by Ron Kenner
American Reporter Correspondent
May 7, 2007
L.A.P.D. MELEE STIRS A 'MAY DAY' CRY FOR HELP
LOS ANGELES, Calif. -- Given the widely publicized police riot against immigration rights activists at MacArthur Park here on Tuesday, May 1, the term "May Day" is regaining its meaning as a nautical cry for help. You know - "May Day! May Day!"
Los Angeles police officers shot some 240 rounds of rubber bullets at mostly innocent demonstrators - armed only with an official city permit - and jabbed them with batons, knocked some down and yanked many around while also ganging up on already-fallen bystanders, and roughing up print and television reporters, photographers and tv crews in the process.
It had been a day of small but effective peaceful protest by about 500 advocates for worker and immigrant rights until about 25 demonstrators started throwing rocks and bottles at police, injuring several. Some of the red-shirted, rock- and bottle-throwing youths wore polka-dotted red bandanas over their faces, street garb that is common among members of a radical organization of young anarchists.
Such groups, including a disbanded homegrown communist organization, have provoked violence at several demonstrations including one that resulted in extensive damage to Hollywood Blvd. stores in 1998, and they were present at the 2000 demonstration that went awry at the Democratic National Convention. But the deeper problem was a police unit out of control.
Above the southern part of the park, across the broad expanse of Wilshire Blvd., a helicopter ordered demonstrators to leave, but the loudhailer was apparenly unheard where many demonstrators had gathered for speeches, hundreds of yards away on the north side of Wilshire. When these latter demonstrators failed to move, the police went on a rampage that left many hospitalized and which now threatens the new chief's job (he's up for renewal of his five-year contract soon) and left yet another black mark on the LAPD, charged with similar actions against demonstrators at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. That resulted in a federal consent decree that requires the department to investigate citizen complaints and which has now been invoked over the May Day events.
Based on a quick look at damning video material, LAPD Chief William J. Bratton indicated his dismay over the behavior of his police and called for internal and independent investigation. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. whose absence from Los Angeles during the May Day march raises its own questions, cut short a Latin American junket to return to the city. Villaraigosa later toured the park and declared his concern about police misconduct there, and Bratton offered an apology at a meeting with journalists on Sunday.
Meanwhile, having worked police beats as a reporter in Southern California, covering the LAPD and the first Watts Riots for the Los Angeles Times four decades ago, it does seem ridiculous that it's taken such a very long time for police here to start acting more professionally. This time, though, it was the elite Platoon B, specially trained Metropolitan Division riot control officers who were out of control; according to some reports, the Metro officers apparently took over after ordinary patrolmen had been released and left MacArthur Park.
"That was what was extraordinarily disturbing about this," Bratton told reporters Sunday. Metro's Platoon B has been removed from street duty until they can be retrained, he said. In a written statement, Bratton added, "we will specifically focus on command and control of our officers, our strategic planning efforts and tactics, and most importantly, our significant use of force while attempting to address the illegal and disruptive actions of 50 to 100 agitators who were not a part of the larger group of thousands of peaceful demonstrators."
Not surprisingly, none of the demonstrators who had been shot with rubber bullets were arrested - indicating there had been no cause to arrest them, or to shoot rubber bullets at them, either. The LAPD's behavior is stunning, yet we are not all that surprised.
Every day more and more crime takes place in MacArthur Park and in Los Angeles, as reporter Marc Cooper noted. Yet when it comes to demonstrations, as much of the world has seen on television, the LAPD has repeatedly demonstrated that it's not very good at keeping itself under control.
Admittedly, I've seen much worse LAPD, and not only in Watts and South Los Angeles during that famous Watts Riot, the one that triggered Black Power, but just outside of Beverly Hills - where the police don't readily poke or prod residents - those who would are typically never hired, or fired on the spot.
