The irony was difficult to miss. Los Angeles was gussied up in her celebrity best. The downtown skyscrapers reflected majestic red, white and blue lights. Even the moon was cooperating, full and hanging low, the star attraction in the Los Angeles skyline. Everything was perfect for President Clinton’s grand finale at the Staples Center.
But just as Clinton prepared to speak, Rage Against the Machine finished a brief set for the 8,000 or so protesters gathered outside, and the night appeared ready to rock beyond the Democrats’ choreographed control. A few protesters tossed rocks at police at one corner of the crowd, and swarms of cops moved in swiftly — on horseback, motorcycle and on foot — all sporting riot gear. They fired rubber bullets and wielded batons, and within minutes, dispersed the crowd.
The tension began just after 8 p.m., when police pulled the plug on the band Ozomatli, and ordered the people gathered to disperse. Most of the crowd complied, but a couple of hundred people gathered at the gate closest to the Staples Center, lighting small fires and throwing projectiles over the fence at police officers.
Within minutes, dozens of mounted police officers streamed in, driving protesters out onto Olympic Boulevard, while simultaneously, police on that same street were firing rubber bullets into the crowd of retreating protesters. Hordes of young protesters panicked by the sound of gunfire ran back into the square, only to be pushed back onto Olympic by the mounties.
While some protesters were marched down Olympic, others were led down Figueroa by police on motorcycles, who backed the crowd into Pershing Square, and eventually pushed them out.
Most of the people in the square appeared to be barely out of their teens. One terrified young woman clung to her boyfriend’s arms in tears, screaming, “They’re shooting at us.”
Dan Perone, a 21-year-old photography student from New Jersey, was bleeding from the chin. “I got hit twice,” he said. “I got hit in the back. I was trying to get out of the square, and a cop of horseback came and hit me with one of those big batons right in the temple. I haven’t been able to see straight since.”
Los Angeles journalist Patrick McDonald showed off his welt from what he says was “a beanbag or something that they shot at me.”
But while there was enough panic and tension to keep those in the square on a solid adrenaline high throughout the evening, the event will probably be judged as a police success. There were no arrests made, few injuries reported.
Whether Monday night’s scene will embolden or intimidate protesters won’t be known until later in the week. In the end, the frenzied moments of panic ended remarkably quickly, as police eager to clear the streets before delegates streamed out of the Staples Center squelched the protest with brutal efficiency.
In a matter of minutes, it was over. By 9 p.m., sounds of salsa music could be heard from the top of the Downtown YMCA. California Gov. Gray Davis entertained the press corps and donors on the Paramount Studios back lot. Al Green rocked the Biltmore. Los Angeles was allowed to have its party.