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Mood Indigo

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

Immediately after the L.A. Lakers won the NBA title on June 19, a small mob of fans spiraled out from Staples Center to trash not only nearby businesses and police cruisers, but also the glass doors of Bethesda House — the Salvation Army’s AIDS family residences, located half a mile distant — and a used-car lot near USC. That brief tempest yanked Angelenos from their millennial bliss back to 1992, revealing a civic unease about L.A.’s propensity for “going off,” as well as inexplicable gaps in our police department’s lines of communication.

In an odd twist of history, the 2000 Democratic National Convention has become a media sideshow to speculation about what exactly will happen on the streets outside its doors. The mystery is not so much what the D2KLA demonstrators will do as what will be law enforcement’s response. Because the LAPD was so publicly caught off guard at the Laker micro-riot, it is very likely that cops will do everything to act quickly and aggressively. But will they go overboard in order to compensate for June 19, when they were seen as timid, equivocal — and too late?

Ted Hayes, the head of the Dome Village homeless shelter, says his group will provide its own security muscle to ensure the safety of his village, which is hosting the National Homeless Convention concomitant with the DNC. Religious organizations within and without the immediate shock wave of next week’s DNC are augmenting their faith in law enforcement by having groups of clergy and lay monitors follow protest marchers daily from Pershing Square to Staples Center — providing a calming presence during potentially tense moments.

Lieutenant Horace E. Frank, an LAPD spokesman for DNC-related activities, says that his department studied the Laker-fan disturbance in “after-action” meetings to “fine-tune” existing contingencies, but gave no indication that the $500,000 worth of damage had caused any serious reassessment of police strategies. Lieutenant Frank also said that analyses of protests at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, and of last year’s World Trade Organization riots in Seattle, were proving “very, very helpful.”

It would seem more than likely, then, that the LAPD has studied an independent report about the Seattle donnybrook issued a few months ago. This report, authorized by the city of Seattle, is no civilian task-force analysis in the tradition of the McCone and Kerner commissions, but was prepared by San Clemente–based R.M. McCarthy & Associates, a security-consulting firm headed by ex–LAPD SWAT sergeant Ronald McCarthy. (Other investigators included John Kolman, a retired captain with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, and Robert Louden, a retired NYPD detective lieutenant who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.)

The McCarthy report, among other things, griped about a Seattle ordinance restricting the police from gathering information on civilians, and found that the city and its police force “took extraordinary steps to accommodate protesters and ensure their First Amendment rights” — an indulgence, the report suggests, that led to WTO delegates’ not having a protest-free access corridor to their conference. Neither did McCarthy & Associates find much to praise about the press. “The media, too, is accountable,” their report says. “While there were certainly incidents of objective reporting, much of the coverage was inflammatory and at times irresponsible.”

But what seems to have most aggravated the analysts was the very notion that the Seattle protesters had a point to make at all. “To call this conduct civil disobedience is ludicrous,” the report fumes. “Reasonable law-abiding citizens do not remain [after ordered to disperse] to watch or participate in anarchy.” Among the report’s 39 recommendations is to make sure the Seattle Police Department has plenty of tear gas to go around next time, and ranking near the top is recommendation No. 4, an admonition to prepare for a “worst-case scenario” whenever planning for major events.

It may be coincidental that the LAPD originally insisted on keeping the official protest site as far away from Staples as possible, agreeing only to a parking lot located on Olympic Boulevard and bounded by Flower and Figueroa streets. It has also, against constant pleas from the D2KLA protest umbrella group, refused to rule out the use of tear gas and pepper spray during demonstrations — even though the Philadelphia P.D. never resorted to them during the Republican convention. “We will only use chemical agents to ensure safety,” Lieutenant Frank says. “If [protesters] engage in criminal activity, then they will be responsible for the consequences.” It is a sentiment Mayor Richard Riordan endorses. In a July 13 Los Angeles Times commentary, the mayor wrote, “We must not handcuff police in their use of non-lethal weapons such as rubber bullets and pepper spray, when necessary.” The reason for Riordan’s concern was a new breed of “rogue demonstrators” who, judging by the Cold War lilt of his rhetoric, would seem to have been trained in the dark arts of chaos in Libya or Afghanistan, rather than the hills of Malibu. “These international anarchists,” Riordan claimed, “have attended training camps where they have learned strategies of destruction and guerrilla tactics. And they communicate their methods of malice over the Internet.”

When asked about the meetings he has attended over the past three months between the community and the LAPD, DarEll T. Weist, president and pastor of the Staples-area United Methodist Church, says, “The police have done an extremely good job informing us about their plans — and have warned about a worst-case scenario of utter destruction.” A judge’s ruling has allowed the official protest site to be moved considerably closer to the delegates, along with authorizing Pershing Square as a secondary protest site, further ratcheting up pressure on the police. “Bringing it closer was stupid,” says nationally recognized security expert Ira S. Somerson. “I just wish that judge could be made to stand in the line between the demonstrators and the police.”

What’s more likely to happen is that delegates and the LAPD will be staring much closer at demonstrators than they had ever dreamed of — a situation that does little to shake the confidence of the department’s supporters, however. “When the rubber meets the road,” says the McCarthy report’s Robert Louden, “the LAPD will be prepared.”

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Beyond the reflexive hand wringing by the Mayor’s Office and the L.A. Times about whether or not outside elites will still consider post-convention Los Angeles a “world-class city,” there is the matter of what the city itself will think if its cops overreact.

“There’s no magic potion,” says Louden about police tactics. “You look at the experience of your own force and other agencies. You plan as carefully as you can. And then you pray for rain.”

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