Photo by Roger Swardson

As a news event the fracas at Venice Beach Sunday was doomed to mediocrity, more a study in ineptitude than a preamble to class war. But it gave good film.

Live action dominated the small screen all afternoon as over 125 L.A. police in full riot regalia forced a thousand or so bewildered oceanfront strollers a mile down the beach.

The whole thing started out behind the pavilion at Windward Avenue, where about two dozen police were on hand as a hundred or so young hip-hoppers and breakdancers began a highly amplified conclusion to an international four-day festival. Police began discussions with the event organizers about lack of security, noise and other items not covered in the permit issued to the promoter. Meanwhile, the usual mix of exhibitors were setting up along the length of Ocean Front Walk. All were oblivious to any threat beyond an 80-year-old ukulele virtuoso.

Two young festival participants and three nearby street vendors later pegged the initial altercation at around 2:30 p.m., when police grabbed somebody who was spray-painting on the graffiti wall sponsored by the Social Public Arts Resource Center at the rear of the pavilion.

One of the breakdancers said, “All of a sudden there was this big cloud of dust, man, and then some guys on top of a building started lobbing rocks and bottles at the cops.” Several police vehicles were struck or swiped at with spray paint.

Within 15 minutes a row of police with truncheons and shotguns emerged like robo-cavalry in a line from over a small hill behind the pavilion. A cloud of dust spread across the lawn as people scattered. Several who police said were part of the trouble — and others who didn’t move fast enough — were cuffed and taken away. Within another 15 minutes the core of the initial melee was sorted out and under control. By 4 o’clock the scene was at a standstill.

Except for a heavy metal band led by a blue-haired wailer in a sarong who had set up behind a public bathroom, the spectators, now packed in for a half-block down the beach, were mostly either curious or just trying to get back to their cars. Then a scuffle broke out when two outspoken onlookers apparently decided to take on the whole police line. Brunchers at the Sidewalk Cafe at Horizon Avenue watched bug-eyed as police pummeled and cuffed the pair not 20 feet in front of them.

That incident seemed to set the stage for a new police idea: to clear the entire beach from the fence line to the storefronts. To eliminate the bleacher seats, police ordered the Sidewalk Cafe to close; then they began pushing their truncheons into the perplexed crowd.

For the next three hours police confronted only the bewildered questions and scattered berating of folks out for a Sunday stroll. The tightly drawn police phalanx advanced relentlessly, a half-block at a time, for 10 blocks down the beach, pushing onlookers a half-block back to Speedway Avenue at each intersection.

Finally, at just past 6 o’clock, the police line, truncheons at parade arms, faced a sparse, merely curious crowd dotted with a few blinking stoners and ravers certain that it had been their own fault all the time and their end was near. A sergeant jogged up and thrust his fist in the air. The police line broke and huddled around him. Then all the remaining police formed ranks and marched off the beach.

Television helicopters made a few more dramatic circles and sweeps and paddled away, contentedly self-fulfilled. The cameras were the day’s big winners. As the day progressed, a horde of live-action-TV viewers headed for the beach, clogging traffic and causing bus detours. From the air, the event unfolding on the small screen must have looked something like Chicago, 1968. One uprooted viewer arrived on the beach, looked around mostly at other former viewers and bellowed, “Goddammit, they broke into the Lakers game for this?”

So what was it?

According to Gilda Franklin at L.A. parks and recreation, the only permit issued for the pavilion on Sunday was taken out by something called Eternal Two Creations and was signed by one Asia Yu. It was for a luncheon for 100 to 125 people in the graffiti pit. All of which sounds like a pretty unlikely basis for a hip-hop and breakdancing spectacular.

According to Commander David Kalish, the LAPD’s West District had no inkling of the real event that was to take place. Kalish also said the promoters had made no provision for required private security.

Kalish acknowledged that everything escalated after police apprehended a couple of spray painters for vandalism. And, as the situation escalated, the department scrambled to respond. “Units had to be drawn from all over the city,” he said.

But why, after the situation seemed to be quickly brought under control, did the officers proceed — for two hours and 10 blocks — to compact and then shove hundreds of casual spectators off the beach, threatening them with arrest if they didn’t move fast enough and shoving truncheons at those who became angered? Kalish said, “I wasn’t there, but I was told they felt it was necessary to restore some sense of normalcy.”

The next morning, the L.A. Times printed nothing about the event. The next night, nobody on the city desk knew why. Maybe it’s a millennium thing. Maybe now, a thousand cassettes of sensational film isn’t worth one word.

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