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Keeping the Peace

In a scene reminiscent of the worst days of August‘s Democratic National Convention, Los Angeles police clubbed and fired rubber bullets at a crowd gathered to protest police brutality Sunday afternoon. At least a dozen people, including an 8-year-old girl, were struck with rubber bullets outside the LAPD headquarters at Parker Center. Several displayed bleeding welts on their chests, backs and arms. Others were hit with police batons and kicked by advancing horses. ”The police were engaging in a wide variety of criminal conduct,“ said Bob Myers of the National Lawyers Guild, who was himself rammed with a police motorcycle at the conclusion of the march.

USC law professor Irwin Chemerinsky tied Sunday’s violence to aggressive tactics used during the Democratic Convention. ”I think all the wrong lessons were learned from the DNC,“ he said. ”The lesson the LAPD learned from Mayor Riordan, the City Council and the L.A. Times is, so long as there‘s not a riot, the police can get away with very oppressive tactics.“ ACLU attorney Dan Tokaji, who is suing the department over its handling of convention protests, agreed. ”The failure of anyone in the city to exercise leadership, from the mayor to the City Council to the completely ineffectual Police Commission, encouraged the LAPD to continue its pattern of lawlessness.“

The protest was organized by the October 22 Coalition To Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation. As Sunday shoppers stopped to watch, the crowd, led by dancers in Aztec headgear and a sound truck plastered with the names and photos of people killed by police officers, headed north on Broadway from Olympic Boulevard toward Parker Center. Groups marching included the Alliance of Filipino Immigrants and Advocates, the Watts Committee Against Police Brutality, and the Bus Riders Union. Chanting, ”Fight back, wear black, stop police brutality,“ and ”Who let the pigs out? Oink, oink, oink, oink,“ the group had swelled to over 2,000 by the time it reached Parker Center, where dozens of police in riot gear stood in formation on the lawn.

From the bed of the sound truck, which was parked on Los Angeles Street directly in front of the police headquarters, a young woman encouraged the crowd to ”Make some noise,“ yelling into the microphone that ”Whoever doesn’t want to go march can stay here, but this is our chance to surround Parker Center.“ About 300 protesters broke off and headed east on First Street, taunting police on the sidewalk as they went. About 50 police blocked off San Pedro Street, and the crowd gathered at the corner, yelling at police and chanting, ”Your uniform does not impress me.“ Several protesters burned an American flag. Others lighted paper models of pigs aflame and stomped them out on the ground.

Within a minute of the flag‘s being burned, one LAPD officer began firing rubber bullets into the crowd. Twenty officers mounted on horses quickly advanced, swinging batons, flanked by police on foot who fired concussion grenades and volleys of rubber bullets. Protesters retreated down First Street, some throwing whatever they could find, a few sticks and glass bottles, but largely empty plastic water bottles, at the riot-clad police officers.

LAPD spokesman Officer Don Cox maintains that officers fired at the crowd only after protesters began throwing objects including ”ball bearings, glass items [and] water bottles“ at police lines. Several eyewitness accounts, however, contradict the official story. ”No one threw anything at a cop,“ says one protester, who identified himself as Max. ”We were destroying things that we made, and for some reason that threatened them.“ Another protester, who asked not to be named, agrees. ”I saw the first shot,“ he says. ”People were talking shit to the cops,“ but the attack ”was not provoked. I didn’t see any bottle throwing“ until after the shooting began.

