Is this What Democracy Looks Like? Welcome to the Police State

A commentary on this summer’s Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, with a focus on the demonstrations that took place outside the convention written on 19th September 2000

LAPD excercising their weapons. Photo Credit: Independent Media Center, Los Angeles.

The Democratic National Convention (DNC) came to Los Angeles this past August and brought with it thousands of Democratic party delegates, thousands of activists, and thousands of police. If you followed the news about the DNC, chances are you may have missed the latter two groups of people – most of the media played their roles obediently, and dutifully covered what each speaker said on the floor of the Staples Center, knowing that speeches were written and rehearsed well in advance, knowing that everything that took place was pre-ordained and given the blessing of the Democratic PR machine before being staged for the benefit of the rest of the world.

However, while Al Gore’s coronation ceremony took place during the elaborate 4-day ritual within the secure confines of the Staples arena, thousands of citizens got trampled on by LAPD horses and shot at with rubber bullets and lead-shot-filled bean bags from LAPD guns. Wait a minute, did I say shot at with rubber bullets and bean-bags? Yes, you read right. It may not have been the live ammunition used by cops in the 1960s, but the spirit of police and government repression of the 60s was alive and well on the streets of Los Angeles in the year 2000. Several times during the week of protest police outnumbered protestors and often placed themselves between the protestors and the very people the protestors wanted to reach out to – the public by-standers. Once a person had decided to join the march, he or she could not leave it until the march was over. LAPD tried very hard to minimize the presence of dissenters on the streets in the months leading up to the convention by denying permits, preventing rallies on Pershing Square (a central open area in downtown LA, historically important for expressing first amendment rights), and declaring fenced-in “protest pits” which could be used for only 50 minutes at a time. With the help of a federal judge these tactics were thrown out as being unconstitutional and the right to express dissent prevailed. LAPD responded to this perceived infringement on their turf by tightening the reins on the activist events so hard that it seemed as if each march was encased by a thick lining of blue-clad militia carrying guns and other equipment intended to repress and control while patrol helicopters circled above menacingly.

Despite the police-state atmosphere the marches were an incredible expression of solidarity and resistance against the present two-party duopoly that dominates major decision-making in the United States and world. Having progressed many steps from the Seattle demonstrations against the World Trade Organization last November, the LA marches contained widely diverse citizens in its ranks. There were older folks who had seen the 60s come and go, younger students who had never known such power could exist in thousands unifying, immigrants and labor unions, Black and Latino Americans, disabled people and high school youth, religious ministers and working mothers, gay and lesbian activists and more.

One of the things that struck me was that most of the activists in the fore front of organizing were women – women of color, lesbian women and even grandmothers. Another thing that jumped out at me as indicative of the power of this movement was the incorporation of art in political expression. The creative energy of protestors was fueled by careful creation of hundreds of papier mache puppets – some up to 10 feet in size – street theater and music, all of which played an important role in the activities. The main puppet, crafted by protestors at the “convergence center” (a four story run-down building rented by activists as a gathering place for preparation before and during the convention) was the Goddess of Democracy. Well aware of a criticism that activists only pointed out flaws and never suggested solutions, the Goddess of Democracy was intended to express both, ills and answers. Her enormous benign face and hands perched atop a giant red skirt on which were painted thousands of faces of people of every color, size and shape (hand painted on by the hundreds of activists that filed in and out of the convergence center the week before the convention began).

The Goddess of Democracy Photo: Courtesy of David Hanks/Global Exchange

Each morning during the convention people presented a skit at Pershing square which involved displaying props representing the ills in today’s society. These included the state of the prison industrial complex and the world-record-breaking 2 million Americans behind bars, most incarcerated for non-violent crimes, the racism of that system and the corrupt law enforcement system that accompanies it, poverty and sweatshops in LA, the bloated defense budget, the poor state of public schools, the growing income gap, the monopoly of corporate kingdoms in everyday human life, and more. Following this, the Goddess of Democracy was displayed during a song and dance after which activists brought out hand painted signs in the shapes of puzzle pieces which represented their vision for the solutions to these problems. Solutions included empowering youth, allowing third party candidates to run for office fairly alongside the Demolican and Republicratic parties, campaign finance reform, citizen oversight of law enforcement, improving schools instead of building more expensive weapons, improving health by ending privitization of health care, etc, etc. The images were the most powerful visual expressions of progressive political solutions that I had ever seen. It turns out that the LAPD thought likewise for the puppets were targeted by them during the demonstrations (in Philadelphia the Philly police successfully confiscated all puppets before they were even used). At the end of the first days demonstrations, LAPD surrounded and confiscated the puppets outside of the Staples Center for no apparent reason. After much ruckus and chanting of “Free the Puppets”, LAPD returned them to avoid a scene.

