had come to address had insulated itself from them with a 12-foot fence and countless cops in full storm-trooper gear. If a few thrown rocks can be viewed as a provocation worthy of attacking a crowd of thousands with rubber bullets, pepper spray, batons and horses, then building a heavily guarded fence to prevent those you represent from addressing you ought to be seen as a provocation, at the very least, to climb the fence, which is what two kids attempted. They were shot from the fence at short range with pepper spray. Black Block responded, unsuccessfully, by trying to knock the fence down. For that, they were pepper-sprayed again and shot with rubber bullets, at which point people got angry enough to start throwing concrete, a response which, if foolish in a David-and-Goliath kind of way, was commensurate to police escalations of the situation. Pepper spray rarely encourages great rationality. Within an hour, the cops had charged the crowd, shooting and clubbing reporters and activists alike, and Black Block would be saddled with the blame.

Despite a few confrontations with protest organizers whose decisions, they felt, played too passively into police demands, Black Block was decidedly peaceful for the rest of the week, and had a lot more fun than anyone else around. On Tuesday its members marched behind a banner displaying Emma Goldman’s famous words “If I can’t dance, . . . it’s not my revolution.” By Wednesday they had taken to chanting “Who’s sexy? Black Block!” and on Thursday evening, with lines of riot cops with guns trained on them just yards away, at the very spot where they had clashed with police two nights before, they entertained themselves, and their ever-present escort of reporters, by playing their version of Duck, Duck, Goose — Anarchist, Anarchist, Pig.

 

III. On the Media, or Nice To See the Mainstream Losing Ground

Perhaps never before has a protest, much less a week of protests, been so thoroughly and extensively documented. Thanks to the efforts of the Independent Media Center, which issued its own press credentials to all comers, to the relative affordability of video cameras and to the ease of posting on the Web, hundreds of activists photographed and taped nearly every moment of last week’s demos. Newly able to record their struggles and communicate without the help of the corporate press, they were there every time a stinger round was fired, every time a nightstick fell. They pushed their way into the huddles whenever LAPD Commander David Kalish delivered an impromptu press conference, and used those occasions, usually exercises in toadying, to throw tough questions at the commander. Mainstream-media folks grew noticeably defensive. Shoving others aside for a clear shot, one network cameraman was ready to rat out impostors at Wednesday’s rally in front of Rampart station. “Everyone without a real credential,” he growled, “get out.”

The grumpier such types become, the better our chances for truly democratic media, however hollow the word “democracy” may now ring.

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