Politics & Policy

Among the Lunatics, Part I

An undercover cop's Democratic convention diary.

It’s over now, thank heavens. The fences and barricades have been removed, traffic again flows smoothly past an idle Staples Center. The homeless are again free to migrate west of Broadway and push their shopping carts along the steel and glass canyons of downtown Los Angeles. Mayor Richard Riordan and police chief Bernard Parks are crowing about how smoothly everything went: less than 200 arrests, no significant property damage, a handful of minor injuries.

Thousands of L.A. cops have at last enjoyed some time off and some decent sleep, the first for both in two weeks. In a few days we cops will again be worrying Mr. Greenspan by spending our overtime pay and overstimulating the economy.

Who knew it would be so easy?

No one, of course, which is why I and many of my brothers and sisters in the LAPD, L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, and California Highway Patrol were dragged from our normal duties and placed on the front lines to face the predicted onslaught of rampaging protesters and violence-bent anarchists. Throughout convention week, there was little rampaging and even less violence than expected. The cops did their job. Nonetheless, the usual suspects are complaining that the police presence was oppressive.

“It felt like martial law,” writes Los Angeles city council member Jackie Goldberg, a Berkeley-educated ’60s throwback, in Sunday’s L.A. Times. “It gave everybody a sense of menace.”

Well, tough. We all saw what happened in Seattle, and there is no reason to believe those same people would have behaved any differently in Los Angeles if they hadn’t been afraid of being beaten like gongs if they stepped out of line. And if we hadn’t been there, in sufficient numbers to discourage trouble, Goldberg and her fellow travelers would today be asking, “Where were the cops?”

We in the LAPD had much at stake during the DNC. We were eager to atone for our sluggish response to the ‘92 riot (still euphemized by some as an “uprising”) and our ineffectual handling of the aftermath to the Lakers’ playoff victory (at which police cars and media vans were burned, citizens terrorized, and many businesses near the Staples Center vandalized). I should emphasize here that the blame for those failures rests squarely on the shoulders of the LAPD command staff; in both cases the troops stood ready and willing to do their duty but were prevented from taking action by orders from above. As in many large organizations, one is promoted through the LAPD ranks by avoiding controversial decisions — the type of which were required in the first hours of the ‘92 riot and in the melee following the Lakers’ victory.

All of which presented a dilemma to we of the rank and file. If we performed well during the DNC, we would be burnishing the reputation of chief Parks, whom most of us hope will not be reappointed to another five-year term when his current one expires. But if we again lost control of the city we would once more be humiliated, and Parks would, of course, blame everyone but himself. In the end, our own pride prevailed.

It was to our advantage that we were protecting delegates at the Democratic convention. The ship of L.A. city government lists to port: Mayor Riordan is nominally a Republican, but since leading the effort to bring the DNC to town he kissed up to any Dem honcho who stood still long enough. The city council is dominated by aging hippies and race-baiting windbags. Those few members with any real sense form a lonely minority. The council meetings, televised on local cable channels, are rivaled for sheer comedy only by those of the school board.

There was a pervasive attitude among those in city government that this was “Our Party coming to town,” and that “we won’t have those tree-huggers and other weirdos running amok and spoiling it.” Had L.A. been hosting a Republican convention, or had the main antagonists been other than suburban white kids masquerading as urban marauders, it is safe to bet our posture would have been less aggressive.

Which brings me to my own adventures on the streets during the convention. I ordinarily work a plainclothes assignment, and I had hoped that my squad would not be drawn into the expected madness. No such luck. My partner and I were assigned as “scouts.” Our function was to circulate among the protesters, attempt to identify the more obstreperous among them, and — if possible — learn of any plans to repeat the mayhem visited upon the unprepared citizens of Seattle. It was a week I will not soon forget.

Saturday, August 12

We have begun 12-hour shifts, working from mid-afternoon into the wee hours. Circadian rhythms are greatly disturbed; I have jet lag without having gone near an airport. I awaken around noon and turn on the television to what is supposed to be C-SPAN, but I suspect that my cable company has changed the channel lineup and that I’m instead watching HBO. This has to be One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Wait, it’s C-SPAN after all, showing the Buchanan Brigade’s convention in nearby Long Beach. What I at first believe are lobotomy scars on the delegates are nothing more than marks left by the lampshades they wore the night before.

