The cops become the issue

More civil than disobedient, the marches against police brutality were as scripted as the action inside the Staples Center.

By Anthony York
Published August 17, 2000 6:37PM (EDT)

Protests during Day 3 of the Democratic National Convention began in a kinder, gentler fashion. But throughout the day, as temperatures once again crept into the 90s, tensions between protesters and police escalated along with them.

Throughout the week, demonstrators here have criticized the media for focusing on their clashes with police, rather than the issues they came to protest. Advocates in favor of women's rights and workers' rights, and opposed to everything from Colombian oil drilling to the World Trade Organization, have taken to the streets this week, only to have their message drowned out by stories about the size and the conduct of the Los Angeles Police Department forces on the streets.

But Wednesday, the cops themselves were the issue in a pair of demonstrations that focused on police brutality and criminal justice. The morning began with a rally at MacArthur Park, when 500 protesters marched to the police department's Rampart division, which has been embroiled in scandal. Celebrities from Tom Hayden to Arianna Huffington turned out to join the morning rally, which organizers made sure remained nonviolent.

Hayden blamed the police for overreacting Monday night, and said that his son Troy had been shot in the wrist by a rubber bullet. "It's like they went attacking the bee hive instead of the couple of bees that were making trouble," Hayden said.

If anything, the morning protest was every bit as scripted as the show inside the Staples Center Wednesday night. Organizers met several times with police to go over the route of the march and the choreography of the arrests. "It really is like political theater," said Oscar Sanchez, who spoke at the pre-march rally.

In all, 38 people were arrested in front of the Rampart station Wednesday afternoon. Those people were booked on misdemeanor charges. Two more were arrested at Olympic and Figueroa streets later in the day, according to a police spokesman.

The rest of the demonstrators returned downtown to Pershing Square to join a much more energetic and volatile march to Parker Center, headquarters for the LAPD. As the 2,500 protesters taunted police with chants like "Oink, Oink, Bang Bang/Every day, it's the same old thing," the now-customary force of hundreds of police officers in riot gear watched the protest move through the streets.

"The cops seem to be standing back a bit today," said John Latrell, a UCLA law student who is serving as a legal monitor this week. "It doesn't seem as charged as it was on Monday."

The escalating tensions between protesters and police have some protest leaders concerned, and watching out for people they see as trouble makers in their midst. "Agent provocateurs are trying to start confusion, but we can't let that happen," said Eric Martin, 22, a protester from Venice.

After a brief stare-down with police in front of Parker Center, the crowd marched to the Staples Center, but refused to enter the parking lot which has become the central demonstration space this week. "We were in there Monday night, and they shot at us, and came at us with horses," said marcher Hector de la Peqa. "We're not going to do that again."

Instead, the marchers mulled around the corner of Figueroa and Olympic, kept in check by several hundred police officers. Chants of "remember Monday night" rose from the crowd as delegates struggled through the scene to enter the convention inside.

While most of the protesters retreated from the intersection, there were some incidents of protesters throwing bottles at police officers. One highway patrolman was reportedly hit in the chest with a bottle and taken to a local hospital. Police responded by charging with batons, and once again firing rubber bullets.

Most of the confrontations with police occurred with members of the Black Bloc, a group of self-proclaimed anarchists easily noticed by their all-black garb, which usually includes a bandana pulled up over the mouth.

By the end of the day, it was clear that most of the goodwill that marked the start of the day had evaporated. The culmination came around 8 p.m, when more than 100 police surrounded the protesters headquarters, located just a block from MacArthur Park. Four people were reportedly cited for jaywalking, according to witnesses at the warehouse, and within minutes, 20 police cars and 25 police motorcycles were on the scene.

Police would not comment about the large presence in front of the warehouse, but protest organizer Lisa Fithian saw it as a warning.

"Four people jaywalking, and you need 100 cops? It's ridiculous," she said. "Of course this is just a show of force. It's harassment and intimidation, plain and simple."

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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