Apart from the morning puppet processions, each day was filled with marches describing a huge multitude of issues organized by a vast array of networks, coalitions and other grass-roots organizations which included the Direct Action Network, the Southern California Fair Trade Network, the International Action Center, the Bus Riders Union, the East Timor Action Network, Billionaires for Bush (yes, it’s a joke), Global Exchange, the International Socialist Organization, International Black Women for Wages for Housework, Campaign to end the Death Penalty, some local chapters of Amnesty International, Amazon Watch, the Los Angeles Green Party, Queers for Racial and Economic Justice, several union locals such as PACE, ACORN, etc and more. The press often complained that there were too many issues for them to disentangle. Perhaps if the activists had bee dictated to by a leader about what should have been said and done so as to present a clear, well-rehearsed political protest for the purpose of easy reporting, we would have had “better” coverage of our distilled issues. The fact that there were so many issues expressed in the marches – and these were not narrow, special-interest issues – they included police brutality, racism, the genocide of Iraqis, the occupation of Puerto Rico, the faile so-called drug war, homelessness, the exploitation of sweatshop labor, the corporatization of human needs, the selling off of politicians, the list is long and serious – the fact that there were so many issues ought to have clued the press in on how timely and necessary these demonstrations were and that they are an indication of deep dissatisfaction among those majority of citizens that aren’t seeing the fruits of a supposedly civilized and prosperous nation. While I would commend some media outlets such as LA Times and Channel 2 on providing pretty balanced coverage, I would say to the rest – sorry folks, well-rehearsed, “politically-correct” staged plays by the two parties were clean and easy to report. But real democracy is messy and cannot be compartmentalized into one neat little sound bite. What the corporate media lacked in depth of coverage, an ad-hoc collective of activist-journalists calling themselves the Independent Media Center, made up for with intense minute-by-minute street coverage using an impressive combination of radio, video, print, photographic and web media with a focus on the protestors rather than delegates.

In addition to the marches there were also a number of parallel conferences that took place, organized by activists, to provide the intellectual fodder for progressive political dialogue. These included the Shadow Convention, the Homeless Convention, the North American Anarchist Conference, the People’s Convention and countless teach-ins, lectures, presentations and workshops. While I was able to attend only a fraction of these, I was impressed by the variety of exchanges that were occurring in such a short span of time. It is obvious that the current explosion of political dissent has been brewing for a while and was long overdue.

In the end, several hundred activists were arrested and many more were shot at and injured by the police. And we heard corporate reporters and delegates sigh in relief at a week of activities (planned for over a year) that had been carried out with little disruption thanks to the well-coordinated repression of the LAPD. No one attributed the relative calm to the reserve of the thousands of people who demonstrated peacefully. Al Gore was crowned king and no one inside the Halls of the Staples Center had to face the ugly reality of thousands of disgruntled citizens on the streets except when making their way from the Convention to their hotel rooms. Perhaps they can ignore the cry for real democratic change for now. But then again, it has only been ten months since Seattle.

Cops and Activism – A Personal Testimony of Arrest by LAPD

Yesterday I was arrested.

A few minutes ago I heard journalist Alan Nairn’s latest cellular phone call to Pacifica radio. He read a statement which he gave to the Indonesian military, who are “detaining” him in West Timor. The officers and generals and secretaries are trying to decide what to do with him. Meanwhile their underlings viciously scour the countryside of East Timor to kill what is left of Timorese resistance, their “effort to annul the people’s choice,” in the words of Bishop Carlos Belo. Nairn’s statement accused top Indonesian officials of crimes against humanity in East Timor, Irian Jaya, Aceh, and in Indonesia proper. He implicated U.S. officials as well for funding, arming, and ensuring that the massacres carried out by Indonesian troops, police, and militias could take place. Nairn gave the statement to the Indonesian officers in charge of martial law in East Timor. His future is uncertain. His fate is in the hands of people who would love to see him punished for challenging their authority, but who hold back because the outside world is paying attention.

