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A Changing of the Guard at the Westwood March

Fore more photos, view Ted Soqui's Westwood protest slideshow.

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A few minutes after 4 p.m., on Thursday afternoon, the "No on 8" march in Westwood had come to a complete halt. It wasn't that the crowd of a few thousand gay and straight protesters didn't want to keep walking north on Westwood Boulevard. It was just that the Los Angeles Police Department had encircled them with a crush of motorcycle and bike cops and flat foots outfitted with riot helmets and armed with black batons. The scene, already charged with high emotions, started to feel very, very heavy.

A Changing of the Guard at the Westwood March

"No on 8" protesters at the Westwood March are stopped to a stand still at Westwood Boulevard and Ohio Avenue on Thursday afternoon.

For a long ten or fifteen minutes, no one knew how it was going to play out. But the protesters were documenting everything with digital cameras, video equipment, and cell phones...just in case the peaceful march suddenly went sideways.

A few minutes later, an officer wearing a riot helmet spoke over a mobile public address system. He told the protesters they could start marching again, but asked them to stay away from motorists in the southbound lane of Westwood Boulevard.

"Keep in mind," the officer said in an even voice, "a lot of people are being inconvenienced."

The quick lesson in protest etiquette didn't go over well.

"We're being inconvenienced!" screamed a young woman in her early twenties. "Our rights are being taken away!"

With that, the crowd around her yelled out a spontaneous, new chant.

"What she said! What she said! What she said!"

The officer never again spoke about the inconveniences of civil disobedience for the rest of 5-mile march through Westwood and Century City.

A Changing of the Guard at the Westwood March

Marchers head north on Westwood Boulevard to Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood.

Fourteen hours after the Wednesday night marches took place, when a few thousand gay and straight protesters surprised much of Los Angeles, and probably the entire country, by taking their anger over the passage of Proposition 8 to the streets of West Hollywood and Hollywood, a crowd filled with men and women in their teens, twenties, and thirties were again hitting the pavement and stopping motorists in the traffic-congested neighborhoods of Westwood and Century City.

This kind of thing had happened before. In 1991, California Governor Pete Wilson vetoed a bill that would have prevented employers from firing people because of their sexual orientation. For nearly seven consecutive nights, young gays and lesbians, already angered by politicians' poor to non-existent attempts to stop the devastating destruction of AIDS in the gay community, marched on Sunset Boulevard, took over a runway at Los Angeles International Airport, and stopped traffic at different intersections throughout the city. For a town with an inadequate public transportation system, it was the perfect kind of disruption--anyone who drove a car in L.A. soon found out that a whole bunch of people were pissed off and wanted satisfaction.

Over the past several years, though, gay rights rallies have involved older men and women, with little turn out from the young crowd. Proposition 8 seems to have changed that, with not only a new generation of gays and lesbians taking over the streets, but many of their straight friends have been joining them.

"Something has happened in L.A. the past two days," Dave Valk, a 21-year-old senior and political science major at U.C.L.A., told me at the Westwood March. "The youth are taking over. And it's really more about a youth movement, than just a gay movement."

A Changing of the Guard at the Westwood March

Dave Valk stands outside the Los Angeles Mormon Temple on Thursday night.

Empowered by the Election Night win of Senator Barack Obama, who won a huge youth vote, high school and college students and recent college graduates have now taken the "Yes We Can" mind set to the "No on 8" cause. And in weird, unintentional ways, the older gay and gay-friendly establishments seem to be spurring them on.

On Wednesday night, for example, West Hollywood City Councilwoman Abbie Land stood on top of a L.A. County Sheriff's Department police cruiser at the intersection of San Vicente and Santa Monica boulevards. The "No on 8" rally had just ended, and Land, with West Hollywood Mayor Jeff Prang standing on another police cruiser near her, begged the emotionally raw crowd to disperse.

"You can't block traffic!" she yelled without a bullhorn. "We have to open up the streets!"

The twenty-somethings stared at Land as if she was crazy, immediately shouting back, "Hell, no! We won't go!" The councilwoman kept trying to reason with them, but then a young woman screamed into a bullhorn, "Don't listen them to people! Now is the time to fight back!" Land was outmatched, and the protesters didn't back down.

