Photo by Ted Soqui
The first U.S. casualty in Iraq was a Marine who died fighting to seize an oil-pumping station in Rumeila a symbolic death that bluntly summarized the war goals of our court-appointed leader. Yet George W. Bush and his junta of tycoons neednt worry about the corporate news media dwelling upon such indelicate metaphors nor, certainly, about CNN giving undue attention to the waves of protest that have rippled across America following the invasion. Television has mostly adopted a dont-ask, dont-tell policy toward dissent, devoting between 10 seconds to half a minute on demonstrations per half-hour broadcast. Last weekend, anti-war activists tried to make it easy for CNN: They protested the networks coverage in front of CNNs own offices in Los Angeles and Atlanta.
Saturdays L.A. rally and march began at Hollywood and Vine under a warm sun and had a carnival flavor to it. Members of the butoh group Corpus Delicti writhed on the ground, silent and ghostly; among all the loud drumming efforts, one man quietly tapped a small Tupperware container; four young Parisian-attired women (big berets and striped tops) waved a tricolor theyd stitched together the night before.
The media has really run with all the attacks on France, said Amanda. But were here to show we support the French.
Alliance for Survival activist Jerry Rubin was concerned about public attitudes toward the human suffering caused by war and violence.
Sometimes people are so easily written off as collateral damage, he said. When Rachel Corrie got run over by an Israeli bulldozer our government said it was an unfortunate accident. Would they have said that if an Iraqi tank had run over an American? Do you think if a tank had run over that guy in Tien An Men Square they would have called that an unfortunate accident?
LAPD Chief Bill Bratton observed the scene on Sunset and Cahuenga in the CNN buildings shadow, looking casual and relaxed in pleated slacks and an LAPD polo shirt. The night before, at a law-and-order panel held at the Skirball Cultural Center, he had told an audience of 200 to thank the demonstrators for leaving the Westside understaffed, alluding to the vigil then being held at the Westwood Federal Building. I asked him Saturday how long he thought the demonstrations would be allowed to continue was there a point where someone would say enough was enough?
Saturdays a big day for businesses, he replied rather cryptically. The effect on business will probably have to be looked at somewhere down the line.
Like Saturdays action, the Oscar Sunday protests drew only a fraction of the 10,000 to 20,000 who braved hammering rain to march downtown the week before. Perhaps some were disheartened by the launch of war or were simply afraid. All week long Mayor Hahn and his Chicken Little crowd of Homeland Security mavens spoke darkly of the coming terror, while the heart of Hollywood became a no-go zone during the Oscars. Theres a nauseating narcissism behind the belief that places like Disneyland and the Kodak Theater would rate on any terrorists shortlist of targets, but local civic leaders put on their air-warden helmets as though they expected the Scuds to start arriving with the first limo.
The official peace rally took place at Sunset and Orange Drive, though many protesters gathered in front of the Ripleys Believe It or Not Museum on Hollywood and Highland, where police searched and scanned pedestrians at entry points, and whose northeast corner had been given to a few dozen Bush supporters. The groups yelled slogans and insults across the boulevard at each other, but the acoustics of the street and the drone of helicopters created a sound wall between the two sides, so that one could hear the other only as a distant echo.
Many of the pro-war demonstrators had been alerted to the rally by Free Republic, a right-wing Web site that serves as a kind of online Wailing Wall for Americans feeling the twin emotions of hurt and entitlement. It was difficult to gauge just how many pro-wars had shown up, because not only were there Oscar spectators and the usual boulevard feeders present, but each side also had infiltrators among the others ranks. Additionally, the pro-war side passed out free plastic American flags to pedestrians who had nothing to do with either rally. I approached a clean-cut family visiting from Chicago who were waving flags at passing limos near Starbucks.
Im just here to see Hollywood, the dad told me.
But werent they demonstrating for the war?
My wife wanted to see the stars, he said pleasantly. We could just as easily have stood on the other side of the street, and probably will in a minute.
The right-wing hardcore was clustered at the Free Republic epicenter, at Hollywood and Highland, where its partisans stood subdued and listless until homeless advocate Ted Hayes showed up. A familiar figure around town wherever there are news cameras and microphones, Hayes himself seemed subdued until he took hold of a microphone that was connected to a bullhorn. Then he came to life, announcing that Iraqis had used the cover of a white surrender flag to gun down American soldiers.
This is what these Muslims did! Hayes screamed. This is what these Iraqis did to our generous men! We will make sure that Hollywood never treats our president the way it has this week!
A gleam lit his eyes when he spotted John Boehm of Burbank, a lone peace activist holding a sign reading Bush Betrays USA. Hayes stepped to within a few inches of the man and shrieked into the bullhorn, How dare you stand here with your peace sign, how dare you join this communist-sponsored demonstration when your fellow Americans are being killed in Iraq!
Hayes uncorked a torrent of invective against Boehm, who stood stock still. The crowd was getting whipped into a frenzy and for a brief, ugly moment it seemed that they might attack the demonstrator in their midst.
Then, suddenly, Hayes offered his hand.
Peace, my brother, Hayes said calmly. Shake my hand. Were Americans, shake my hand. You have a right to be here. Shake my hand.
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After a moment Boehm tenuously accepted the hand of Hayes, who, finished with his little performance, then turned away and spoke to reporters. Unfortunately, a few bullies he had fired up continued to shout at Boehm. One of the pro-wars, a Huntington Beach man who was holding American and Israeli flags, began shoving Boehm until some bystanders insisted he stop. Yet the man returned moments later and pushed Boehm off to the edge of the perimeter, egged on by people shouting, Buh-bye! Buh-bye!
The peace rallys permit expired at 6 p.m., and the police responded by forcefully sweeping the Sunset site, clubbing several demonstrators in the process. By about 6:30 the last sizable group of milling protesters had been corralled by police into the residential intersection of Orange and Willoughby. Following the third command to disperse, about 100 young people reluctantly filed through gaps in the police lines and into the night, some heading to Sunset and La Brea, where the protest would eventually ember out. After about 15 minutes one lone man, called Direct, was left arrested, I was told by his friends, for using a bullhorn. (A Sergeant D. Galindo told me Direct had been detained for failure to disperse.) He stood in the middle of Willoughby Avenue, forlorn and with his hands bound behind his back, while an undercover cop dressed in ski-cap-and-sweatshirt slacker attire watched nearby.
All the security precautions street closures, spike strips, body searches, rooftop sharpshooters must have paid off, because no terrorists seized the Kodak that night. The evenings TV news shows mentioned Michael Moores denunciation of Bush and the war, but very few dared quote from his bold remarks. Instead, the news anchors presented their hollow mix of entertainment and Pentagon-sponsored war reporting, even as an unbridgeable gap widened in the American conversation, much like the gulf between the two sides on Hollywood Boulevard.