Please don't shoot me officer - I am just a kid attending a peaceful rally!
Photo by Wathana Lim
It would be nice to be able to make light of my last article, and its many entertaining and inspired comments, but it is pretty tough to do that given what happened at the end of Tuesday's May Day immigration protest culminating in MacArthur Park.
By most accounts, and as has been demonstrated by several different video recordings of the situation, there was an absolute loss of control on the part of the Los Angeles Police Department.
Some of those present at the demonstration, described by various city and police spokespersons as 'students', 'anarchists', 'agitators', and 'people unrelated to the demonstration', threw 'bottles', 'rocks', and other 'missiles' at the officers. The LAPD, resplendent in Lexan face shields, and armed with the latest 'less-than-lethal' crowd control weaponry, responded in a way that was, unfortunately, not out of character.
Flash back to the Democratic National Convention in downtown LA in 2000. I was a third year law student at the time, an avid photographer, and living on Olive and 3rd at the top of Bunker Hill. I took the opportunity to walk with a massive group of protesters from Staples Center to Pershing Square. As the crowd began turning the corner from Figueroa, I had gone to the front of the pack to shoot pictures of the advancing crowd while my friend Jack was to the rear of the group. All of the sudden, the sound of gunshots, in this case tear gas canisters and rubber bullets, could be heard towards the rear of the march, and everyone bolted towards me. When I caught up with some of the protesters that had been a part of the action, they indicated that something had spooked the LAPD and that the rubber bullets just started to fly. Several people displayed huge welts from getting pelted by the projectiles.
Fast forward to Tuesday's May Day rally. The images don't lie. With each new video clip I find myself sickened. First, I saw Christina Gonzalez from Channel 11 News, along with her camera operator, get manhandled as they were trying to get to their broadcast truck. Then there were the two women who huddled behind a tree for safety as the police fired random shots into the crowd. One officer rushed up on them and started jabbing them with the end of his baton, knocking one of the terrified women to the ground, as she looked back up at her assailant as if to say, "What on earth are you doing?" Then there were the several people carrying children, having to run across the uneven park terrain as the riot squad sprayed the area with projectiles. There were cops swinging batons at news cameras, and at people who were running away from the control line. There were people displaying huge bruises resulting from baton strikes, and massive, oozing welts from being shot with rubber, or as the police have started referring to them in the last couple of days, 'foam' rounds. I guess foam is supposed to sound like a nice gentle way of moving a crowd along, but once you have seen the sickening, bleeding lumps that these things cause, there is no doubt that this is a weapon that ought not be used without discretion.
Here we have a scheduled rally, with permits from the city, that goes on all day peacefully. This is the kind of expression that I think all would universally agree is guaranteed by the First Amendment. Yet, when a few 'missiles' are thrown at the heavily armored riot police, the police respond by firing 240 non-lethal rounds indiscriminantly into a crowd and start a sweep across MacArthur Park, swinging their batons at everything in their way, including women, children, news reporters, and camera operators covering the event. All this, and not a single arrest was made. If you can't find a single person who you suspect was responsible for thowing a water or soda bottle at you, maybe spraying the crowd with 240 rubber bullets is a bit of an overreaction.
If somehow these police officers acted appropriately under current LAPD policy, then I think it is pretty clear that we should take the training manual on crowd control, burn it, and go back to the drawing board. I think what is more likely is that there was a complete breakdown of the chain of command and communication, and adrenaline took over. In this case, a lot of innocent people were put in harm's way at the hands of the city's police, and that is absolutely unacceptable.
Let's go ahead and assume that somebody did throw objects at the police. In at least one clip, I did see a plastic soda bottle bounce at the feet of one officer. People obviously shouldn't be throwing things at the cops, but did this create a situation where the logical response was to start attacking anyone within the reach of a baton or rubber bullet? I am about 99.99% sure that the local news reporters, the people carrying their infant children, and the two ladies crouched behind a tree were not the ones involved in tossing things at the officers.
The LA Times editorial that ran yesterday about the incident, brings up the excellent point that despite having sound trucks in the area, the only notice to clear the park came from a helicopter hovering overhead, and only in English. So if you were one of the thousands of people mulling around the park, and could hear the order over the sound of the chopper blades, and could understand that order, then at least you had some warning as to what was about to transpire. If not, you were immediately at risk of being hit with a baton or shot with a crowd control round. The fact that this is happening in America in 2007 is saddening. If this were to have happened in Venezuela, the US government would be holding press conferences, and Condi Rice would be reprimanding the authorities for human rights abuses. The reality is that this happened in Los Angeles last Tuesday, and that fact should draw at least the same level of outrage on the part of the federal government.
It will be interesting to see how this latest chapter of LAPD abuse plays out. There are numerous internal and civilian investigations looking into LAPD policy and this incident in particular, as well as an FBI probe. Given that this incident was fairly well documented by both amateur and professional videographers, one can hope that those responsible for this egregious and wanton display of force against a peaceful demonstration face justice.