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Face of a Protester

The Los Angeles Police Department is seeking the fast track for new laws to ban face coverings, gas masks or even goggles at public demonstrations, where the devices could weaken officers who want to control crowds with pepper spray and other chemicals. The proposal advanced this week after Police Commission members dismissed any First Amendment objections as premature.

Deputy Chief Mike Hillman, who heads the LAPD’s special operations bureau, told the commission it’s important to move quickly and get the laws on the books before expected anti-war demonstrations on March 20, the anniversary of the U.S. attack on Iraq. In fact, Hillman said, the LAPD would just as soon get the new rules in place to deal with an even earlier expected assault on public order — at the February 15 NBA All-Star Game at Staples Center.

If protesters wear scarves around their noses and mouths and swim goggles to protect their eyes at public gatherings, Hillman told the commission, “the ability of that officer to gain compliance is restricted.”

Police Commission President David Cunningham III warned that the proposals raise severe constitutional questions, especially since some of the items to be added to the banned list could be used for legitimate purposes. But the five-lawyer commission gave the LAPD the go-ahead to work with the City Attorney’s Office and the City Council to prepare draft amendments to the city Municipal Code.

Civil rights lawyers and activists said they were outraged that the city would consider new restrictions on how demonstrators could express or defend themselves, especially since trials are right around the corner in two lawsuits over police response at the 2000 Democratic National Convention at Staples. Trial is to start February 24 in a class action brought on behalf of demonstrators and passersby injured by rubber bullets at the DNC. A second trial, seeking an injunction to change current LAPD crowd control practices, is set to begin in mid-May.

Attorney Carol Sobel, who represents plaintiffs in the May trial, scoffed at the proposals, which are in their initial stages.

“In Los Angeles, the only time a problem has arisen is when the police have rioted,” Sobel said. “They have pepper spray and OCS on hand, and it has an expiration date. They want to use it before it goes bad. And I’m not being facetious.”

The Municipal Code currently bars thick wooden sticks and bottles from demonstrations, on grounds that they could be used as weapons. The LAPD is seeking to amend sections 55.07 and 55.08 to include metal poles and sticks, devices known as “sleeping dragons” that protesters use to chain themselves to fixed objects, masks “and similar devices intended to filter air,” rocks, projectiles, spray cans, wrist rockets, aerosol cans and chemical agents.

Hillman said the list grew from a body of knowledge the department has gained during the course of demonstrations like the 1999 protests at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle and the DNC in Los Angeles. The LAPD also encountered a mini-riot in June 2000 at Staples after the Lakers beat the Indiana Pacers to win the NBA title. Police in riot gear and on horseback battled fans who set two police cars on fire in a celebratory and often violent spree.

Hillman told the panel that other cities adjacent to Los Angeles have laws similar to those the LAPD is seeking, and that those laws have not been challenged. Hillman could not be reached after the commission meeting for comment.

But Sobel noted that she represented plaintiffs who won a suit against a Monterey Park ordinance in the 1980s that barred protesters from covering their faces. In that case, she said, Taiwanese demonstrators were trying to keep their faces from being caught on videotape that would be used against them by officials in their home country. In fact, many protesters use face coverings in their demonstrations as integral parts of their expression — and federal courts have repeatedly struck down laws purporting to outlaw anonymous protests.

Scott Sheffer of the Los Angeles office of International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) said members of his group often used masks as part of their demonstrations and probably would continue to do so at the March 20 protest, slated for Hollywood and Vine. “The best thing to do would be for the police to not infringe on the rights of the demonstrators in the first place” by needlessly using gas and rubber bullets against the crowd, Sheffer said.

That sentiment was echoed by attorney James Muller, who is representing the plaintiff class in the suit set for trial next month. “The idea of banning gas masks is perfectly reasonable — if the police department is behaving reasonably at these demonstrations,” Muller said. “But we saw that these officers are very capricious, and not respectful. At least that’s what we saw at the DNC.”

Protesters should be able to wear masks or goggles to protect their eyes from rubber bullets, Muller said, noting that one person was blinded by a rubber bullet at the DNC and that others have suffered the same fate at other protests around the country.

Adena Tessler, public safety deputy for Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, said the council and the city attorney would make sure that any final proposal would take into account First Amendment protections. She said that officers who are given the power to tell protesters to remove hoods probably would be less likely to throw bottles or engage in other illegal activities.

Sobel said recent rulings have underscored the right of protesters to wear masks. Besides, she said, why is it so important to get the laws in place before the NBA game?

“Has there been anywhere in the country,” she asked, “where there has been a riot after an all-star game?”