Yesterday I felt a fragment of what Nairn must be feeling. Our demonstration in front of the Indonesian Consulate on Wilshire Blvd in Los Angeles began peacefully. Organized by the East Timor Action Network, in conjunction with the International Action Center, the demonstration was well-planned, and sent a powerful message to those who heard and saw. Approximately 100 of us gathered with candles for short statements by people recently returned from East Timor as part of the UNAMET team which oversaw the 30 August independence referendum. In addition we heard prayers from leaders of the Catholic, Jewish, and Methodist communities of Los Angeles, in solidarity with the priests and nuns who became special targets of militia violence during the post-election debacle. The atmosphere of sadness and hope moved many to tears. Cameramen from local TV stations were there. If you only saw the TV coverage, you might have thought it was an exclusively peaceful and solemn occasion.

After the gathering we marched along the street in front of the consulate, across the heavy traffic at the intersection, along the other side of the street, and back. The first intersection crossing was smooth and striking. The column of people ignored the change of lights and continued across while drivers waited, confronted with huge banners with messages like “Indonesia Out of East Timor,” and “Stop U.S. Complicity in Genocide.”

Across the second intersection the column faced five L.A.P.D. officers who were watching the procession. We marched with a spirit of anger and liberation. I have no idea what anyone else was thinking, but my mind was full of images of Timorese dying at the hands of U.S.-backed militias. I thought of the complacency of the people packed in their cars driving every day to work, mostly ignorant of the reasons for their privilege, and of the consequences of their ignorance. I thought of the gasoline that flowed through the engines of those cars, and of the Timor Gap oil which Indonesia wanted to exploit.

The column began crossing the street, at the crosswalk. During the crossing the traffic signal changed and the cars wanted to go, but we continued. A group carrying one of the bigger banners stopped completely in the middle of the intersection but one of the police officers, who had apparently crossed to our side, called them back to the curb. Full of adrenaline and defiance I danced in front of the stopped cars as I headed back to the curb with the other demonstrators.

Before I was all the way back the light changed again and the “WALK” signal came on. Hey, we can walk now, come on guys. A few of us started across again. The cops didn’t agree with our assessment of the traffic signals. The four remaining police officers started towards us. The people around me seemed to believe that if a cop says a “WALK” signal means “DON’T WALK” then the cop is right. I didn’t. I was full of rage and frustration. People should feel the pain and suffering of the Timorese, the Yugoslavs, the Iraqis, and the long list of peoples the American empire has robbed, bombed, and killed, starting with the Natives of this continent. Our society shouldn’t retain its privilege without coming to terms with the truth of its conquest. My mind saw this in an instant. Clashing with cops became a struggle against the complacency of my people. The police symbolized the authority and domination of privileged groups over others. How could I accept that authority when it stemmed from such rotten roots? I ignored the police. I continued across the street. I forget if I tried to wade through the four cops or if I tried to sidestep them. It doesn’t matter. I was grabbed by the first cop, the leader. My fury refused to see his uniform or his gun. He was just a human being like me. And he had no right to grab me. I tried to pull away. He said to me, “So you’re resisting arrest.” I was under arrest? I’d never been under arrest, but I wasn’t about to submit to some stranger grabbing me. Yeah, I resisted! I don’t remember what I said in response to his question, but my wife later told me the cop complained to her that I used harsh language. Poor guy. Two other cops came to assist the leader. Each grabbed an arm. Again, they weren’t officials to me, they were just men trying to hold me, and naturally I resisted.

