It’s amazing how little it takes to make a top cop shrink away from you and retreat in silence.
At last Thursday’s do-over of the May Day immigrant-rights march and rally at MacArthur Park, LAPD Chief William J. Bratton ventured into the park to greet people, attempting to make amends with the city’s undocumented underclass after the police melee on May 1.
Bratton entered the park from the west gate at Park View Street, shaking a few hands and engaging in pleasant conversation. But once the chief got to the bottom of the grassy hill, he was met by a lone watchman holding two enormous homemade signs denouncing Bratton and the LAPD as human rights violators. The man, who appeared to be Mexican-American, with green eyes and a crewcut, began chanting in both English and Spanish at the top of his lungs: “Shame on you! We need to put you under house arrest!”
Bratton and his entourage conferred among themselves briefly and decided to duck into the tunnel under Wilshire Boulevard and head back to the familiar embrace of the police staging area. The entire time, the guy with the signs followed, bellowing: “You are a criminal! You have violated human rights, civil rights! We need to put you officers under house arrest!”
Bratton scooted back up the hill on the south side of the park. The shouting sign-man followed him all the way to the yellow police tape marking the LAPD safe zone. And that was that. What else could the usually tough-talking chief do? Grab a baton and start swinging?
No. The chief came back. Several times.
In this way, the Thursday march and rally played out as a delicate pageant of manners, even if among some people the anger at the police department after May Day is still fresh and ready for fuel. Undeterred, Bratton and the LAPD were there to show how polite and orderly they could be — after the brutal force unleashed on the news media and a mostly peaceful crowd at the same park on May 1 — as much as a majority of the marchers were there to do the same.
There was not a single riot officer in sight. When the labor and political leaders, and a couple thousand flag-waving, white-wearing immigrants, marched into the park from Immanuel Presbyterian Church 10 blocks away in Koreatown, they were greeted with a Spanish-blasting LAPD sound truck, the kind mysteriously absent on May 1. There, an officer kept repeating into a microphone in an off-putting monotone: “Welcome to MacArthur Park… The LAPD would like to thank you for your cooperation… Please do not cross the yellow line… Please continue walking into the park… Welcome to MacArthur Park…”
The people who passed had looks on their faces of glazed-over exhaustion and puzzlement. This is how you protest in modern America?
There were no arrests and no injuries. More significantly, Bratton and other top LAPD brass walked among marchers throughout the route, shaking hands, smiling big. Several times as he worked the crowd, I watched Bratton walk right past the ubiquitous hot dog vendors, who did not display an ounce of fear of getting cited. When the march passed the police staging area, one woman peeled away and offered to a row of bike cops, “Love you! Love you! Love you!”
Many immigrants, it turns out, are true believers in the power of forgiveness.
But here and there, one or two still-angry individuals insisted on making a scene. The force of their rage had the effect of dampening the mood for all within earshot. And curiously, none of the angry protesters that I saw appeared to be actual immigrants.
Back at the corner of Park View and Wilshire, Bratton reappeared and was surrounded by the sort of people you commonly see cleaning office buildings or tending to a garden, wishing to have their picture taken with him. At which point a guy wearing shaggy hair, a Mao-red T-shirt and an indigenous-chic shoulder bag hollered, “Wipe that smile off your face, Bratton!”
The chief ignored him. But a group of three Guatemalans did not.
“We have to respect people,” a woman said out loud. “You don’t achieve anything with insults. Latinos also have manners.” She said she was an immigrant from Guatemala and a restaurant worker.
“That’s why we’re the way we are,” said her companion, Julio Velasquez, also from Guatemala. “The countries we come from, there’s no respect. Here, you respect the authorities, you have to. We’re not like this,” he said, gesturing to the guy on the bike.
The protester turned and attempted to address the Guatemalans in Spanish, saying he didn’t mean any disrespect, but that the police and the migra are “jodiendo” (for lack of a better term, “screwing over”) the community every day.
“But what did he do to you?!” the woman said. “That’s why we’re marching, with dignity, without making problems!”
“It’s people like you!” Velasquez yelled.
“Can I speak in this country?” said the protester, clearly overmatched.
“Yes you can, but with peace, with respect!” the woman said. “If you have a complaint, go to the department to complain!”
“We’re saying he should be fired,” the protester protested.
“And why should we?” countered the woman. “He hit you? He hit you personally?”
It went on like this, until the guy on the bike rode off, bewildered that the anger he was expressing was apparently not shared by the entire proletariat. This exchange was repeated in some form throughout the day: an activist in a long ponytail getting caught off guard by scolding from people he thought he was sticking up for. After one such confrontation, I watched a guy in a red T-shirt and long ponytail lead away a pack of young MEChistas, holding up his chin in defeat.
The rally finished by nightfall, and people gradually filtered out of the park’s dusty field and onto the glowing streets of Central American L.A.: MacArthur Park, Westlake, Rampart. A crowd of marchers, some holding what appeared to be toy light sabers, stayed behind to kick up dust and noise with an immigrant brass band, the sounds of trumpets and drums bouncing off the towers overlooking the field.
Near the staging area, Jazmin Marroquin, 31, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, made the rounds with the TV reporters, asking for pictures with them. She showed me the images in her camera, of her, and her little girl, holding a reporter’s microphone with an ear-to-ear smile. Then she casually mentioned she was beaten by baton-swinging officers on May 1, the incident she kept referring to as “el problema.”
“I took pictures with all the girls from Primer Impacto, and then el problema started,” Marroquin said. “They hit me, they hit me in the back. I’m going to therapy now, every day.”
After el problema, Marroquin said, she still found reason to request photographs with the Spanish-language newscasters she loves to watch, photos that she proudly showed me. She also said she is a party in a claim against the police department to be filed by media-friendly attorney Luis Carrillo. There was no anger or resentment in her voice, not at all. As Marroquin spoke, female officers from the department Marroquin is ostensibly suing cooed to her daughter, talking about “mimis” and “jammies.”
“This is better,” Marroquin said. “Very calm. Very peaceful. This is how it should be every time.”