Published on Friday, August 11, 2000 in the Washington Post
In L.A., Protesters Determined to Be Heard
by Rene Sanchez
LOS ANGELES – Two women clinging to ropes scaled down from the rooftop of a 15-story downtown hotel one morning this week and unfurled a giant American flag whose stripes had been stamped with the word "SOLD" and whose stars had been replaced by corporate logos.
On the ground below, a heavily armed SWAT team rushed to the scene and arrested them.
Just as they did in Philadelphia for the Republican National Convention last week, loosely organized bands of activists advancing countless political causes are swarming into this city to taunt, shame and possibly disrupt the Democratic gathering.
And they sound more determined this time to make their points louder and clearer.
"We don't think our message really got out in Philadelphia," said Han Shan, 27, an organizer for the Ruckus Society, a group based in Berkeley, Calif., which will orchestrate some demonstrations. "We keep getting marginalized as a ragtag bunch of anarchists or lunatics, but we're really trying to reform our democracy. We're going to have to work even harder to draw attention to those issues in the streets."
The size and diversity of the looming protests here are expected to be larger than those in Philadelphia that resulted in nearly 400 arrests, traffic gridlock and minor property damage. Over the next week, downtown streets near the convention site, the Staples Center, will be filled with activists denouncing corporate globalization and genetic engineering, police brutality and the death penalty, defense spending and urban poverty and the destruction of wilderness.
There will be a mock "Million Billionaire" march, a rally on behalf of Iraqi children suffering under U.N. economic sanctions, vigils for campaign finance reform and daily "reality tours" of sweatshops and environmental racism in Los Angeles.
Still, the protests may not be as big as either the demonstrations that overwhelmed Seattle last year during a World Trade Organization conference or those that besieged the District this spring during a World Bank meeting. That's because some labor leaders have urged rank-and-file members not to join marches that could embarrass Democrats, whom they consider more sympathetic to their interests than Republicans.
One of the planning centers for the disparate protest movement forming here is a decrepit four-story building in a Salvadoran neighborhood near downtown. All this week, dozens of young, college-educated activists have been conducting seminars there in civil disobedience and painting banners and life-sized puppets with messages to Democratic delegates and the media covering them. "From Philly to LA, the Culture of the People Won't Stop," some proclaimed. On every floor, posters also warn prospective marchers not to engage in violence or property destruction, or use alcohol or drugs, during rallies.
In Philadelphia, law enforcement officials tried to crack down on the protests in part by arresting a few activists whom they called "ringleaders" inciting lawlessness, then kept them in jail during the convention by setting enormous bails. One of them, John Sellers, 33, a leader of the Ruckus Society, had his bail initially set at $1 million for eight misdemeanor charges. This week, a judge reduced it to $100,000.
But yesterday another affiliate of the group was ordered to stand trial for allegedly conspiring in assaults on police officers and other violent acts.
The Ruckus Society, organized a few years ago to protest logging in the Pacific Northwest, leads workshops on civil disobedience around the country and relies on a network of volunteers; it has just four people on staff. It is one of dozens of local and national groups planning to demonstrate in Los Angeles. Many of them are joining forces on a few marches, but the rough coalition has no formal leaders.
"We're not looking for trouble, we're focusing on solid issues," Brian Montes, a history major at UCLA who is an organizer for another group called Rise Up, said at the protest headquarters. This past spring, he was among those arrested by D.C. police during demonstrations against the World Bank.
Like others who were busy painting protest signs, Montes said he will take to the streets in Los Angeles next week because he thinks too many elected officials answer only to their big-money donors. He also said he is angry that large companies are displacing U.S. workers by moving factories overseas for cheaper labor.
"We all just want to create a democracy that works for the people," Montes said. "There are lot of different issues, but we're basically all just asking for more compassion."
Police fear that some protesters have dangerous mischief in mind. Last month, about 150 activists gathered in the nearby mountains of Malibu for a five-day camp that taught them how to scale skyscrapers and billboards. Several hundred self-proclaimed anarchists also are convening in Los Angeles this weekend for a conference. Some of them are pacifists, but some delight in political vandalism--spraying graffiti, smashing windows of businesses whose corporate practices they believe hurt workers.
In Seattle last year, police blamed a small masked band of violent anarchists for much of the property damage the city's downtown businesses sustained during the trade protests. At a news conference here this week, anarchist leaders insisted that they have no intention of staging any violent demonstrations during the convention.
Lisa Fithian, who is helping organize the protest coalition, said that every group she has spoken with intends to march and conduct acts of civil disobedience such as blocking busy intersections peacefully. "We're deeply committed to nonviolence," she said. "We've been training hundreds of people on that."
But the city awaiting the protesters is on edge. Streets near the convention site are already closed to traffic and barricaded. The U.S. Postal Service removed dozens of mailboxes from downtown corners this week in fear that explosives could be dumped inside of them. Some downtown merchants are vowing to close during the convention, while others are boarding storefront windows as if a hurricane is on the way.
In Koreatown, which is near downtown and which took a beating in the 1992 riots here, some business owners told police this week that they intend to arm themselves during the convention protests. Meanwhile, a local chapter of the NAACP persuaded a Hollywood movie theater that shows film classics to scrap its plans to screen D.W. Griffith's 1915 "Birth of a Nation" during the convention because they fear its benign depiction of the Ku Klux Klan could incite violence.
About 3,000 National Guard troops have been placed on alert to respond to any unrest in the streets, and the Los Angeles Police Department has been keeping a close watch on the headquarters of the protest coalition. Police helicopters have hovered over the building, and officers have monitored activities there on videotape.
Earlier this week, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California accused police of unlawfully harassing protesters, and is seeking a temporary restraining order to stop those tactics. Ramona Ripston, the ACLU's executive director here, said that instead of trying to work closely with protest groups the LAPD is creating a tense climate for the convention. Police officials insist they are only taking responsible steps to make the city secure.
Yet even if the protests proceed calmly, some who support them wonder if the sheer diversity of causes that will be on display in the streets will drown each other out.
"That was a big issue in Philadelphia," said Brian Drolet, director of a Web site called Free Speech TV, which is planning to air many of the protests on the Internet. "The question is with such a range of issues, is any message really getting across?"
Fithian, a protest organizer, blamed the media for that problem. "There's some truth to that point," she said. "There are many, many issues people will be talking about. But the core issue in all of this is that our political system is being bought by corporations. That's not so hard to figure out."
Special correspondent Neal Becton contributed to this report.
© 2000 The Washington Post Company