At the Wilshire Grand Hotel a man dressed in a pig costume drives up in a dump truck and deposits tons of manure in the hotel’s driveway. He is arrested and every trace of the mess is quickly removed by a city street-maintenance crew. Pig-man must cut quite a figure among the more conventionally attired prisoners at the Parker Center jail.

Sunday, August 13

The Mumiacs march today, but by the time I leave roll call and join the crowd in the protest zone outside the Staples Center the August weather has blanched the revolutionary ardor from those assembled. Uniformed cops are everywhere, helmeted and sweating in the afternoon heat and reminding me that I am lucky to be in plain clothes. I am tempted to point out to the Mumiacs that there are any number of cop killers in the California prisons who would be only too happy to grow their hair into dreadlocks and write incomprehensible screeds for the sake of becoming a cult figure and receiving fan letters from such as Susan Sarandon. I hold my tongue. Mumia, I fear, will outlive me.

Later, we hear on a radio news broadcast that a federal judge has issued a restraining order proscribing the LAPD from entering the protesters’ headquarters without a search warrant or otherwise harassing those gathered there. At this report we immediately drive to the “Convergence Center,” as it’s called, and circle the block several times. Several other unmarked cars do likewise. What the protesters perceive as surveillance is nothing more than bored cops driving by to see what fresh oddities have arrived since the previous day.

Monday, August 14

The convention opens. Several marches have taken place before I arrive at the protest zone: Naderites protesting the Green-party candidate’s exclusion from the debates; environmentalists; “corporate greed” protesters; advocates of “indigenous peoples.” All of them mill about handing out their literature, the volume of which must surely have caused the demise of an entire forest. A huge puppet of Ralph Nader is oddly more lifelike than Mr. Nader himself.

We stand at Olympic and Figueroa watching more and more marchers arrive, then find ourselves pressed between the marchers and a skirmish line of our brethren in blue. The cop closest to me looks at me like he’s going to say, “You look like you could be a cop, but I’m going to hit you first anyway.” A small knot of black-clad anarchists marches in and gathers near the fence separating the protest zone from the Staples Center. The term anarchist seems too academic for so ignorant a crowd, so we begin referring to them as the knuckleheads, as in, “What are the knuckleheads up to now?”

The headache band Rage Against the Machine performs, driving us to the far reaches of the protest zone. As small cogs in the very machine being raged against, we are careful that our occupation remains a secret. Neither of us is ideally suited to blend well in this crowd: we are neither tattooed nor pierced, and we insist on bathing daily.

Trouble brews at the conclusion of the concert. Knuckleheads are throwing anything that can be thrown over the fence at the cops on the other side, including blocks of concrete. An LAPD commander takes the stage and declares the gathering to be an unlawful assembly, giving those present fifteen minutes to disperse or face arrest. Most comply, but many seem willing to test the mettle of the LAPD. They will soon wish they hadn’t.

We take refuge in the nearby Holiday Inn and go to a second-floor balcony to observe the knuckleheads starting fires and continuing to taunt the cops on the other side of the fence. As Bill Clinton delivers his seemingly interminable speech on a television in the adjacent bar, mounted cops ride in beneath us and begin moving people away from the fence. Cops in the skirmish line below let loose with several volleys of rubber bullets, motivating the crowd to swiftness and draining the defiance from all but a handful of the most zealous or most intoxicated. A photographer is run over by a horse — we on the balcony, most of whom are cops and Secret Service agents, hope he works for the L.A. Times or the Washington Post. In five minutes the entire protest zone is empty. Homeless activist Ted Hayes has the misfortune of leading a scheduled march east on Olympic Boulevard, as the police are herding people in the opposite direction. He is felled by a rubber bullet to the chest and spends the night in the hospital.

Watching the rout unfold, police chief Parks is reported to have said, “This ain’t Seattle, [folks].”

It sure ain’t, and he didn’t call them “folks.”

Click here for part two of “Among the Lunatics.”


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