L.A. Protests: A Stand for All Reasons

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Across from the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, where thousands of activists gathered to protest at the Democratic National Convention, faces of freedom looked down upon the scene: Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. The portraits are plastered on the side of a building, part of Apple Computers' "Think Different" ad campaign.

"Think different" also describes what the motley bands of protesters are doing at the convention. Rebels without a cause? Hardly. There were people crusading for Iraqi children, women's rights, bicycle riders, economic justice, anti-militarism, you name it. One group even handed out leaflets accusing George W. Bush of killing JFK Jr. Another loon held a huge sign aloft that read: "Mussolini's Corpse Has More Personality Than Al Gore."

All protesters aren't harmless dorks or conspiracy kooks, however. According to the Los Angeles Police Department's David Kalish, by Thursday morning 192 arrests had been made, including 133 misdemeanors and 59 felonies, the most serious being assaulting a police officer with a deadly weapon. Throughout the week, the LAPD has been an aggressive force, walls of blue clashing with ragtag protesters. Following skirmishes after a Rage Against the Machine concert on Monday evening, the worst cases of police brutality came Wednesday afternoon at a rally protesting — what else? — police brutality.

Things started off fairly peaceably. A group of around 300 protesters marched to LAPD's Rampart Division station, where over the past year crooked cops in the division's anti-gang unit have been accused of lying, stealing, shooting innocent citizens and other heinous crimes. By noon Wednesday, a half-dozen choppers were flying 500 feet over the station, where demonstrators were chanting things like "Asian, Latin, black and white, smash the pigs and then unite." Banners and signs were everywhere: "Schools Not Jails," "Fear Society," "End Poverty," "Stop the War on the Poor", "Liberate Alex Sanchez." On the police building itself, a massive banner read: "The Community LOVES the Men and Women of Rampart Station."

The cops themselves were in full battle mode, ringing the area with teeth clenched, batons engaged and pounds of artillery and gas canisters hanging from their vests. Fifty or so officers crowded on the station house stairs, warning demonstrators kneeling at the entrance that if they did not disperse they would be subject to arrest. The mood was tense, especially as one protester used a megaphone to slowly recite a list of people killed by California police from a booklet called "Stolen Lives." After each name, the crowd yelled "DEAD!"

"The large number of police officers saturating the area should have a calming effect," said Kalish, as he answered questions about the protests from the media. One hysterical Hispanic reporter asked, "When are you going to stop killing people on the street?" to which Kalish replied, "We don't do that. Let me get some more information and I'll get back to you." Behind him, a demonstrator held up a large sign that read: "To Serve and Protect Rich White People."

Soon the police began arresting protesters kneeling directly outside the station house — approximately 38 people engaged in civil disobedience were taken inside and booked on misdemeanor charges of blocking a public building. Before long the rest of the crowd started to disperse, and as demonstrators walked back to the "protest zone" near Staples Center, there were more serious skirmishes with the police, including the beating of a female CNN sound technician viciously assaulted on camera by an overzealous officer.

Have the various protests this week actually been effective? I asked longtime lefty Paul Krassner, an unindicted co-conspirator during the Chicago 7 trial, which followed the bloody 1968 Democratic convention, for his thoughts about the recent clashes in L.A. Krassner, editor of the underground mag The Realist and a participant in this week's Shadow Convention, says he's "inspired" by the demonstrations, especially the sheer range of causes.

"All the protests this week give me a wave of optimism," says Krassner. "It's like an epidemic of idealism. It's quite the opposite of revolution for the hell of it. The '60s demonstrations focused on the Vietnam War, the draft, civil rights, poverty, maybe pot decriminalization. In Los Angeles, there are literally hundreds of causes. And their leaders don't have to engage in media manipulation with the kind of stunts that people like Abbie Hoffman used to pull. The sheer numbers of protesters now get the media's attention."

Still, Krassner does see several similarities between the famous '60s revolts and what's happening this week in Los Angeles. "In both cases, the conventions themselves are so predictable, and the candidates' nominations were so preordained, that there's no suspense whatsoever going on inside," he continues. "The only real drama is what happens outside the convention hall. In 1968, the police were hitting and tear-gassing people indiscriminately and sadistically — that's been going on here in Los Angeles as well. I'm sure the cops have some perception they're protecting the citizens, but there's also seems to be a sense of revenge against protesters, even if it's just because all the demonstrations are causing them to work 12-hour shifts."