LOS ANGELES -- Towering over the fenced protest area outside the Staples Center in Los Angeles is a giant mural with the faces of Cesar Chavez, Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. As you get closer you see, at the bottom of the mural, the Apple Computer logo and the tag line "think different."
The wall is a perfect metaphor for what the protesters are up against at the Democratic Convention. Inside the Staples Center, the Democrats have learned to think differently enough to invoke the icons of civil rights, labor, and progressive struggles, beneath skyboxes plastered with corporate logos.
Take Terry McCauliffe, the chair of the DNC and star Democratic fundraiser, who, after making a career of funneling money into the party, earned a spot on the podium so he could declare "we will always fight for the people, not the powerful."
Who can blame the public for being cynical?
Unfortunately, there isn't a clear alternative message emerging from the protest pavilion. One obstacle is the heavy handed police reaction to the protests.
On Monday night, as Bill Clinton finished speaking, the Los Angeles Police Department suddenly cut short a rally and rock concert. They shot rubber bullets and fired teargas into a crowd gathered for the permitted event outside the Staples Center, in what the ACLU later called "an orchestrated police riot." There were hundreds of injuries, according to protest organizers. Garrick Ruiz, who was there to protest police brutality, was caught in a hail of rubber bullets. "I counted the welts on my body, and there were at least nine," he said, showing an ugly round, raw wound on the side of his knee.
The police said they were provoked by a few protesters who climbed the fence around the protest pen and threw rocks at them. It was "an appropriate, measured, and strategic use of force," said police chief Bernard Parks in a press conference Tuesday. But protesters, journalists, and legal observers said the police overreacted by launching an assault against the crowd of thousands of people who did not have time to disperse.
"Excessive police overreactions has been in the making for many months," said State Senator and longtime activist Tom Hayden. "I'm convinced an investigation will show that hundreds of people were victims last night of an arsenal of exotic weapons the police wanted to use experimentally... including skipping bullets, gas, rubber bullets," he added. Hayden supports a move by the Justice Department to impose supervision on the LAPD.
Carlos Donoso, an L.A. transportation department employee who is helping direct traffic at the convention was at the concert. "I don't doubt the police overreacted," he said. "We had a training with the police before this where they said, 'don't worry about what happened in Seattle. It won't happen here. We learned from them, for one thing, and we're not going to run out of ammunition.' It was like he was stoked for something to happen," Donoso said of the police trainer. "When I heard that, I said, 'I'm more afraid of the cops than the protesters."
Shadow Convention and Indy Media Center Shut Down
Hours before the chaotic scene outside the convention center erupted Monday night, the police descended on the building where the Shadow Convention and the Independent Media Center (IMC) have their headquarters. Claiming they were looking for a bomb, officers partially evacuated the premises and held a satellite van hostage for several hours, preventing the broadcast of an IMC program on cable stations around the country.
Arianna Huffington, the former conservative glamour girl and host of the Shadow Convention, along with panelists Christopher Hitchens and Gore Vidal, moved the program onto the street. At that point more LAPD officers arrived dressed in riot gear, objecting that the crowd in the street was getting out of control. They told the crowd to leave the street or they would start firing tear gas, according to Huffington. "The police got closer, clearly intending to protect the L.A. citizens from Gore Vidal," she quipped. Finally, the panel was allowed to resume indoors.
"All this would have been Keystone Cops if it were not representative of the same attitude which led to people being peppered with rubber bullets and bean bag projectiles six blocks away," Huffington said. "We are divided into two nations, one, inside the Staples Center that has to be protected at all costs, and those outside in the streets that is regarded as a threat to public safety."
Another threat to public safety was "freelance libertarian" and drug-law reform advocate Ben Masel, who was clubbed by police while he was standing at the delegate entrance to the convention center, "I'm doing a performance piece on the Fourth Amendment," he said: "Step right up folks and lose your constitutional rights. They don't have warrants to search you, they don't have probable cause. But you'll put up with it. You're sheep." The police didn't like Masel's message to the delegates and demanded he leave. When he insisted he had a right to stay, based on a federal judge's order granting protesters access to the perimeter of the convention center, the police clubbed him, he says, showing a nasty welt on his calf.
"They were mad about the judge's ruling, and they wanted to prevent anybody from having any interaction with the delegates," Masel says.
Masel, the ACLU, and Tom Hayden are all involved in lawsuits against the LAPD for unlawful use of force.
At a press conference Tuesday, protest coordinators objected loudly to the police tactics, and everyone from Arianna Huffington to Shawn McDougal of D2K, the umbrella group for the protests, had their own take on the alleged police abuse. "They're afraid of what we can do when we connect the dots" said McDougal. He listed many of the issues protestors are attempting to link: the environment, labor, corporate controlled media, the death penalty, education, prisons . "When you connect the dots they all lead to Gore, Bush and their corporate sponsors."
But rather than being a dangerously powerful message, the protests seem to lack focus. With so many messages from so many different groups, it is hard for any single idea to come across, besides a general disaffection, and sour relations with the police.
It's true that city officials and police regard the protesters as something of an embarrassment for their well-heeled guests. But so far the protesters have not succeeded in driving home a single ringing indictment of the proceedings.
One effort that came close, was an alternative radio and cable TV broadcast produced by Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now. That program never aired, because of the bomb raid. The news program pointed out that on Sunday a LA waterfront party for the conservative Blue Dog Democrats hosted by Rep. Jim Breaux of Indiana was sponsored by, among others, Philip Morris, Pepsi, and arms manufacturer Raytheon. Raytheon, which reported $20 billion in revenue last year, has helped carry out tests of a National Missile Defense System, and has a direct interest in Al Gore's support for the Star Wars program. According to the broadcast, Raytheon spent $1.5 million in lobbying in 1998, including more than $82,800 for the Democrats.
Ruth Conniff is Washington Editor of the Progressive Magazine.