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No Parking at Nicaragua Protest Drives Activists to Charge Repression

October 04, 1987|PHILIPP GOLLNER | Times Staff Writer

Local activists who complain that the Reagan Administration is trying to stall the peace process in Central America are protesting what they see as yet another federal roadblock.

Actually, it's a parking-lot block.

The protesters are complaining about the Sept. 27 closure of the Federal Building parking lot in Westwood, which authorities said was necessary to prevent violence when 2,500 pro- and anti-Administration demonstrators assembled at the building to voice their views on U. S. military aid to anti-Sandinista rebels fighting in Nicaragua.

Demonstrators parked their cars on nearby streets, clogging traffic, upsetting residents and annoying many other protesters who had to walk several blocks to get to the Federal Building.

"It was an extreme inconvenience," said Ron Kovic, a Marine Corps veteran who is paralyzed from the chest down from injuries suffered in combat in the Vietnam War.

"I feel enraged and insulted that I was forced to park a half-mile from the demonstration and push myself (in a wheelchair) through heavy traffic," Kovic said. "They created more turmoil by what they did than could ever have occurred in the parking lot."

Kovic said police refused to let him park in the lot even though his wheelchair was clearly visible in the back seat of his car and despite his repeated protests that he needed to park there because he is disabled.

Other protesters said they had to carry heavy boxes of bumper stickers, buttons and other demonstration materials along several blocks and across busy intersections.

Spokesmen for the Days of Decision campaign, which sponsored the demonstration by 25 groups opposing aid to the Nicaraguan contras, said they plan to ask the American Civil Liberties Union whether they have grounds to sue the federal government for violating constitutional guarantees of free speech and free assembly.

"I don't see any reason they can justify that (the closure)," said Jerry Rubin, director of the Los Angeles office of Alliance for Survival, which participated in the demonstration. "It is not constitutionally fair."

It only the third time in four years that authorities have closed the lot during a demonstration, said Lt. John Bier of the Federal Protective Service, which polices the Federal Building grounds.

He said he made the decision because the 12 officers on duty were needed on the lawn, where the demonstration took place, and would not have been able to control possible unrest in the parking lot.

"It was basically for (the protesters') own protection and most of them accepted it," he said. "When there are counter groups of this kind . . . it's very easy when they get inflamed that people reach into their cars and reach for things they shouldn't have. Once it escalates to that point there's no stopping it."

Asked why he did not call for backup from the Los Angeles Police Department or the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, Bier said officers from those agencies cannot come onto federal property unless a U. S. attorney signs an authorization making the federal government liable if the officers are injured. Other agencies' insurance policies do not cover officers while on duty on federal property, he said.

"If the situation is not violent, it's very possible and probable that the U. S. attorney would not get involved in this and (would) suggest to the officer to control the situation by closing parts of (the property) down," said Mary Filippini, spokeswoman for the federal General Services Administration, which oversees the Federal Protective Service.

Bier said authorizations are granted only in "life and death situations," such as a demonstration on Sept. 20 during which an activist set himself on fire to protest human rights abuses under Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The incident sparked isolated confrontations in the parking lot and required the aid of helmeted police and sheriff's officers.

The man who set himself on fire, 31-year-old Neusha Farrahi of Tarzana, was admitted to County-USC Medical Center Sept. 20 and remains in extremely critical condition with burns over 70% of his body, hospital spokeswoman Adelaide De La Cerda said Thursday.

Bier said the immolation was "not a major aspect of our decision" to close the parking lot, even though it occurred one week before the anti-contra demonstration.

Spokesmen for the protesters rejected Bier's explanations, saying the parking lot closure was politically motivated.

"It was a very blatant attempt at harassment," said Cynthia Anderson, legislative coordinator for the Interfaith Task Force on Central America, which represents about 50 local religious congregations opposed to U. S. aid to the contras. "If they were sincere about protecting us, they should have notified us ahead of time. It was quite a surprise."

Anderson said the groups were denied a protest permit on Sept. 23, more than two months after they applied for one and only four days before the demonstration was to take place. The permit was granted after the ACLU intervened at the last minute, she said, but the groups were still denied parking, a decision they did not learn of until only hours before the event.

Kovic said the event was the first time he can remember in his many years of protesting that federal authorities have blocked off a parking lot to demonstrators.

"This has never happened in the 18 years that I've been demonstrating for peace," he said. "If the Constitution is going to mean anything at all then people are going to have to respect the right to assemble. The right to assemble was tampered with the other night."

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