A moderate-size demonstration of Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees International Union members was in progress outside the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel last week when the Santa Monica police showed up in full protective gear — helmets, face shields and all. The SaMo HERE crowd is a noisy but nonviolent bunch who’ve been marching for months and peacefully blocked traffic once or twice. So why, you might wonder, were the cops suddenly getting down to what you might call the Full Montgomery — if you recalled those sad, triumphant Alabama days 40 years gone by — in what looked like preparation for their further local manifestations at D2K time next month.
Elsewhere, in Los Angeles, Mayor Dick Riordan was also amping up. He did about as good a Travis Bickle as any certified blue suit could manage in a Times op-ed July 13. Spewing hate at the demonstrators “swinging tire irons” (as he twice put it) expected outside the D2K convention, he urged us all to log on to “http:www.D2kla.org to see just how determined and organized these anarchists are.” Those of us who obeyed his orders read the following nihilist manifesto:
1. We will use no violence, physical or verbal, towards any person. We consider speech or acts that are racist, homophobic, or sexist to be violent.
2. We will carry no weapons.
3. We will not bring or use any alcohol or illegal drugs.
4. We will not destroy property.
Even as the counterculture grapevine suggested that the August demonstrators might total less than the 10,000 to 50,000 people predicted, the official countywide police gear-up seemed to be getting more aggressive. According to one Gannett story, even the vacations of coroner staff are being revoked. My colleague Harold Meyerson well described the Pershing Square fiasco last week, whereby the City Council was stampeded into forbidding access to the public locale originally dedicated to what you might call “obedient civil disobedience.”
But there‘s another problem here that hasn’t received public notice. This is the fact that the wondrous “Turtle-Teamster” eco-labor alliance that characterized, protected and democratized November‘s “Battle in Seattle” probably won’t happen in Los Angeles this year. The big unions — apparently — simply don‘t want to help pull the tent down on the DNC. And why should they?
By one unofficial estimate, some 30 percent of the delegates at the convention will be union members and officials. D2K organizers keep contending that the two big political parties share equal responsibilities in raping the globe. But the Democratic Party, after all, is where big labor lives.
I could not get anyone from the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor to return my calls on this matter, but I got to talk to Sarah Knopp of the D2KLA Organizing Collective. She noted that, in the absence of the major labor presence, plenty of individual union demonstrations are taking place around August 14, particularly among locals with new contracts pending. There’s the UTLA, for instance, and various SEIU units, plus the aforementioned HERE out in Santa Monica, which is organizing some of the costliest and lowest-paying hotels in the nation. But few — if any — of these local-union demos are planned for the D2K area (or however close demonstrators might get to same).
So it looks like, whatever goes down downtown next month, the turtles and their out-of-town friends are on their own.
The Lower Depths, Revisited
“On the subway to work last week, I saw this woman.”
“Wait a minute: on the what to where?”
“On the subway. To work . . .”
“Excuse me, I thought I‘d dialed 818 area code. I must have got 718 Brooklyn by mistake. Sorry to disturb you.”
But even if my East Coast friend couldn’t believe it, I did see this woman on the subway on the way to work. A normal thing to say, some places. But I‘d never said it in Los Angeles (the noteworthiness of the woman in question, by the way, was that she was large-proportioned and wore a tight T-shirt advising the rest of us passengers to breast-feed our children). That’s because, until last month, we really didn‘t have a subway. Apart from that multibillion-dollar spur line to Wilshire and Western.
We do now. It works better than anyone predicted. And it’s making us who ride it, for better or for worse, into a different breed than Los Angeles has ever known. On buses and surface-rail systems, you can see the world. Whereas in subways, there‘s nothing outside but fast-moving concrete.
Therefore, subway riding means people-watching. Surreptitious use of the eyes, which, since you aren’t driving, don‘t have to keep you safe behind the wheel but need something to do. In a subway, you look at people instead of traffic. You wonder at appearances, at how anyone can have nostrils as big as the young man asleep across from you, snoring with his head flung back. You notice the shiny, high-tech collapsible cane of the hale young woman next to you, which she doesn’t unfold as she dashes out. And the apparently older man who offers you his seat.
And you notice your fellow riders looking your way, too, wondering about you: why you look the way you do. And, for that matter, why you decided to join the now-close-to-130,000 Los Angeles people who suddenly chose to ride in a hole in the ground. Out of the 211,000 total who use all MTA rail.
There‘s still potential for a lot more. Subways, once you finally have them, are so much better for everyone than buses.
Not everyone agrees, of course. I believe the Bus Riders Union, with its court-mandated success in getting a greater commitment for more and cleaner buses, is close to being the biggest Los Angeles grassroots success story of the past decade.
But sometimes the organization seems less interested in mitigating the miseries of bus commuting than in perpetuating them. The point of transport activism isn’t just to benefit the bus makers, but to provide the best transit possible for everyone. No one system can do that. And that‘s why Red Line founders like the late Tom Bradley demanded a subway for this city 20 years ago.
Which gets us into the shoulda-beens. Had our MTA only been properly and (betimes) honestly run; had the agency only not proved so much weaker than insider scamsters like ex-Councilman Richard Alatorre and the well-wired local contractors who gouged, underperformed and overcharged; had some bigmouth in Washington not derailed the proper, westbound route — in short, had the job been done with the purpose and integrity with which very few mass-transit systems have ever been completed in the Free World . . . Just think what we might have to show for all the wasted, unreplaceable federal billions. A Red Line all the way to Wilshire and Robertson boulevards on the West; to Boyle Avenue on the East; and to Chandler Boulevard and Woodman Avenue in the Valley. At least 500,000 (let us guess) fare-paying riders a day. Around 400,000 fewer cars on the freeways and streets. A daily loss of several tons of air pollutants.
This nearly was ours. As it stands, we now can travel two dozen miles downtown from North Hollywood in 25 minutes, all day long. And we can stare into the faces of our fellow Angelenos. And to take them in, for what is for many of us the very first time.