[Hpn] Los Angeles 2000 Becoming Chicago 1968, ACLU director writes LA Times

Tom Boland wgcp@earthlink.net
Mon, 21 Aug 2000 23:10:42 -0700 (PDT)

FWD  Los Angeles Times - Wednesday, August 16, 2000

     by Ramona Ripston
        Los Angeles 2000 is on the verge of becoming Chicago 1968. If the
police continue to engage in the provocative tactics and indiscriminate
behavior they displayed on the first day of the Democratic National
Convention, the LAPD's own prophesy of chaos on the streets of L.A. will
surely come to pass.

        What mainstream media are now calling the "melee" outside of the
Staples Center Monday night after the Rage Against the Machine concert was
a show of excessive force by police against an overwhelmingly peaceful
gathering of protesters.

        A handful of individuals did engage in unlawful behavior, including
rock throwing, which merited targeted police intervention. Yet instead of
arresting the lawbreakers, police used their behavior as a pretext for
dispersing all of those gathered, subjecting many who were peacefully
standing by to unwarranted abuse -- baton blows, rubber bullets and tear
gas. Police did not give clear instructions as to how to leave the area,
and confused concert attendees were fired upon even as they attempted to
follow directions.

        The LAPD's approach to policing the convention appears to be its
standard modus operandi, which avoids communication with the citizenry and
substitutes a massive display of force. "Nonlethal" bullets are still
bullets, and indiscriminate firing upon protesters is still not acceptable.

        Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the LAPD's operation Monday
night is that the one way in which police did show a discriminating use of
force was by targeting the media present at the event. One veteran
journalist heard officers receive express directions to "shoot that
[expletive] with the camera." He was shot six times. Another freelance
photographer standing by as the protesters were dispersed was shot in the
head by an officer at point-blank range.

        Delegates inside the convention hall witnessed nothing of what
happened, and reports from media inside the convention treated the entire
event as a minor case of rock concert hooliganism quickly "contained" by
the police. If only that had been the case; what occurred on Monday night
was far different.

        Anyone present in the designated protest area was treated as guilty
by association, and the use of indiscriminate force by police created a
nightmarish situation in which innocent people were crushed against fences
by horses and shot in the back even as they tried to escape the area.

        When Los Angeles agreed to host the Democratic National Convention,
we agreed to host a political forum -- a forum from which protests cannot
be excluded. And let us be clear that, in the presence of a national
political convention, attending a concert of Rage Against the Machine has
all the earmarks of the exercise of free speech.

        Protests challenge accepted opinion and are therefore essential to
the health of our democracy and our growth toward greater freedom and
equality as a society. But they also challenge our society in a more
immediate way: They force us to implement our democratic values, and in
doing so, put those values to the test. They force us to create a real, not
hypothetical, space for public dissent.

        In its actions Monday night, the LAPD effectively obliterated that
space, and its sweeping use of force and targeting of the press must be
condemned by all who believe in the free exercise of speech. If Los Angeles
is to avoid the kind of violent confrontations that disrupted the
Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968, police must respond to unlawful
incidents on an individual basis and refrain from needless shows of force
against protesters.

        The lessons of that tumultuous era the LAPD takes to heart should
not be to shoot first and ask questions--or give directions--later, nor to
violently target the media, without whose presence the free exercise of
speech cannot find an audience. The lesson the LAPD should take to heart is
that the suppression of speech runs counter to the principles of American
democracy, and as such has the greatest potential to disrupt and degrade
the proceedings currently underway at the Democratic convention.

Ramona Ripston Is Executive Director of the ACLU of Southern California

Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times




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