Against the backdrop of occasionally hostile peace rallies across Los Angeles, the LAPD lost a key ruling in a federal lawsuit filed over its handling of protests at the 2000 Democratic National Convention.
The lawsuit focuses on the night of August 14, when Rage Against the Machine played a scheduled concert in the designated “protest area” across the street from Staples Center. Toward the end of the concert, police declared the protest unlawful, and officers moved in, shooting rubber bullets and beanbag shotgun rounds as people scrambled for closely guarded exits.
The suit, filed in the name of 14 people struck by projectiles or batons during the melee, sought class-action standing for dozens more who had never filed claims. The City Attorney’s Office opposed the motion, arguing during an October hearing that claims should be handled individually, in part because some of the protesters admitted to throwing rocks or bottles at police and had provoked police force.
On March 12, U.S. District Court Judge Florence Marie Cooper ruled against the city and granted standing to any protesters who were shot with “less-lethal” munitions, trampled by mounted officers or beaten with batons after police ended the concert. Cooper found that “no individual admits throwing objects at the police.”
Deputy City Attorney Paul Paquette dismissed Cooper’s order as “not significant,” and said he expects to show that demonstrators ignored a lawful order to disperse. But plaintiff lawyer Cynthia Anderson-Barker termed the ruling crucial. “Judges rarely certify police-force cases as class-action,” Anderson-Barker said, and individual claims stemming from police clashes with protesters often fail to reach court. “It’s a black mark for the LAPD to have this certified.”
In addition, class certification means the statute of limitations is suspended. Anderson-Barker said that, in addition to the 14 original plaintiffs, more than 40 more have already joined. She said anyone who alleges injuries by police outside Staples Center that night is eligible.
In the weeks after the DNC, city and police officials hailed the department for its performance. Joe Hicks, then-head of the city Human Relations Commission, termed the event “the epitome of human relations on the streets of L.A.,” while the LAPD reported “a tremendous success” in its After Action Report. “In those instances where our personnel were forced to take enforcement action, they did so in a swift and professional manner.”
The plaintiffs in the class-action suit describe the same events in far different terms. A family therapist named Julie Johnson said she was waiting for a shuttle to the Governor’s Welcoming Ball when she “wandered into” the demonstration area shortly after the concert ended. Someone told her the police had ordered people to leave the area, but the exits were already jammed with people and hemmed by police.
“We were trying to get out and they wouldn’t let us get out. They kept shooting at us . . . People were being shot and people were crying. It was awful,” Johnson said.
Similar scenes were captured on videotape, as police officers seemed to zero in on anyone who pointed a camera in their direction. Anthony Pineda, a TV camera operator from Miami and another plaintiff in the suit, provides his own taped evidence to corroborate his deposition.
Pineda’s tape shows a squad of officers advancing up a street, firing sporadically, with a few protesters fleeing before them. One of the officers turns and aims at Pineda, who is off to one side, and then there is a brief, bright flash. In the next frame you can see a blur — a rubber bullet whizzing toward the cameraman. The screen goes blank; the next shot is Pineda himself, receiving treatment for a nasty-looking wound to his leg.
Simply showing that people were shot with rubber bullets proves little — after all, police reported using 167 rounds of “less-lethal ordnance,” some of them with multiple projectiles, and presumably they were aimed at someone.
The matter will turn, then, on several questions Judge Cooper posed in her order, including “whether the dispersal order was lawful; whether any use of force was lawful” and “whether [police] were permitted to fire randomly.”
The context of the action would be critical to answering those questions, but on that score, even the LAPD is in conflict. At one point in the After-Action Report the department contends that, once Rage Against the Machine began to play, “the crowd was manipulated into a frenzy.” But a later passage reads, “While the group attracted a sizable crowd and utilized the setting to declare its anti-government sentiments, it did not seem to incite the spectators.” This time the disturbance is blamed on “black-clad anarchists.”
The class-action lawsuit is one of several to challenge police conduct at the DNC protests. A second pending suit, by the American Civil Liberties Union, seeks a court injunction barring the police from interfering with marches and other peaceful protests.
Still another ACLU suit, alleging that the LAPD singled out journalists when attacking demonstrators, was settled early last year. As part of the settlement, the department agreed to set up observation areas for media coverage of public events, and recognize rights to access even after orders to disperse have been issued.
In an interview last week, Sergeant John Pasquariello said that was the only element of crowd-control strategy the department has changed since the DNC. “Our mission is the same every time,” Pasquariello said. “Our intent at the outset is to provide opportunity for dissent. If things get violent, then we use force, get the crowd to go fast.”
He said the current wave of demonstrations has been relatively peaceful, in part due to International ANSWER, the group that has staged most of them. “They keep their people in check,” Pasquariello said.
Attorney Anderson-Barker made the same observation, but said the police are also checking themselves. “I think we’ve chilled their desire to shoot people, a bit, with rubber bullets.”