Slowly, however, consciousness set in. At some point my rational brain returned and I realized I couldn’t hold back four men with guns, although for about 5 seconds I had kept them from bringing my arms together behind me. This made one of the men holding my arms very mad. When I did relax my struggle, he retaliated. He wrenched my arm behind my back and then twisted it upward with excruciating force. I doubled over and the two cops pushed me to the edge of a police car. A pair of handcuffs closed over my wrists and the tough guy said something like, “he’s going to really feel this.” I howled in pain as the metal rings squeezed tighter than necessary over my wristbone, biting my skin.

The sight of my wife Sonali, eyes red with tears and screaming at the police officers and at the stunned demonstrators who refused to get involved, brought me back to full awareness. My anger faded. I felt remorse for causing Sonali pain and for spoiling the demonstration. I felt fear of what the police were going to do to me. Especially the tough cop who I angered by my resistance. They opened the squad car back door, bent me over, and tried to shove me inside. I was going in head first, without my hands to guide me, so I tried to slow their pushing. They thought I was resisting and pushed harder. Once inside I tried to slide to the right side of the seat, either because I imagined that someone would follow me in or because I was trying to get as far away from the pushing hands as possible. I can’t remember which. The tough guy didn’t like that: “I didn’t say you could move over. Get back here!” He didn’t say NOT to move over either. I was being handled like an armed and dangerous criminal.

I sat in the back seat of the squad car with my hands clamped behind my back for two hours. Already sore from the struggle and the vengeful twist they received, my shoulders continued to ache in their unnatural contortion (they are still pretty sore). I felt like a caged animal. Cuffing someone’s hands behind their back sounds like a harmless and humane way to subdue them. In truth I never felt so claustrophobic and afraid. How many of us are ever deprived of the use of our arms? It feels degrading and completely disempowering. Especially when someone else does it to you and you have no idea when they will remove the shackles.

I could speak with Sonali, but only with police permission. Once she tried on her own to talk to me through a crack in the car window. When she walked away one of the cops closed the window.

Through the windows the scene was surreal. The protest continued as if nothing happened, but a small contingent of the activists, led by Sonali, hovered around the cops, trying to keep them accountable. A number of the bystanders promised to be witnesses. Luckily we had the perfect witness: the channel 13 cameraman hadn’t left right after the prayers like the other media representatives. He had the arrest on film.

There were more police on the scene than we thought. Across the street there were at least two plainclothes cops. The sergeant of the uniformed officers crossed over and exchanged cellular phones with one of them.

All along, it was unclear whether or not they would let me go, or what they would charge me with if they decided to arrest me. Obviously “resisting arrest” made little sense if the decision to arrest came long after any resistance. After two hours of debating, relaying information to headquarters, and wasting time (probably to intimidate me and to set an example for the other protesters), the cops decided that they were indeed going to arrest me. Two new cops arrived to take me to the station, photograph the injuries caused by the apprehending cops, fingerprint me, and book me. Then I was released on my own recognizance. I am required to report to court on 6 October for arraignment. I was never formally arrested, nor charged out loud. Nobody read me my rights. It turns out I was arrested for “interference,” a vague word for vague circumstances. Essentially I made things difficult for the police and ignored their orders, so I had to be taught a lesson.

If I were poor and/or a person of color I would probably still be in jail. Normally the bail for my accused offence is $1000, but they told me they trusted me to be there for the hearing because I am a scientist. In other words it is in my interest to obey the law. I am a member of the professional classes, and stand to gain materially from the continued existence of the structure of domination, which the police are paid to protect.

Unlike most people arrested yesterday (in countries like East Timor, for example), I can now safely contemplate my experiences. Here in my cozy office sitting behind my thousands-of-dollars government-bought workstation I have the luxury to assess the outcome of my actions, and to express my thoughts to others. I lost control of myself on the street, and it was probably a big mistake to challenge the police physically. Perhaps if more members of the crowd joined me we would have made a real statement and the level of police intimidation would have been lower. I was told by the sergeant that this was the first arrest he had made in the five demonstrations which he monitored at the Indonesian Consulate. In terms of results versus “expenditures,” people like me clashing with police at demonstrations only represent a tiny signal engulfed in the wash of noise which most of us are exposed to. Unfortunately, most activists are, like me, members of a privileged class. It is in our interests not to get arrested, nor to risk physical or emotional trauma, even for a good reason. We have a lot to lose. Maybe that’s why we should do it.