The situation soon escalated when police charged the main body of the demonstration on Los Angeles Street, furiously swinging batons and firing into the largely unsuspecting crowd, which included dozens of children. A small group of protesters surrounded a woman pushing a stroller, protecting her and her children with their bodies from the police assault, as others fell over each other to avoid the horses‘ hooves, batons and bouncing rubber pellets. Eight-year-old Asha Grayson was hit in the foot with a rubber bullet as she ran with her parents from the police. ”They were chasing people behind us and then we heard shots and then there were all these black balls bouncing around,“ says her father, Tracy Grayson, a criminal-defense attorney from Los Angeles. ”I didn’t know she got hit until I heard her screaming.“

Diana Davies, a 53-year-old mother of four from West L.A., was sitting on the median strip on Los Angeles Street with her 10-year-old daughter, Katherine, and 12-year-old son, James, when police started moving north from First Street. Though Davies had seen police firing rubber bullets into crowds during the Democratic Convention, she ”didn‘t expect they’d do anything crazy in broad daylight,“ and told her children to stay where they were sitting. A moment later, a police horse was stepping on her bad knee. An officer pulled her up by the shirt collar, yelling, ”You shouldn‘t have brought your daughter, you shouldn’t have brought your daughter.“ Then, says Davies, something hard hit her on the head from behind. Clutching a terrified child under each arm, Davies stumbled out of the melee. ”I feel completely disoriented, like I‘ve been mugged,“ she said hours later.

Aaron Holt, an 18-year-old junior-college student from Alta Loma, was struck in the chest with a projectile -- he thinks a beanbag -- that left a square 2-by-2-inch raw welt. A few hour later, he was coughing up blood and was put on intravenous antibiotics at an Upland hospital, to minimize chances of pneumonia, said his father. Holt says he was with the crowd on First Street when firing began without warning.

UCLA student Cheyenne Guerra was treated at Kaiser Hospital after being shot in the eye with a rubber bullet on the south side of Parker Center. Her vision was still blurry Sunday night. Officers came out without warning, pushing with their batons in all directions, Guerra said, and then the shooting started. ”I didn’t expect them to be shooting people in the back at a police-brutality protest,“ said Guerra. ”That was kind of a shock.“

Videographer Ralph Cole was arrested at the direction of two Metro Squad officers after seeking medical attention from paramedics for a gash on the chin Cole says came from a police baton. Cole says he was filming cops shooting into the crowd when he was hit by a mounted officer. He was charged with battery on a police horse and crossing a police line and released after five hours‘ detention. Two others were arrested and charged with assault with a deadly weapon on a police officer.

After several minutes of chaos, calm was slowly restored when hundreds of protesters sat on the ground in front of the advancing police lines. The police eventually drew back, and the program continued as planned, with speeches, music, and emotional testimonials from the relatives of victims of police brutality. At about 6 p.m., the crowd, which had thinned to about 500, marched back down Broadway to Olympic. Riot police lined the sidewalk and followed the march on bicycles and motorcycles, at times ramming the retreating protesters. Bob Myers, a former Santa Monica city attorney, who was acting as a legal observer for the National Lawyers Guild, was standing on the corner of Olympic and Broadway with a group of other legal observers when he was hit by a motorcycle. ”I don’t know what they were trying to do, because there was no crowd and we were on a public sidewalk,“ he said.

Protest planners had done what they could to avoid such conflict with police. The original permit for the march from Olympic and Broadway to Parker Center was requested in July and granted almost two months later -- in violation of a recent court order that requires the city to respond to parade-permit applications within five days. An amended permit application, which allowed demonstrators to march around the police headquarters, was orally approved the Friday before the demonstration. The group that marched down First Street, where the fighting began, believed they were doing so legally. ”When I confronted Commander [Louis] Gray,“ the commanding officer for the entire operation, said National Lawyers Guild director Jim Lafferty, ”he said he didn‘t know any of this.“ Gray told the L.A. Times, ”It seemed to me they were supposed to remain in front of Parker Center.“

Regardless of the permit arrangements, says Myers, by shooting into a crowd without first declaring an unlawful assembly and giving people time to disperse, the LAPD acted illegally. ”The police have the right to use reasonable force to effectuate an arrest. They do not have the right to just shoot people in a crowd.“ According to Lafferty, the lawyers guild plans to present videotapes of the incident -- which he says clearly show that the police attack was unprovoked -- and other evidence to the Police Commission, which has promised to review the incident. A lawsuit is in the works.

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