Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter
I wore a little black dress to the riot. And heels. That’s what I was wearing, at least, when a broad and pasty cop in full riot gear pushed me onto train tracks and slammed my right leg with a nightstick after the now-infamous Rage Against the Machine concert outside the 2000 Democratic National Convention.
I had been covering the parties around the convention for the Weekly, wandering the crowd at cocktail events to find colorful “scene pieces” featuring drunk delegates. The night of the concert, my husband and I were on our way to the Biltmore Hotel, the unofficial home base for visiting Democrats. I was touching up my lip-gloss at a stop sign when, in the rearview mirror, I saw wisps of smoke and heard the fuzzy throb of Rage’s music come to a halt. We’d missed the concert but, now curious, we wanted to check out what was happening. We parked at a faraway lot and navigated the maze of blocked-off streets surrounding Staples Center.
As we moved toward the stage, the crowd headed toward us. For a moment, I was disoriented; disparate elements passed by like a Dalíesque dream: kids running with bandannas drawn tightly across their faces, eyes lit up with anxiety; the black gravel street strewn with blowing bits of white paper; small protest fires burning by the side of the road. A disgruntled Joe Eszterhas, who had taken time away from his screenwriting to do a book on the Clinton years, was scheduled to appear on Hardball with Chris Matthews that night and stood with his hands in his pockets alongside a gleaming white limo, waiting for the roads to clear. The music had stopped but the noise hadn’t: A curious, aggressive rumbling, vaguely military-like, swelled in the near distance. Then a line of armored vehicles rounded the corner. Police outfitted in helmets with protective shields, gas masks, billy clubs and bulletproof vests hung off the sides of the trucks, fists in the air, hooting and hollering like a pack of British football hooligans.
There had been more than 10,000 people at the Rage concert, but now only several hundred remained, most simply trying to get back to their cars or the nearest subway stop. The LAPD assembled around us and then, gently at first, herded us all in the same direction — forward, regardless of where we wanted to go. There was no way back to our car. Each time we turned down a side street, a line of police blocked our escape. They steered us — not just protesters and concertgoers but random civilians who had gotten caught in the mix — into a clearing. Then: silence. For at least 10 minutes, as officers on horseback made elaborate formations around us, we waited, the crowd growing thicker and more restless.
Panic is one of the great networking devices. We bonded with a stringy-looking kid, a legal aide from San Francisco who had come down to inform protesters of their rights. He held first-aid accouterments, bottled water, a makeshift gas mask, business cards and a cell phone, into which he narrated events as they happened. Sometimes before they happened. “They’re going to start beating us,” he said. “Randomly. Just watch.” It was a warm mid-August Monday, but the sky felt full, as if it would crack with thunder at any minute.
Suddenly, the police charged at us — on horseback, on foot and on bikes — their clubs raised in the air. We hadn’t actually done anything, but we ran; it was the only thing we could do. A neatly dressed man with wire-rim glasses and curly black hair raced by. “They’re shooting rubber bullets and pepper spray!” he said. “Get out, if you can.”
I ran for a block or two with a pregnant woman and her child. An elderly man who’d just gotten off work ran beside us. The pregnant woman fell, and I lost sight of her. “Move! Move it!” screamed the officers, eyes ablaze and faces stiff. To them, we were a mob.
The gap between these two distinct pods — the frenzied crowd and the pack of police chasing it — grew narrower and narrower until we were one wild, raving throng on the go. Struggling as I was in my heels and dress, I got caught right in front of the LAPD’s line of defense, a shiny police boot glinting in my peripheral vision. I twisted around to explain that I was a journalist, that I wasn’t really supposed to be there, that I’d actually gotten lost and was just trying to get back to my car.
“Move it!” the cop yelled.
And then, with thuggish force, he shoved me with his shoulder, and I tripped on the adjacent train tracks. My palms were pricked with blood from the fall. This time, he didn’t need to say “Move!” The stick was enough. I raised my arm to block the baton from hitting my face. But it landed on my leg instead. Hard and fast and angry, with a slap. I carried my shoes after that. Ran as fast as I could. I ran because he told me to.
The next day, a rash of articles surfaced. Police claimed to have given a 15-minute dispersal order to clear the area, but we hadn’t heard any announcement. Police argued it was “a protest about to turn violent,” that they were simply being proactive. “Excessive force, ill training, brutality and a violation of human rights,” said the ACLU. “A massive tear to the hemline,” said my dry cleaner. The dress — it cleaned up all right. But the mottled purple welt on my thigh took weeks to fade.