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Freak-Out at the Free Speech Zone

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We know it's old news by now, but we're still recovering. We got fucked up and took the train to the protest in Hollywood on the 31st; the one that coincided with the State of the Union address, encouraging people to "bring the noise," banging pots and pans in a march from Hollywood/Highland to the CNN building at the corner of Sunset and Cahuenga. We left shaking with paranoia and fear.

The whole thing played out like a bad acid trip. We got there late; it was already dark. Walking from the subway exit at Vine, we saw little sign of the promised revolution. Two teenagers passed us; they were wearing black outfits with green bandanas covering their mouths.

"Stop the terrorists!" They shouted, "Down with Bush!" They looked, weirdly, like little terrorists themselves.

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We walked on. At the corner of Ivar and Hollywood, we stopped in front of a liquor store. We were aware of the two black helicopters turning tight circles over our heads. Three men walked hurriedly up the emptied street; one aging hippie and two guys wearing rainbow flags.

"Good exercise," the hippie commented as he passed, "Well, I'll see you next time." They parted ways.

We stood there in momentary shock: Was this it? The whole protest? A gay couple, an old man, and a pair of punk kids? Where was the mainstream of progressive Angelino society? Where were the pro-choice soccer moms, enfuriated at Alito's confirmation? Where were the left-leaning industry salarymen, just off work?

The helicopters kept circling, and a roaring noise grew in the distance. There they were. They were coming. Traffic cops had coned off the center of Hollywood Blvd., emptying all the eastbound lanes and leaving the westbound traffic to grumble in gridlock. A man and woman in a car were stopped coming North on Ivar and told to turn back; the man argued with the cop that he was going two blocks down Hollywood — he qualified as "local access," and it would take him an hour to get there if he went down to Sunset and around through the traffic. The cop was unsympathetic. He said, "You'll have to go around the parade." The parade?

They had coned off the sidestreets, and we saw the wave of protesters coming at us. We stood in the middle of the boulevard to get a better view. We were confused; a couple traffic cops didn't seem enough. A sedan was cruising slowly down the empty half of the boulevard, ahead of the approaching mob. It came toward us. About ten feet away, the driver put the pedal down and roared ahead, nearly running us over. It was incredibly disconcerting. Behind us, in a flash, riot police sealed off the side-street. We were trapped in the narrow boulevard, a tsunami of unrest moving toward us, hemmed in by police, sharp-shooters on the rooftops.

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A sinister-looking gang of men came up to the corner, one of them mumbling to another that the Shield was on Sunset, so their guys would come down from Hollywood. We became aware of an old woman staring at us; her face was slack, her hair shockingly red. Her eyes twitched back and forth as she stood there, stock still, recording our faces for posterity. She turned away and moved down the boulevard; there was a coil of wire leading to an earpiece in her right ear.

Now the crowd was about to hit; it was less than a block away, and there was no escape. We started coughing, the two of us at the same time, hit by a strong, citronella-like smell. We looked up, wondering if the helicopter was dropping some chemical. The protest suddenly thronged over us and we were moving with it to the beat of Native American drummers. Here we were, pressed into the middle of the crowd. It was like we'd entered another country, a Temporary Autonomous Zone; the sights, the smells, the language and clothing — all of it changed instantly. People were dancing, shouting in unison, all wearing black and green; we watched, working our way along the sidelines; we hate shouting in unison with anything, even if we agree with it. A group of freaks dressed in vanilla frosting were doing some kind of ritual dance among a dozen flag-draped coffins. It was absolutely the most retarded thing we'd ever seen; almost as if the whole protest had been designed to prove to anyone watching Fox News that only the most desperate social rejects could possibly have an interest in ending the war, the illegal surveillance, the myriad civil rights violations...in short, the protest looked like something that would come down Hollywood Boulevard, and in fact, that was exactly what it was.

The crowd grew uncomfortably tight and there was nowhere to go but forward. There were cops in front, behind and on both flanks. We found ourselves pinned against a wall as a group of gutter punks — decked out in anti-Bush regalia — shoved each other playfully. We had a sense of being absolutely trapped; normal, pro-Democracy citizens who had wandered into a zone pre-selected by the black helicopters for some kind of terrible doom. People began to look like aliens, and our girlfriend grabbed our hand and started running. When we breached the line of police, she was crying. We stood catching our breath in a seemingly quiet street.

Several young men dashed out of the crowd, around the corner and into an alley. A man in a sweatshirt who had been standing there, watching the action from a distance, suddenly made a move to chase them. We looked to the rooftops; there were men in black with long guns. No — not guns. Long lenses. Video cameras. The undercover cop in the sweatshirt had pulled out his badge.

Someone shouted, "Cut!"

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A grip appeared, festooned with clothespins and tape. The back of his shirt said, "The Shield - CREW."

We were back in Los Angeles. Soon, the drugs would wear off, and the real nightmares would begin.