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Convention Casualties

As convention week and its melees, fracases and police assaults faded into history, the welts inflicted by LAPD rubber bullets began to fade as well. And as baton bruises turned from bilious purples to more muted hues, raw feelings among many media folks mellowed to a more philosophical, “it‘s-all-in-a-day’s-work” point of view. That perspective was widely held, at any rate, among reporters and photographers who got hurt mingling among protesters and music fans August 14, on the first night of the convention, in the forcible dispersal of the crowd attending the Rage Against the Machine concert in the free-speech lot.

But how long you suffer from rubber-bullet wounds or baton blows seems to depend less on the force of impact than on whether you believe you were an intended target or an accidental victim. More journalists this past week joined the ACLU lawsuit charging that the LAPD “deliberately targeted members of the media, clubbing and shooting them” in order to minimize coverage of its tactics against protesters. (And some journalists who would like to sign on have been told not to by their bosses.)

Typifying the “no-big-deal” perspective were two Los Angeles Times reporters who asked that their names not be used. One was hit by a rubber bullet from “really far away” and -- though carrying visible press credentials -- was also clubbed from behind, but “Since I was moving away from the blow, I wasn‘t hurt badly.” The other, who caught a couple of rubber pellets, now feels, “It’ll be a fun story to tell the grandkids,” but adds, “That doesn‘t mean I think it was reasonable police action.” Both reporters were among crowds when struck by the pellet guns; neither felt specifically targeted. “Even if I had been singled out,” adds the second Times staffer, “I’d feel queasy about suing. We have our own kind of weapons to use -- publicizing these things.”

Rebeka Rodriguez of the San Francisco bimonthly Media File is experienced in publicizing police violence (“I‘ve been covering these things for years, taking pictures of people getting beat up”), but now feels the need to go a little further. With her right shoulder blade broken in the Monday melee, she is joining the plaintiffs in the ACLU suit. Rodriguez says she was snapping photos as she was trying to leave the protest area but was clubbed on the neck, head and shoulder by a mounted officer. “I’m learning to live with my left arm,” says the right-handed photog; her normally favored arm will be in a sling for four to six weeks.

Channel 52 cameraman Faustino Rodriguez (no relation to Rebeka) was likewise caught up in the Monday-night melee, but had no bones broken -- only his digital camera. “I was running backwards and shooting video,” he says. “As I reached the exit, suddenly there were horses a few feet away. I held up my press pass in my left hand, my camera in the other, and said, ‘Let me get out.’ [A mounted officer] hit the camera and broke it. A reporter said, ‘Let’s get out of here,‘ but as we started to run, I was hit on the head. It was swollen for a week,” he complains. “You can expect anything as a cameraman,” Rodriguez adds, “but I never expected this from the police.” He plans to join the lawsuit once he gets the approval of his bosses.

Also signing on to the suit is Kathryn Gleason of Mendocino County’s Independent Coast Observer. One of the last of the week‘s casualties, Gleason went unscathed until late Thursday night, when she was clubbed on the arm and knocked to the ground at the Seventh Street Metro station.

The new plaintiffs join five others named when the suit was filed on August 21 -- consumer advocate David Horowitz; Miami TV-commercial producer Al Crespo; audio engineer Greg Rothschild and cameraman Kevin Graf, working free-lance Monday for an ABC news crew; and audio engineer Jeffrey Kleinman, working for NBC.

At least one newsperson took a rubber bullet to the head without resentment, praising the perpetrators for having done “a great job.” While he “was a little upset” at being shot in the head, said Daily News photographer Hans Gutknecht, he blames the violence on “so many people with cameras” -- the “fake media,” with false IDs. “People with little blue badges messed it up for the rest of us,” he asserts, alluding to passes issued by the Independent Media Center to employees of Web sites and weeklies. “Anybody singled out was probably not dispersing,” Gutknecht surmises. “If [police] are making exceptions, they’re endangering their own safety -- they hadn‘t checked to make sure no one was armed.”

