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Rooms of Dissent

The first marchers begin to congregate at Pershing Square shortly after 4 p.m. on Friday. Some wear the white-trimmed black dresses of hotel housekeepers, others the red outfits of waitresses and bar hostesses. Dozens arrive in red T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Unite Here” in white and black. Many, leaving City Hall or nearby offices a bit early to join the demonstration, are in suit and tie. March organizers carrying clipboards distribute signs as they speak into headsets wired to tiny cell phones on their belts.

Two blocks away, at the intersection of Fifth and Figueroa, opposite the Bonaventure Hotel, young men and women in orange vests guard a truckload of folded beds as police officers on motorcycles begin roping off the onramp to the north and southbound lanes of the Harbor Freeway. The last drivers through look over their shoulders and escape onto the onramp, as the intersection is roped off for at least a city block in every direction. Two blocks south, on Wilshire, cars slow to a halt, and the sound of angry honking drifts up Figueroa.

“These guys up here are Hollenbeck,” one officer tells a colleague as they walk through the now-empty intersection. “It’s all going to be Metro on this side. We have people from everywhere.”

Officers stretch yellow police tape across the northwest corner of the intersection, as Officer Eduardo Funes advises a man with a media pass and a mammoth video camera that when the time comes, the press must keep behind the line. “We don’t want to arrest you,” Funes says with a laugh.

To another reporter, Funes explains that the marchers have a permit to demonstrate from 5 to 5:30. If activities go later, he says, the LAPD may declare an unlawful assembly and make arrests.

“But you know they plan to be arrested, right?” the reporter asks. “I mean, this is all planned. Don’t you know who is going to be arrested, and how many?”

“We will see,” Funes responds. To another reporter’s question he answers, “In this beautiful country, with our Constitution and our First Amendment, people can demand better wages, better working conditions. And these people” — he points toward Wilshire — “want to use their streets to go home. We balance. At the end of the day this is what we do. But you see, this is not a confrontational situation.”

Two men in business suits, fresh from the bar at Ciudad, walk down Fig while talking into their cell phones and stop suddenly when they notice the yellow tape pressing against their shirts.

“What the hell is this?” one asks. Hotel workers demonstration, he’s told. There is a march coming down Fifth Street to this intersection, where there will be a demonstration.

“It’s a march,” he repeats into his cell phone. “We’re stuck here. Are you watching TV? Well, turn it on. That’s where we are. We’re stuck here. The what? The hotel workers are demonstrating. No, there must be 3,000 cops here. All of downtown is shut down.”

Hilda Delgado-Villa, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, said that talks between the Hotel Employers’ Council and Unite HERE, which represents hotel and restaurant workers, were to start up again after the weekend following a brief employee walkout at the Century Plaza on Thursday nearly launched a full-scale lockout by the nine prestigious hotels that make up the council. Hotel management imposed the lockout on paper, but revoked it before the end of the evening after talks with Peter J. Hurtgen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

The hotel workers’ contract expired June 1, Delgado-Villa explains.

On the corner opposite the beds, now being slowly unloaded from the trucks, curious Bonaventure bellmen and managers peer over at the street, which is strangely quiet for the beginning of a Friday rush hour. A man in a fire captain’s uniform peers over at an LAPD truck with a megaphone mounted on the cab, as a police officer shouts over to him. “I put in my vote for some Aerosmith, maybe some Def Leppard on this thing,” he says. “What do you say?”

The “incident commander,” LAPD Captain Jim Rubert, appearing comfortable and at ease, strides across the intersection and puts his hand around the shoulder of an officer sporting a much more anxious look. “You will be the arresting officer,” Rubert says. Dozens of police in helmets and visors, seemingly invisible before, appear on the sidewalk near Ciudad. One uniformed man appears to sag under a vestful of silver canisters.

“Here they come!” a photographer shouts, as the line of protesters walks down Fifth Street, past the Biltmore Hotel, past the Central Library, and into the intersection at Figueroa where more than a dozen beds now form a circle in the middle of the street. In the midst of the hotel workers and their young supporters are some familiar faces. There is the Reverend James Lawson, a civil rights legend whose teachings on nonviolence became the centerpiece of Martin Luther King Jr.’s movement. There is Maria Elena Durazo, the president of Unite HERE Local 11.

They arrive at the intersection, they fill it, and they keep coming. “They say go away,” a woman shouts into a megaphone. “We say no way!” comes the response. A ring of marchers, a half-dozen deep, circles the beds in the middle of the intersection. Now a woman in a housekeeper’s uniform races around the circle, lifting each mattress at the corners as she remakes the beds. “There is a 100-item checklist per room,” a woman explains on a loudspeaker. “If there is even a single hair left in the bathroom,” she says, “she will be disciplined.”

 

Police Chief William Bratton, in full uniform, sidearm strapped to his belt, walks past the intersection and looks the situation over. At 5:45 p.m., a voice booms from the speakers atop the LAPD truck. “I hereby declare this to be an unlawful assembly,” the voice says. “You have 10 minutes to disperse.” Directions are given for walking away from the intersection as demonstrators quickly move to the sidewalk and the beds are folded and removed. They leave, in the center, 45 people sitting in a circle on the pavement.

The order to disperse is repeated, in English and in Spanish. Then a line of baton-wielding officers steps forward. Rubert calls over to Funes. “All these media people are in violation of the law,” he says. “It’s your job to get them out of there.” Funes gently asks each photographer taking shots of the singing and chanting demonstrators to move out of the street and behind the yellow tape. “You said you’d give me a shot!” one photographer complains to Funes. “You’ve got a shot,” the officer answers, as he clears fellow policemen out of the photographer’s view.

Now two officers walk into the circle and approach Reverend Lawson. “That’s low,” one union official says, “to arrest him first.” “No,” another responds, “it’s a sign of respect.”

One officer puts his hand on Lawson’s shoulder and speaks to him, as a third uniformed man records the conversation on videotape. Lawson nods. The two officers help him to his feet, and he puts his hands behind his back. Union supporters cheer, as Lawson is cuffed and walked over to one of two LAPD buses parked on the street right outside the Bonaventure. Then, one by one, each seated demonstrator is walked away. Second to last is union leader Durazo. Then finally a woman in a housekeeper’s dress. From the sidewalks, their supporters cheer.

Now it’s 6:37 p.m. The intersection is clear, and the officers begin to remove the road blocks from Fifth and Fig. The first car pulls through five minutes later as the puzzled driver — a man in a white shirt and a tie, pinstriped coat hanging from a hook above the back seat of his Audi — looks around at the scene.

A half-hour later the arrested demonstrators are still milling outside the two buses, hands tied behind them, as officers take their pictures and check their names off against a list given to them by the union at the beginning of the march.

“They’ll be taken to Parker Center and processed,” Rubert explains to the reporters. “They’ll be booked for failure to disperse, which is a misdemeanor, and released on their own recognizance.”

He adds: “This whole thing went off without a hitch.”

Over on the corner, chatting amiably with an officer, hands behind her back, is Maria Elena Durazo. Next to her stand two lines of fellow arrestees, waiting patiently while they sing.


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