Politics & Policy

Heads Roll in Los Angeles

The first scapegoats in the May Day melee walk the plank.

On Friday, word circulated through the Los Angeles Police Department that a protest rally was being planned for the following day in MacArthur Park, the scene of last Tuesday’s May Day melee. A colleague asked me if I would be interested in adjusting my schedule and working crowd control at the rally. I declined.

The rally turned out to be a spectacular dud, as it happened, attracting far more cops and reporters than protesters, but staying clear of it was nonetheless the wiser course. In fact, for however many days, months, or years I have left in my police career, I plan on staying as far away as possible from MacArthur Park. There was no violence there on Saturday, but it’s a dead certainty that there will one day be another confrontation between cops and immigration protesters like the one that occurred on May Day, and when that day comes some unfortunate cop will have to have his head lopped off before the LAPD brass will allow us to even raise our voices about it.

On Monday, LAPD Chief William Bratton defied my prediction that only front-line officers would be disciplined for their roles in what happened at the park on May Day. Appearing at a press conference with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Bratton announced that the senior officer who oversaw police response to the protests was being demoted and removed from his command. Deputy Chief Cayler “Lee” Carter, a 33-year veteran of the department, has been chosen to wear the goat horns. He will be reduced in rank to commander and “assigned to home duties,” which is to say his career is over. Carter’s second-in-command, Commander Louis Gray, a 39-year veteran, has been reassigned to duties yet to be specified, but his career is essentially over as well. Call him the Assistant Goat.

Neither Carter nor Gray are particularly admired at my level of the department, but to a man the cops I’ve spoken with are in sympathy with them. As was demonstrated in the opening hours of the 1992 Los Angeles riots and in the violence that followed the Lakers’ NBA championship in 2000, LAPD commanders are a timid lot, tending toward indecision when the need for action is evident to all but them. So it came as a welcome surprise when, after repeated provocations by an unruly crowd, Carter gave the order to shut down what was left of the May Day rally at MacArthur Park.

A relatively small number of protesters, some with their faces concealed by bandanas, pelted officers with frozen water bottles and soda cans, bottles filled with urine, rocks, sticks, and any number of other projectiles that could be heaved toward the police lines. There were even instances of protesters using slingshots to shoot heavy metal bolts at officers. Through it all, the hundreds of cops gathered near Alvarado and Seventh Streets, at the southeast corner of the park, stood their ground and showed uncommon restraint even as the debris was coming down around them and indeed striking and injuring some. What, these cops were asking, is it going to take before we do something about this?

Contrary to some of the more hysterical claims, dispersal orders were broadcast from a circling helicopter, from police cars, and from hand-held bullhorns. The warnings from the helicopter can be clearly heard in an amateur video shot inside the park as the police moved in. “The helicopter has asked everybody to leave the park,” a man says to the camera, and indeed most people, including a number of reporters and cameramen, chose to do just that. On the same video, which runs for 27 minutes, you can see just how long it took the line of officers to traverse the length of the park after the warnings were broadcast. You can also see officers, some speaking in Spanish, very calmly directing people to safety. Yes, some people who chose to stay were shoved around, some were shot with rubber bullets, and some were struck with batons, but none of them can claim they hadn’t been warned. And, lest we forget, there were more police officers injured that day than protesters and reporters combined.

All that’s followed has been nothing but public theater of the most sordid kind. Those injured officers were not even mentioned at Monday’s press conference, at least not in those portions that were aired on the channel I watched. Mayor Villaraigosa praised Bratton for his “decisive action” in the public humiliation of Carter and Gray, and he bristled at the suggestion that Bratton may have acted to sacrifice the two senior commanders so as to preserve his own career. “This chief is doing his job,” Villaraigosa said. “He was hired, and he’ll be reappointed based on how well he does that job. And I can tell you he has my support . . .” In other words: “Bratton is doing exactly what I tell him to do, and if he wants to keep his job he’ll continue to do so.”

The city’s civilian police commission, whose members are appointed by the mayor, was set to vote this week on retaining Bratton for a second five-year term as chief. Until the May Day incident, Bratton was a shoo-in for reappointment, but the commission will now table the matter as the various fingers are moistened and held up in the political winds. Bratton won’t lose his job over this, but under the circumstances the commission has to give the appearance of being deliberative.

And now a question occurs: What will happen next time? Villaraigosa has made no secret of his sympathy and even his support for illegal aliens demanding amnesty, and Bratton has been little more than the mayor’s sock puppet on this issue. In the sacking of Deputy Chief Carter and Commander Gray they have sent a very clear message to the rest of the LAPD: Woe be unto anyone who lays a hand on our people, no matter how many bottles they’re throwing at you. The next confrontation may come next May Day, it may come sooner, but you can bet no career-minded senior cop is going to risk the stars on his collar by being aggressive when things get out of hand. Better to let them burn it all down than take the blame if one of them gets hurt.

Readers around the country may shake their heads in wonder at the craziness found here in Los Angeles, but remember: This circus is coming soon to a park near you. I hope you’re ready.


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