Politics & Policy

May Day Madness

Police work meets politics on the streets of L.A.

Yes, it was ugly. But before exploring the details of what made it so, let’s dispense with the hyperbolic claims that LAPD officers were themselves “rioting” or “out of control” when they dispersed the crowd at L.A.’s MacArthur Park Tuesday evening. This was not Bloody Sunday at the Edmund Pettus Bridge and it was not the summer of ‘68 in Chicago. It was a deliberate exercise in crowd control, one that saw displays of police restraint as well as the application of force. It is the force, naturally, that will be remembered and discussed.

By now you’ve surely seen the video and still images taken at around 6 P.M. Tuesday, when a phalanx of officers in riot gear swept through the park at the end of what had been a peaceful day of marches and demonstrations. Some people, including a few reporters and news cameramen, were knocked down, roughed up, or otherwise manhandled in the process. I was part of a reserve force and nowhere near the park when this occurred, but I’ve spoken with people who were directly involved and I’ve pieced together what I’m confident is an accurate if incomplete description of the events.

There were two separate marches on Tuesday in Los Angeles, one in the morning in the civic-center area, the second in the afternoon at MacArthur Park, just west of downtown. The first was uneventful, as indeed was the second until the very end, when a relatively small group of demonstrators provoked police officers by blocking the street when the terms of their march permit expressly prohibited it. Several times marchers came out into the street but were turned back by ranks of police officers, some on foot, others on bicycles and motorcycles. These demonstrators, their faces hidden behind bandanas, became bolder with each successive foray into the street, taunting officers with the customary “F*** the police” chants and a litany of similar verbal provocations.

The cops on the line remained impassive to these insults, but when the crowd began pelting them with bottles (some filled with urine), cans, batteries, and almost anything else that can be picked up and thrown, police commanders declared the gathering an unlawful assembly and gave an order to disperse. Some news reports have made the claim that no such order was given, but it was broadcast from a police helicopter circling the park, from police cars, and from hand-held bullhorns as the police moved in. These warnings can be heard on some of the videos of the incident now circulating on the Internet.

The officers who entered the park in riot gear were from Metropolitan Division, an elite group specially trained and equipped to control and disperse large crowds with minimal force. They formed a skirmish line of officers with batons, backed up by others armed with “less lethal munitions,” i.e. weapons that fire small beanbags or rubber projectiles about the size of a votive candle. Yes, they hurt, and yes, they leave a welt. They’re supposed to, with the objective of getting recalcitrant individuals within a crowd to get up and scram.

The skirmish line advanced slowly, about 50 feet at a time, allowing those complying with the dispersal order to retreat unmolested. Those who stood their ground were met with batons and rubber bullets. Los Angeles Times reporter Jill Leovy wrote a firsthand account of the incident, including this description of a confrontation between police and a group that refused to disperse:  

The lingerers were a mix of protesters and reporters. Some were reporters from established news organizations watching or recording what police were doing, and some were self-styled grassroots reporters — protesters with cameras — some of whom were both filming officers closely and yelling challenges at them. At least three men in this mixed group lingered long enough to be caught by the advancing line of officers and they were batoned. They received one or two baton strokes each. 

Sections 407 through 409 of the California penal code read as follows: 

407. Whenever two or more persons assemble together to do an unlawful act, or do a lawful act in a violent, boisterous, or tumultuous manner, such assembly is an unlawful assembly.

408. Every person who participates in any rout or unlawful assembly is guilty of a misdemeanor.

409. Every person remaining present at the place of any riot, rout, or unlawful assembly, after the same has been lawfully warned to disperse, except public officers and persons assisting them in attempting to disperse the same, is guilty of a misdemeanor. 

Note that the law makes no exceptions for reporters, cameramen, lawyers, or anyone else who might see himself as immune from the consequences of remaining in an area after being lawfully ordered to leave. It’s possible that in the noise and confusion some people did not hear the dispersal order when it was first given from the helicopter and police cars, but as the officers advanced slowly through the park the command was given time and again by supervisors trailing the skirmish line. Any fool could have seen it was time to go, and some of those who didn’t were roughly treated.

Some reporters, reveling in the role of victim, have tried to turn the fracas into some kind of anti-press Kristallnacht, as though the involved cops were motivated by some long-repressed hatred for the fourth estate. “I was dumbfounded,” radio reporter Patricia Nazario told the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday. “I’ve covered riots. I’ve covered chaos. I was never hit or struck or humiliated the way the LAPD violated me yesterday.”

Predictably, LAPD chief William Bratton was critical of his officers, calling some of their actions “inappropriate.” “Quite frankly,” Bratton told an interviewer on a local radio station, “I was disturbed at what I saw.”

There is nothing in all of God’s creation that preoccupies Bratton more than the way he is covered in the media, so I have no doubt the he was good and disturbed at the sight of his friends in the press being jostled about and herded like goats across the park. As has become the rule, tactical decisions made in the heat of the moment will now be viewed through a political lens and judged on how they impact Bratton’s and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s reputations. The politicians will howl, but the cops on the ground will be the ones who suffer.

Bratton held a news conference Wednesday afternoon and promised a thorough and transparent investigation, which can be translated as meaning he’s looking for some scalps to pin on his wall over this. As he faced reporters he was flanked by grim-faced deputy chiefs and commanders, not a single one of whom was in any danger of being hit with a full soda can or urine-filled water bottle Tuesday evening, and not a single one of whom will share any blame for what happened. Look for a handful of cops, and maybe a sergeant or lieutenant or two, to take the fall. And look for the city to get out the checkbook and start throwing settlements at anyone who even threatens to sue.

As you’re bombarded with the many videos of the melee over the next several days, note that there are no broken bones or bleeding head gashes among the injuries, suggesting that the police might have been more retrained in their tactics than their critics are alleging. And also note how little mention is made of the 15 police officers who themselves were injured that night. Police work can be a dirty, dangerous business, but its got nothing on politics.


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