Within minutes, the police cruisers left the scene, allowing the protesters to march east on Santa Monica Boulevard and then north on Larrabee Street and up to Sunset Boulevard. From there, they chanted all the way to Hollywood, stopping in front of the CNN Building. If Abbie Land had her way, that important march for the "No on 8" cause, which was broadcast, at the very least, throughout Los Angeles, would have never happened.

That march also immediately got the attention of CNN. The next day, the cable news giant aired the protests at the Los Angeles Mormon Temple on live, nationwide TV. Not only that, young people--gay and straight--who had never marched for anything, anywhere suddenly caught the protest bug.

"I've never felt so prideful and happy to be a part of something and really want change," Shae Savin, a 20-year-old junior at Pepperdine University and civil disobedience newbie, who marched to the CNN Building, told me after the march. "I became quite emotional."

For the rest of that evening and into the early morning, young crowds walked from one place to another without any real leaders. Unlike the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who regularly walked the streets for the civil rights movement, the "No on 8" leadership, which includes power gays from the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, the Human Rights Campaign, Equality California, Lambda Legal, and others, didn't seem to be around. Which may not be a bad thing for a youth movement that apparently wants to take over.

While it's far too early to say Proposition 8 has started a new era of fully-engaged and politically savvy activism among the Echo Boom crowd, something does seem to be brewing...at least in Los Angeles. Nowhere was that urge to shake things up and push through some kind of changing of the guard than at the march in Westwood.

The "No on 8" rally at the Los Angeles Mormon Temple in Westwood was first called by L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center Chief Executive Officer Lorri Jean on Wednesday night, when she told a crowd of thousands in West Hollywood that she wanted to hold a "conversation" with the Mormon Church. She said it with a certain kind of menace in her voice, and the audience ate it up and cheered her on.

The next day, a few thousand people showed up at the temple on Santa Monica Boulevard with home-made signs and banners. From the get-go, they were loud, angry, and ready to roll. Jean then held a press conference, telling a horde of television, newspaper, and radio reporters about a new web site to "invalidate" Proposition 8--www.invalidateprop8.com. When that pitch was over, the protesters marched around the finely manicured property of the Mormon temple. It only took thirty or forty-five minutes.

A Changing of the Guard at the Westwood March

"No on 8" protesters walk around the iconic Los Angeles Mormon Temple.

Jean, the de facto gay leader on the scene, then took off for somewhere, but the protesters wanted more. It had already been rumored that a march to the Federal Building on Wilshire Boulevard would take place, so after thirty minutes of standing in front of the temple, the protesters, led by no visible high command, headed west on Santa Monica Boulevard and then north on Westwood Boulevard.

By Ohio Avenue, the crowd of a few thousand people were stopped by the Los Angeles Police Department. After a tense showdown, the cops let them continue to Wilshire Boulevard. Sean Woodward, a 21-year-old, openly gay man from Sherman Oaks, walked with his straight buddy, David Kun. It was the first time Woodward had undertaken any kind of civil disobedience action.

"I think 8 is unconstitutional," Woodward explained for his new activism. "And I want kids and a husband." He then said, "The (presidential) election raised a lot of awareness."

As we passed people standing on the sidewalk, some of whom cheered the marchers on, I told Woodward I had covered gay rights rallies before, and I had never seen so many young folks--gay and straight--take to the streets together. Kun, who walked next to us, nodded his head. "It's because our generation is more open-minded," he said. "Sean is my best friend, and I totally understand how he feels."

The crowd then started chanting, "What do we want?! Equal rights! When do we want it?! Now!"

By Wilshire Boulevard, though, the heavily-geared LAPD had once again boxed in the marchers with motorcycle and bike cops. People stood still, others sat down, and a few guys started yelling to the crowd that they should head east on Wilshire Boulevard. Chris Hillman, a 28-year-old documentary filmmaker, dressed in a green shirt and a green baseball cap, was one of them.

"We want to pass through (the motorcycle cops) peacefully," he told the crowd.

A Changing of the Guard at the Westwood March

Marchers face the LAPD in Westwood.

The marchers listened, and soon they side-stepped the cops and walked in the eastbound lane of Wilshire Boulevard, heading towards Beverly Hills. I caught up with Hillman and asked him if he was a leader. He smiled.

"I am," Hillman said.

I asked if he was the official leader of the march or if he just took on the role as things played out. It was an on-the-spot decision, he told me.

