MORE

No Public Displays

So where exactly do our city leaders propose that demonstrators at next month‘s Democratic Convention should rally? Zuma Beach? The Angeles National Forest? Vegas?

By revoking their earlier decision to authorize demonstrations in Pershing Square, the members of our City Council have placed the city in a pickle. For the past three decades, city government has funded and directed a downtown redevelopment project, but at no point did it occur to the lulus in control to build a park, or even a public space.

If we depoliticize the demonstration issue for a minute, it’s really the flip side of L.A.‘s nonexistent Millennium Eve celebration. We have no place de la Concorde, no Piazza de San Marco, no Times Square, no Grant Park, no Ellipse. Our one and only downtown public space is Pershing Square. (The vacant lot to which the LAPD wants to relegate protesters is roughly the size of the right-field foul territory at Dodger Stadium.)

It’s clear that our city fathers never placed much emphasis on cultivating a public square in Los Angeles -- a gathering place either for celebrations or protests. Private property has always taken precedence over public property here, private lives over public lives. We are the major American city with the most back-yard pools and the fewest public parks.

Then along come these protesters with their a radical and dangerous demand: They want to demonstrate publicly. They want to exercise their rights as citizens, in public. What could they possibly be thinking? We have no space to be a public citizen in Los Angeles. It‘s not our thing.

Rest assured, though, that the same elected officials and merchants who’ve now walled off Pershing Square will shout to the heavens when the demonstrators tie up the streets -- into which these officials and merchants have now driven them.

As someone with a long history of crossing state lines to incite riots (I was a staffer on a presidential campaign in Chicago in 1968; a student at Columbia University during the student takeovers; a commuter to D.C. for the great anti-war demos of the Nixon administraton; and a somewhat astonished reporter with teamsters and turtles in Seattle last fall, and with janitors on the streets of Beverly Hills this spring), I‘ve seen my share of demonstrations and police responses. And City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg is right on point when she warns of the perils of demonizing demonstrators. That was precisely what Old Mayor Daley and Chicago’s boys in blue did during the run-up to the demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic Convention (though Abbie Hoffman‘s jokes about putting LSD into the city water supply weren’t all that helpful, either). There, too, demonstrators were banned from parading and from rallying in particular parks. So total was the demonization of all anti-war activists that the Chicago Police ended up waging what an official post-convention commission (headed by Dan Walker, later to become governor of Illinois) termed ”a police riot,“ clubbing demonstrators and bystanders, SDSers and delegates, Yippies and ministers alike, hurling them through plate-glass windows, generally running amok. The property damage in Seattle last year may have exceeded that in Chicago, but in Chicago (for that matter, at Columbia, too) a lot of it was done by the cops.

Now, do I think that the LAPD -- whose hallowed halls ring with the echos of Bill Parker, Powell and Koon, and the Rampart scandal -- is aiming for a reprise of the Great Chicago Peace Officer Uprising? Not really. For one thing, Chief Parks‘ chief goal at the moment is to forestall a consent decree with the Justice Department, which could hand over control of some department activities to a federal court. One mad moment of truly berserker policing, and the de facto chief of the department will become some guy (or worse yet, doll) in robes. For a number of reasons, I believe the department’s plan is for a measured response that discriminates among varieties of demonstrators and demonstrations.

But plans tend to go awry, and at the LAPD, they‘ve gone awryer oftener than any taxpayer would care to contemplate. Even assuming the most delicate judgment on the part of the department -- and what moron would do that? -- the constant drumbeat of alarm issuing from Parker Center is disturbing. Parks and Co. screen footage of Seattle, scaring the bejesus out of councilmen and businessmen. They tell horror stories of April’s demos in Washington. They hear ancestral voices prophesying war. They advocate exiling protesters from the square to the streets. The ancestral voices I hear are prophesying a self-fulfilling prophecy; the faint rumbling of Chicago is now audible in L.A.

The main coalition of protesters has been endeavoring, at least most of the time, to de-escalate the mounting tension. The Direct Action Network has issued march guidelines calling on participants to commit no acts of violence against people and destroy no property. It should go one step further, pledging that its monitors will intercede to stop any property destruction (I don‘t think they need worry about acts of violence) that may, despite the guidelines, occur. They may not be able actually to stop every such action, but they should certainly try. Defacing the city and trashing its buildings ain’t a good thing.

I‘d feel better, though, if the city’s burghers had shown some concern about the defacing and trashing that define this city every day. About the closures of the auto and tire factories here two decades ago, some of them still rusting along the 710 corridor. About the failure of city leaders to have the slightest clue about what to do when aerospace folded here in the early ‘90s, despite a mid-’80s mandate from city voters to develop a plan for a conversion to a peacetime economy. About the concomitant destruction of the L.A. middle class that followed from this double de-industrialization, and from such decisions as that of the building-service employers in the mid-‘80s to discharge their unionized work force and substitute a group of newly arrived immigrants, at less than half the wage rate of their predecessors. At the thousand such employer decisions that made L.A. the capital of the working poor, the home of the nouvelle sweatshop, a county with more than 2 million people living in poverty. About the abrading of civilization that occurs daily (and nightly) with every newscast on KCBS, KNBC and KABC, which are to journalism what graffiti is to art (or, at least, craft).

But all these are largely instances of private-sector vandalism: the scribbling on our walls, the demolishing of our standards, that has resulted from the discrete decisions of business. And nothing that happens in the private sphere really bends us out of shape here.

But exercise your rights as a citizen -- in public? You’re not from around here, are you? We don‘t do that in L.A.