The broad mass of journalists -- without distinction between “fake” and “genuine” -- were fired on from within their own ranks last Thursday by New Times columnist Jill Stewart, who charged them on the KPCC-FM program Air Talk with having “caused the entire problem.” News personnel “put themselves between police and protesters” and so “became the story -- which, as far as I’m concerned, is incredibly unethical,” Stewart declared. In one on-air illustration, she cited a CNN newscaster‘s emotional description of a female colleague being hit in the ribs with a billy club. “What a wimp,” Stewart chuckled. “I’m so ashamed for my colleagues this week,” the columnist concluded.

 

A confrontation on August 16 at Olympic Boulevard and Figueroa Street, Stewart later told the Weekly, was media-instigated. Though she relies in part on notes from an unnamed “observer,” Stewart asserts that as police attempted to keep a 50-foot area clear to separate two groups of protesters, the media surged forward toward police lines and the crowd followed. “They became the crowd that was out of control,” she maintains. “They act[ed] like unprofessional goons.”

Although Stewart is a member of the L.A. Press Club board of directors, her viewpoint is not widely shared on the board. Press Club president Mary Moore, who described police actions during convention week as “disturbing,” counters that “I didn‘t see any journalists out there making news -- I saw a lot of them trying to figure out how to cover the story. Many times it was hard to know where to stand.” Moore, a Daily Breeze reporter, says that later Monday night she was on a sidewalk blocks west of the confrontation flash point when a motorcycle officer drove his bike up onto the sidewalk, yelling, “You don’t belong here.”

The club has invited Chief Bernard Parks and LAPD Commander David Kalish to appear at a Press Club “town hall” meeting to air differences in police and media perspectives. Moore and a colleague met with Kalish before convention week, she says, and “He assured us officers would be trained . . . and would be able to recognize credentials” and deal with press appropriately. The club may consider filing an amicus brief with the ACLU lawsuit, Moore says; one portion of the complaint demands that LAPD devise guidelines that would protect news coverage of demonstrations.

As the city‘s oldest and most influential media institution, the Los Angeles Times might have been heard by city powers had it made its position on LAPD tactics clear -- or its readers might have weighed in had the daily made police actions clearer to them. But the paper’s coverage of the street scene, several younger reporters told City Editor Bill Boyarsky, wasn‘t making police behavior clear. Boyarsky agrees there was a difference of opinion: To this veteran of decades of demonstrations and riots, the salient fact was that “At the end of the day, no one was seriously hurt.” While he questioned the LAPD decision to use clubs and rubber bullets, he expressed no particular concern about their use on reporters or about interference with newsgathering. “I think it’s just as serious when you club a non-reporter,” he told the Weekly. “This is just my personal opinion,” he said. “I‘m not speaking for the Times.”

On the other hand, Deputy Managing Editor Leo Wolinsky, in overall charge of convention-week coverage, declined to pass judgment on police tactics: “From one side, what’s wrong? There was no riot, no serious injury. On the other hand, was it necessary at all?” Wolinsky sees no reason to believe the press was singled out, but if there was an “intent to scare us away . . . it wouldn‘t stop us. We could use more protective clothing, bulletproof vests, hard hats.”

If the voice of today’s Times appears indistinct or garbled, yesterday‘s Times leaders had less trouble sorting things out. “Rubber bullets are not an innocuous form of crowd control -- they’ve killed people occasionally and put out people‘s eyes,” said USC journalism professor Bryce Nelson, who worked at the Times from 1975 to 1977, first as Chicago bureau chief and then as Washington correspondent. “It certainly has a chilling effect . . . [Coverage ability] is also chilled by the failure of conventional media to tell that story. I don’t think the Times or the TV stations were particularly eager to judge the police.”

“The Times made a conscious decision, which I don‘t understand, not to cover this story very much,” agrees Ed Guthman, its national editor from 1965--77, who is also at USC’s School of Journalism. But the ill effects of police overreaction, Guthman says, may be negligible. “We had three Times reporters jailed in Chicago [at the 1968 Democratic Convention],” he recalls. “It sure didn‘t keep them from doing their job and becoming great reporters.”


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