"I made the choice to take my own power and use it," Hillman explained.

The documentary filmmaker, who also heads up a media consulting web site called www.celebintl.com, was straight, didn't really follow the Proposition 8 campaign before the ballot measure was passed, but was outraged when it did. "This is the new civil rights movement," he said.

Hillman was also a supporter of Barack Obama, saying the gay-and-straight alliances within the marches "never would have happened if he wasn't elected." He also talked a kind of Obama-ese when he said the passage of Proposition 8 was caused by a "lack of compassion and empathy in our society."

Sounds good, I thought to myself, but after walking with the marchers for all of Wednesday and now on Thursday, I couldn't stop wondering if the young crowd had any substantive, long term plans to harness their outrage. I asked Hillman, but he seemed to think I was getting ahead of myself. "If marching makes one person think differently on their ride home," he said, referring to the motorists we continually passed in the street, "then it'll make a difference."

A Changing of the Guard at the Westwood March

The Obama factor makes an appearance at the Westwood March.

Soon after that, the marchers were stopped once again by the bike and motorcycle cops. The sun was quickly setting, and the sky was growing dark. The tall condo apartments of Westwood loomed around them. Out of nowhere, an older man with a goatee and dressed in slacks and a collared shirt started talking with the cops. He was Rodney Scott, the president of L.A. Pride, the group that runs the Gay Pride Parade in West Hollywood.

Scott had apparently been working behind the scenes with the LAPD, although he said he was not leading the march. "We've been assisting the LAPD to make sure people in our community are safe," he told me later. "This protest is not led by anybody."

As Scott conferred with the police, Dave Valk, the 21-year-old political science major from U.C.L.A., was having his own talks with the LAPD. Scott and Valk, although they didn't know it at the time, had different ideas of where the march should head. Scott suggested to the police that the march should continue east on Wilshire to Santa Monica Boulevard and then east on Santa Monica to West Hollywood. Valk, who told the cops he was one of the leaders of the march, wanted to go to Santa Monica Boulevard, too. But he wanted to head back to the Mormon Temple.

Michael Sanchez, an openly gay man and West Hollywood resident in his thirties, heard about the opposing routes and started discussing them with his friends. "Going back to West Hollywood is like walking in our own neighborhood," one guy said. "We need to get outside of that." None of them liked the idea.

The cops apparently approved both routes. Valk later told me the LAPD gave the green light for his suggestion, and I heard another cop okaying Scott's plan. The march, once stalled, then continued east to Santa Monica Boulevard.

Now the protesters were chanting, "Gay, straight, black, white, marriage is a civil right!" Nighttime had come, and I caught up with Michael Sanchez, who had donated money to the "No on 8" campaign, but didn't do much more than that. "I think that's something a lot of us are regretting right now," he said.

Sanchez was also disappointed with the "No on 8" leadership. He had been on the phone with one gay official on Wednesday, Sanchez said, and told him that someone in the "No on 8" campaign should organize and be ready to hit the streets after the West Hollywood rally. The official didn't listen.

"No one was there last night," Sanchez said with annoyance. "They weren't prepared for the walks."

Finally, the protesters reached Wilshire and Santa Monica boulevards. The big question of who would go where was about to be settled. With traffic stopped by the LAPD, Scott led the front of the march into one of the busiest intersections in the Los Angeles area. From a tactical point of view, it was a solid, civil disobedience decision. It was 5:40 p.m., and traffic was jammed in the middle of rush hour. The mission to disrupt Los Angeles in a major way was completed.

But a whole bunch of people had no intention of walking back to West Hollywood, with Valk, Hillman, Sanchez, and a few others leading the way back to the Mormon temple. Some older folks tried to get the crowd to reverse itself, but the younger crew wasn't listening and chanted, "Temple! Temple! Temple!" Two-thirds of the marchers made the right turn onto Santa Monica Boulevard.

After several minutes, Scott and his friends abandoned the West Hollywood route. They had no choice but to take up the rear of the march, with the younger guys--gay and straight--walking point. It was a symbolic moment, although no one seemed to realize it at the time, or fully understood what it all meant.

Next Big (or organized) March: Saturday, November 8, Sunset Junction, 6 p.m., Silver Lake. Go to www.answerla.org for more information.

Contact Patrick Range McDonald at pmcdonald@laweekly.com.


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