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Protesters Ride on Myth and Legend

August 13, 2000|HECTOR TOBAR

They've wrapped up Staples Center behind a ribbon of concrete barriers and hurricane fencing so tall that not even Shaquille O'Neal could reach the top. Maybe that will make Al Gore and his friends feel safer inside the glass palace that's hosting the Democratic National Convention. But it doesn't do much for those standing outside.

Call it "the convention curtain." Shawn (who wouldn't give his last name), the manager of a car stereo store on Flower Street, took it as an ominous sign when it appeared one morning just a few yards from his front door. "I'll stay open the first day. But if it gets bad, I'm going to close. I have to."

Fernando Ojeda, a taco stand owner on Figueroa Street, worries too. Someone, he doesn't know who, posted fliers on the street lamps warning him, warning everybody, that they might be tear-gassed.

It's unpredictability that's driving people mad on the streets around Staples Center. Everyone knows what to expect from the delegates. They will wear funny hats. They will spend a lot of money at our stores. They will nominate Al Gore to be president.

But the protesters? They might drop out of the sky, for all we know. Two of them almost did last week when they rappelled down the side of a building downtown and half-unfurled a banner condemning corporate America. Ojeda craned his neck to watch the drama unfold over his taco stand. He saw the SWAT teams deploy and wondered what might happen when the convention really gets started. "I heard they looted some stores in Philadelphia," he said.

Actually, no stores were looted during the week of the Republican convention, although a few strange things did happen, like the arrest of a protester with a bus filled with animals--skunks, snakes and the like--that he allegedly planned to set loose on the streets.

That story only added to the myth and legend of "the protesters," that amorphous group of people set to descend upon our city starting today. Who are they, Los Angeles wants to know. What will they unleash?

The protesters in Philadelphia seemed like nice enough people. If you had marched with them and you were over 30 you would have felt your age. There was a deliberate, frayed disorder to their appearance, a preference for thrift store chic and camouflage casual.

There was something else different about them: Not one was wearing anything with a corporate logo. They eschewed Nike shirts, Adidas hats and T-shirts advertising bars or any other commercial establishment. They would not allow on their bodies any of the symbol-laden apparel often associated with the young.

Their idealism also reached into their hearts and throats. Gathered one day in a park across from the Philadelphia police headquarters, a few gave impromptu speeches, taking hold of a megaphone they passed from hand to hand.


"We are here protesting the criminal injustice system," one young woman began. She said later she was 22, but she seemed much younger. "We are protesting a system, that, basically, locks up the poor . . . ." Her voice trailed off and she stopped, looking a bit dissatisfied with herself, because here she was making history, and her words didn't quite fit how big the moment was.

About 300 of her friends were in jail across the street, arrested during demonstrations the day before. She had come from North Carolina and wouldn't give her full name, just her "nom de protest," Subo.

Tell me about yourself, Subo was asked. How did you come to believe in your cause?

"It comes from my upbringing," she said. "My father is in the military. I grew up in military towns. They have a lot of diversity. All my life I've been around people of all races."

A few moments later the interview ended. All the reporters present were summoned to a news conference by one of the organizers of a guerrilla theater group called "The Puppetistas" (they make puppets).

"I'd like to welcome all the members of the media," the organizer said, "both independent and corporate."

The writers for the establishment press slumped forward, feeling smaller than they had a minute earlier: no self-respecting writer likes "corporate" attached to his or her title.

Even the most jaded corporate scribe would find it hard not to sympathize with people who ask us to imagine a world without rich or poor, without the new jails that dot the skylines of so many of our cities like modern-day Bastilles.

Shouldn't Los Angeles also welcome these dreamers to its weeklong fiesta? Perhaps, acting on the principle that if you treat people with respect they will respond in kind, the city should extend a polite greeting to the protesters, a little carpet to match the huge red one Mayor Riordan has rolled out for the delegates.

And since this paper is unquestionably establishment, maybe this might be a place to extend an official hello. And so:

Welcome, socialists and anarchists!

Greetings, idealists and malcontents!

Bienvenidos, Puppetistas!

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