Forty years back, on June 23, 1967, President Lyndon Baines Johnson came to the Century City Hotel, just two blocks from Beverly Hills, for a fund-raiser as he kicked off his then-presumed re-election campaign. Some 10,000 Vietnam protestors - largely middle-class. and including many family members - were hardly sold on the Johnson Administration's assertions of progress in Vietnam. And as it turned out, and White House tape recordings would later reveal, Johnson and other key figures in the Administration - though they kept seeking to reassure the public - had little to no faith themselves in such progress.
At Century City, near the elegant crescent driveway curving beside the 19-story hotel, the public lined up peacefully. According to the permit granted for the demonstration, everyone was supposed to march past the hotel and there was to be no stopping. But some of the demonstrators sat down in front of the hotel, blocking the march.
My wife Mary and another friend were with me. I watched the front of the hotel from nearby and guessed what was coming. The police got nervous and called for the group to disperse. There were a few calls on loudspeakers that not many demonstrators heard and that most couldn't possibly have heard. Some demonstrators didn't even speak English. The police waited a little while and then, with bullhorns, once again ordered demonstrators to disperse, ignoring the fact that in the jammed crowd there was nowhere to go. Meanwhile the tension grew. But what was the crowd supposed to do? Walk backwards into the protestors behind them who hadn't heard anything?
I was up front, to the side and practically in front of the hotel, and saw a good deal of whatn happened. Police just waded into the crowd, and the three of us started moving quickly away. Obviously a press card wasn't going to help much, and as we got further away more than one cop gave us a menacing look or told us to "move it" and "keep moving!" Never mind where your car was parked. I politely asked an officer where to move to, but he just waved us away.
As the police began jabbing and sometimes clubbing the protestors they finally responded, at first grudgingly but rarely fighting and then mostly walking fast, then faster yet. The police kept urging them onwards, telling them to "Move it! Keep moving!" And the crowd, with many longhairs in white shirts and ties, and even mothers with strollers, mostly followed orders, moving, walking, walking faster, some running and some even racing as the police, jabbing or threatening with batons, urged the crowd forward. A few demonstrators hesitated, but most responded as the police ordered - at least until they saw the police coming from the other direction, their own batons out, pushing crowds in the opposite direction - toward us. Cute!
Whether that was sheer logistical incompetence, or intentional intimidation not of the radicals, who were rarely intimidated, but the much larger middle class members of the protest, I can't say. In either case, it wasn't pretty. And over the years, with each new police "demonstration" of their lack of self-control, my mind starts to overlay one demonstration on another. This time around, in MacArthur Park, no one got shot, at least not with real bullets, but it appeared that little about the LAPD had changed since 1967.
Ironically, May 1st has been recognized by many countries, but not the United States, as International Workers Day, named for the date in 1884 when American workers and unions began a two-year fight for an eight-hour workday to replace what was then a standard 10, 12, or 14-hour workday. Americans, put off both by baseless anti-union propaganda and later the genuine zeal of Chinese and Russian communist May Day parades, have never taken warmly to it.
As in the latest instance, things are often difficult for workers but even worse for immigrants, and especially for those Latinos who may not speak or understand the English language. And in recent decades, globalism has often made local union strikes meaningless as companies simply turn elsewhere for resources and labor - sometimes using the cheap labor of illegal immigrants as Federal, state and local law enforcement looks the other way.
Some would argue that substandard conditions in sweatshops like those in Los Angeles and other cities - not to mention the plight of many thousands of farm workers - are more significant for society than the non-fatal injuries in MacArthur Park caused by batons and rubber bullets. That is, the ever-increasing, massive gap between rich and poor (read workers) in the U.S., the problems of companies outsourcing production, of profits rising as wages drop, and not least, CEO salaries reaching obscene levels, bears more examination than L.A.'s May Day Melee does.
But workers and immigrants have been asking for help for decades, to little avail, and still the larger problems of labor get less attention in the mainstream media than the latest short-lived demonstration.
But this time, "May Day! May Day!" is a cry for help that may be heard.
Ron Kenner, a former Los Angeles Times metro staff writer and a veteran AR Correspondent, has edited numerous books. The most recent is "The Smart Dieter's Cheating Guide," with author Harvey J. Widroe, M.D., (Outskirts Books). Reach Ron at email@example.com.