Trained in Violence/Shining in the Shadows

Sidebars on the Democratic Convention


Trained in Violence

Mayor Richard Riordan set the tone for the official response to anticipated protests at the Democratic National Convention, in an L.A. Times op-ed a month before the convention began. Riordan alluded to anarchists “trained in violence,” bent on property damage and disruption, and he all but promised that pepper spray and rubber bullets would be deployed with dispatch on anybody who had it coming. Riordan never got his property violence, but the protestors — plus a few journalists, bystanders, and delegates — got their pepper spray and rubber bullets.

The Blue Dog Democrats got theirs on Sunday night, as perhaps a thousand protestors surrounded the Santa Monica Municipal Pier, which the Dogs — the small conservative caucus led by Texas Congressman Charlie Stenholm — had rented out, with some help from corporate sponsors, including Philip Morris and the National Rifle Association. Down on the beach, Tom Hayden told the crowd that they had already spoiled the party, before the convention had even begun. “This was supposed to be L.A.’s coming-out party: back from the traumas of the past, safe for investors, safe for tourists…. They’re very upset. People are calling the mayor: ‘You said it would be great, and now there’s helicopters and cops everywhere, and we’re accused of being globalizers.'”

Later, a vanguard of more adventurous protestors located the entrance to the shindig and formed a shouting, sign-waving gauntlet, through which the invited guests moved warily. Spotted inside among wide-eyed recent arrivals, Texas Democratic Party Chair Molly Beth Malcolm was her usual unflappable self. “I thought it was interesting to see all those folks out there expressing their opinions,” she said. Others did not take it so well. Eventually, six cops on horseback muscled their way in and cleared a lane. By the time this reporter left, the gauntlet had been replaced by a minefield of horse manure for latecomers to negotiate.

Where the police had greater numbers they were considerably more aggressive. A Tuesday evening concert in the designated protest area (a.k.a. the “protest pit”) ended when the police cut the power, ostensibly in response to two young flag-waving protestors who refused to relinquish their perch atop the fence separating the crowd from the Staples Center. The voice of L.A. police chief Bernard Parks came over the P.A., declaring the concert an “unlawful assembly,” and giving the crowd of perhaps 3,500 people fifteen minutes to disperse. The police had left a space about as wide as a city street for an exit, which caused an inevitable bottleneck. A sizable group of protestors rallied in a blocked-off intersection just outside the pit, drumming and chanting, in front of a phalanx of fifty riot-suited cops. Apparently recognizing a call to arms, police on horseback moved in behind the group, simultaneously cutting off the exit for those still inside. The cops began driving into the throng, batons waving, and the crowd began to retreat slowly up Olympic Avenue. The retreat became a rout when shotgun blasts suddenly sent a panic through the crowd. People covered their heads and ran as a line of cops drove them northward, with repeated volleys of rubber bullets. (The L.A. Times would later call it an “extraordinary” display of force, with police “firing indiscriminately into the backs of fleeing protestors.” The Washington Post, meanwhile, which evidently did not have any correspondents at the event, reported the presence of “hundreds” of protestors atop the fence — making the police response seem much more proportionate than it in fact was.) Those trapped in the pit got the worst of it, according to witnesses, with panicked cops beating and pepper-spraying those behind them still trying to exit.

Throughout the four days of protests, police presence was incredibly strong. Protest consisted chiefly of permitted marches along designated routes; no effort was made to disrupt the convention, as had been the (largely unsuccessful) strategy at the G.O.P convention. Riordan, who had warned that “we cannot tolerate nonviolent civil disobedience,” was true to his word, if a little hazy on just what constitutes disobedience. “Those who insist on using such tactics point to Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. as their moral examples. Then, like Gandhi and King, they must be prepared to pay stiff fines and face arrest and jail,” he wrote. As well as, apparently, blasts from “less lethal” shotguns. But then, King, whose giant painted image looked over the demonstration area from the wall of a nearby building, also took his share of beatings in the name “maintaining order.”

Shining in the Shadows

For those who haven’t been scoring along at home, Arianna Huffington has switched teams. The syndicated columnist (Nancy Reagan with a sexy accent and better fashion sense) formerly known for her fervid support of Newt Gingrich, Huffington is now a would-be left-winger, having come out to the nation in her most recent book, How to Overthrow the Government. She brought her latest project, the Shadow Convention, from its debut in Philadelphia to Los Angeles for a four-night engagement at Patriotic Hall. Two blocks and forty years from the Staples Center (so new it has hosted only one Lakers championship – and one riot), the pre-air-conditioning building doubles as a dusty veterans museum and community center. The auditorium had been decked out like a convention hall, complete with state delegation signs inscribed with phrases like “Three jobs…No Access” and “Drug War Widow.” During the convention, the building also housed the Independent Media Center on its fourth floor, where activists broadcast their own alternative coverage of the convention and the protests. The Korean Veterans of the Korean War who showed up for a Sunday afternoon program never knew what hit them.

With Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” blasting, Arianna kicked things off to a packed house Sunday night, promising an antidote to the “focus-group-tested fantasy” about to be played out down the street. “We’ll use the Shadow Convention here to translate the motley voices of the protestors,” she said. Whether she spoke for the kids or not, the message was very focused, hitting three themes on successive days: the failed war on drugs, campaign finance reform, and the growing gap between rich and poor in America – all themes certain to be given short shrift at the Staples Center. The list of guests was impressive. Gary Hart (remember him?) was the first speaker – probably a poor choice given his wooden, professorial delivery. But he clearly relished the opportunity to be let his unreconstructed liberal flag fly before a receptive crowd. “Why do the parties seem so alike? Have all the great battles been won? All the big issues settled? Where are the prophets, the warriors for justice?” he asked. “I’ll tell you this: they’re not a few blocks away attending the cocktail parties!”

On Sunday, Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin delivered a blistering attack on his own party for turning the convention into an extended, four-day fundraiser. By all accounts, Feingold said, the nightly parties, golf outings, and exclusive dinners held in L.A. were expected to set a new record for convention fundraising. “These conventions … may well be the worst display of fund-raising and corruption in the political history of our nation,” he said. “This is not a system of one person, one vote…it is a system of legalized bribery and extortion.” The speech he gave at the convention paled in comparison. Jesse Jackson and Maxine Waters, joined by guest stars Susan Sarandon and husband Tim Robbins, keynoted Tuesday’s presentation on the drug war. TV talk show host Bill Maher stole the show Tuesday night, with his signature brand of earnest cynicism (“One of our candidates had an inappropriate relationship with Bolivia for awhile”). Jesse Jackson also saved his best for the Shadow Convention: “We must destroy this system, because it is destroying our children,” he said of the drug war at Patriotic Hall.

As things heated up between cops and protestors on the streets outside, the Shadow Convention got dragged into the drama as well. Claiming to be responding to a phoned-in bomb threat – from six hours earlier – the cops emptied out Patriotic Hall just as Nation columnist Christopher Hitchens and company were about to begin their real-time, “rapid response” to Bill Clinton’s big Tuesday night farewell speech, which the IndyMedia center was set to broadcast live via satellite. A remarkably unflappable Huffington, along with Hitchens and the rest of the panel, clambered atop a van and began holding court in the street, despite the cops’ orders to desist (the road, like many around the Staples Center, was already blocked off to traffic anyway). Finally, just after Clinton’s speech concluded, the cops ordered everyone back inside the building – bomb threat or not.