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Manic Monday 

Raging against the Establishment

Thursday, Dec 11 2003
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Photo by Ted Soqui

When the rumor was confirmed that Rage Against the Machine would perform a free concert outside Staples Center to protest the 2000 Democratic National Convention — in particular, the concept of a two-party system — thousands of Angelenos cleared their calendars to become activists for the day. Alongside real activists, they unwittingly took part in a classic showdown with the LAPD, the origin of which is still up for debate.

For many, Monday, August 14 — the first day of the convention — began in Pershing Square, a gathering place for groups of every cause imaginable and the starting point for several of the week’s marches. Megaphones blared. Whistles shrilled. Speeches rang out as petitioners gathered signatures and pamphleteers distributed leaflets. Anarchists, dressed in black, hid their faces behind bandannas. Greens exalted Nader. Libertarians championed LaRouche.

Around 4 o’clock, the “Human Need, Not Corporate Greed” march assembled and began twisting its way through downtown. Workers leaning out of office-building windows cheered the crowd on toward its destination, Olympic and Figueroa. There, with images of Martin Luther King Jr., Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, César Chávez and Robert F. Kennedy looking out from the nearby wall of the Hotel Figueroa — part of Apple Computer’s “Think Different” ad campaign — the stage was set for Rage and Ozomatli, another of L.A.’s own.

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Waiting for the crowd was the LAPD in full force. Cops were stationed all along the perimeter of the concert area, the majority in riot gear, some riding horses, others perched atop buildings, like assassins. A 12-foot-tall chainlink fence segregated the official convention delegates and political elites from the demonstrators. Occasionally, a helicopter appeared. Picture U2’s video for “Where the Streets Have No Name,” but with a heightened sense of anxiety.

Rage cut through the tension and transformed it into healthy, red-blooded aggression when dreadlocked singer Zack de la Rocha, accompanied most notably by hunt-and-peck, thrash-and-shred guitarist Tom Morello (Harvard graduate and former scheduling secretary for California Senator Alan Cranston), took the mic. To hear Rage blasting through car speakers is intense enough, but to experience them live, in their backyard, surrounded by the very elements described in their songs, empowered even those unfamiliar with their sound.

The set played out as a greatest-hits romp through the Grammy-nominated Evil Empire, the self-titled debut album and their swan song, The Battle of Los Angeles. Normally outspoken and polemical, de la Rocha didn’t waste his breath on speeches. Instead, he let the lyrics from “Testify,” “People of the Sun” and “Bulls on Parade,” among others, speak for themselves. The highlight came when Rage launched into “Killing in the Name,” which features a defiant, yet hilarious, refrain: “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.” On the album, this line is repeated 15 times in a row, but at the convention it seemed to roar into infinity, taking on a life of its own:

Fuck you, we won’t do what you tell us!

Over and over, the throng of people — reportedly more than 10,000 — chimed in with de la Rocha, who is short and slight but full of bounce.

Fuck you, we won’t do what you tell us!

Their middle fingers were raised toward the Chardonnay-sipping VIPs enjoying themselves on the balcony running alongside Staples Center.

Fuck you, we won’t do what you tell us!

They were too far away to discern, but surely the suits’ faces displayed an equal mix of condescension and fear as the refrain crescendoed.

Fuck you, we won’t do what you tell us!

Finally, the crowd’s emotions peaked and the song came to an end.

Motherfucker!

Ughh!

What followed was a dime-store Kent State riot. Even now people argue about what happened between the time Rage unplugged and Ozomatli tried to plug in. Some blame unruly fans impatient for the music to begin; some blame the anarchists who may or may not have thrown garbage or pulled on the security fence or committed some other potentially threatening act to inert objects. Many protesters believe the LAPD simply provoked the crowd. Whatever the cause, the police shut down the show and ordered all to disperse — officers later said they gave people 15 minutes to leave; others on the scene say the cops acted much faster — then moved in with pepper spray, billy clubs and rubber bullets. The non-lethal bullets were especially disturbing, hitting everyone from a Los Angeles Times reporter and a Loyola Law School professor to an 11-year-old boy. Fortunately, though, this time around no one was killed. Chalk it up as progress.

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