Back to MacArthur Park
In Los Angeles, more politics and less police work.


You know what they say about best-laid plans. In a previous column, I expressed my hope to remain as far as possible from Los Angeles’s MacArthur Park, the scene of all that unpleasantness on May Day. It’s all well and good to have plans and aspirations but I follow orders, so when I was told to report to the command post for the latest immigration rally and march on May 17, I did so with some trepidation but without hesitation. As it happened, things went much more smoothly this time, but the event and the continuing aftermath of the May Day melee nonetheless have made for some interesting political theater.

The May 17 event began with about 2,000 people gathering at the Immanuel Presbyterian Church on Wilshire Boulevard, about ten blocks from MacArthur Park. A number of speakers addressed the crowd, most notable among them Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The mayor chose to address the crowd in Spanish, and in tone if not necessarily in substance his speech sounded like one Juan Peron might have delivered to the descamisados from the balcony of the Casa Rosada. They had right to march peacefully, the mayor assured the crowd, inviting them to accept as fact the myth that the LAPD officers who broke up the May 1 rally had done so without provocation.

This time the march to MacArthur Park was uneventful, with both the marchers and the cops clearly reluctant to engage in any behavior that might lead to a repeat of the May 1 troubles. In fact, in its eagerness to back away from potential problems, the LAPD gave the day off to the very cops best trained and equipped to handle such events. It was a platoon from the elite Metropolitan Division, or “Metro,” that was involved in clearing the park on May Day, so rather than deploy that platoon or any other from Metro, the department instead chose to call up hastily assembled “mobile field forces” from all over the city, leaving the areas they ordinarily would have been patrolling understaffed. Worse, only a small fraction of these officers had ever received any meaningful training in crowd-control techniques, so if things had gone sideways as they did on May 1, the results might have been just as disastrous if not more so.

But, to the immense relief of all concerned, things did not go sideways, leaving Mayor Villaraigosa and LAPD Chief William Bratton with nothing to add to their list of things to apologize for. Since the May Day incident, Bratton has all but traded in his blue wool uniform for one of sack cloth and ashes. He joined Villaraigosa in what amounted to an apology tour, pressing the flesh at various gatherings and at MacArthur Park itself, and sitting impassively at a public meeting where speaker after speaker took to the microphone to denounce the mistreatment they claimed to have suffered at the hands of his brutal underlings. (It’s interesting to note that even now, weeks after the fact, the published figures of those injured by police batons and rubber bullets continue to climb, perhaps reflecting the same phenomenon one sees when a city bus is involved in a traffic accident: There might be only 15 passengers on the bus, yet somehow at least twice that many people end up coming around hat-in-hand and wearing neck braces.)

In his zeal to apologize for the actions of a few officers on May Day, Bratton has succeeded in alienating whatever portion of the LAPD’s rank and file it might have been that wasn’t already disaffected by him. Once seen as the man who pulled the department out of the abyss created by ten years of ineffectual leadership, Bratton is now viewed by most street cops as little more than another ambitious politician, one willing sell out his officers if doing so suits Mayor Villaraigosa’s needs. When he first arrived in Los Angeles he seemed almost omnipresent, showing up unexpectedly at police stations and crime scenes and engaging warmly with cops on the street, a welcome departure from the imperious ways of his predecessor, Bernard Parks. No longer. Today, Bratton is seen as lordly and aloof, almost contemptuous of the men and women who put their lives on the line serving under him.