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LAPD and Protesters Study the Lessons of Philadelphia


PHILADELPHIA — As Los Angeles gears up for mass protests during the upcoming Democratic National Convention, police and activists are looking to this city for clues on how to manage the potentially volatile drama created by mixing street theater, civil disobedience, scores of visiting dignitaries and a 15,000-member press corps.

The Los Angeles Police Department is taking a mixed message home from the Republican National Convention:

LAPD observers on the scene said they admire their Philadelphia colleagues' restraint, including their refusal to use tear gas or pepper spray, even when days of orderly protests devolved into a running street battle in which demonstrators and police were injured.

"The message we will be conveying [to officers] is to be tolerant and do not take independent action," said LAPD Cmdr. Mark Leap, who was in Philadelphia this week, watching the local police.

But Cmdr. Tom Lorenzen, who is heading the LAPD's convention planning unit, is skeptical about the relevance of Philadelphia's experience. The Democratic Convention in Los Angeles will be "180 degrees different for a million reasons," he said. "The venue is different, the geography, the laws, the political agenda of the party in question, the reduced resources of the anarchists on the East Coast versus the West Coast. . . . This is going to be a hugely different event."

LAPD observers were particularly impressed, however, with Philadelphia police tactics that outraged protesters and civil libertarians--including a preemptive strike on a warehouse containing puppets and signs that activists planned to use in the streets and the arrests of high-profile organizers as they walked the streets.

Activists say that they too have learned important lessons after their rowdy street action was portrayed in local media as unfocused and purposeless. "We're going to have to be thinking about our media strategy and getting our message out," said Jia Ching Chen, who has helped organize Los Angeles protests and was in Philadelphia this week.

In Los Angeles, he said, activists plan to make their points about police brutality, income inequality and other issues by blocking access to specific fund-raisers or corporate and government offices rather than random streets, as was done in Philadelphia.

"In L.A., it's not about shutting down an area of town," Chen said.

If there is one lesson to be taken from Philadelphia, it is that police and nonviolent protest organizers have difficulty controlling small bands of activists who attack police.

Some Tried to Provoke Police

Although the vast majority of demonstrators were peaceful, officials estimated that during Tuesday afternoon's incident as many as 300 protesters either attacked police or tried to goad them into violence. Fifteen officers were injured, one with a concussion and another with a broken arm.

"I've never really experienced the intent to harm officers and the ferociousness of the intent that I saw the other night," said Philadelphia Police Commissioner John Timoney, who was bruised while trying to stop demonstrators from trashing a parked car. "This is like the third or fourth city now, and L.A. might be the fifth where we've seen this."

Los Angeles' protest organizers have laid down more stringent action guidelines than their Philadelphia counterparts, urging all involved to refrain from violence or vandalism.

Still, Chen said, "it's really something that we can't control and can't be accountable for because we understand that the [violent protesters'] actions are politically motivated."

Further complicating matters, police and protesters will be operating in a dramatically different physical situation in Los Angeles, said the LAPD's Lorenzen.

The Republicans gathered in a sports arena miles from Philadelphia's heart, surrounded by iron fences and acres of parking lots. Protesters massed at the convention site only once--at the conclusion of one long, hot and orderly four-mile march from City Hall.

In contrast, the Democratic convention, will be at Staples Center in the heart of downtown. And after a federal judge ruled that the city was violating the 1st Amendment by trying to keep protesters away from the site, activists will be allowed to stand across the street from the arena's entrance. Police also will be stretched far thinner than in Philadelphia because of Los Angeles' sprawl and because the LAPD has fewer officers per city resident than the Philadelphia department has.

While Philadelphia attracted 2,000 to 4,000 activists, more are expected in Los Angeles. City officials have expressed particular concern about as many as 1,000 anarchists who are expected to attend a conference scheduled for the week of the Democratic convention. Many anarchists are pacifists, but some anarchist organizations espouse political vandalism.

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