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CONVENTION 2000 / THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

Marchers, Police Pass First Part of Big Civics Test

Demonstrations against death penalty and police brutality are mostly disciplined, as are officers facing the marchers. Both sides seemed satisfied.

August 14, 2000|MITCHELL LANDSBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the first test of the week for the Los Angeles Police Department, thousands of people wound their way peacefully through downtown on Sunday in a raucous but mostly disciplined protest against the death penalty and police brutality.

After preparing for months for demonstrations timed to coincide with the Democratic National Convention, police faced taunts but no real violence or widespread lawlessness.

The outcome of Sunday's demonstration appeared to satisfy both the LAPD, which has trained vigorously for this week's events, and the demonstrators, who expressed pride at their spirited but peaceful march through the city streets.

Despite fears that the city would be engulfed by anarchists running amok, a sense of mellowness and restraint seemed to characterize several demonstrations held throughout the city Sunday.

However, the coming days are packed with opportunities for more protest and dissent, along with potential flash points for confrontation.

For example, Rage Against the Machine, a militant, loud and popular rock band, plans a free concert outside Staples Center tonight while President Clinton is addressing the convention.

The downtown demonstration Sunday kicked off at Pershing Square in midafternoon in a cacophony of drums, chants and whistles. As demonstrators filled Broadway, shoppers poured out of stores to watch the spectacle.

The march was primarily designed to bring attention to the cause of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former journalist now facing the death penalty in Pennsylvania for murdering a police officer.

Some demonstrators wore black bandannas over their faces in a show of revolutionary zeal; others, gas masks painted to resemble skeleton faces. They held signs, banners and huge papier-mache puppets that carried their message in graphic, sometimes humorous, form.

One 12-foot-tall puppet was designed to resemble an LAPD SWAT officer, holding a baton in one hand and a large red bottle of mock pepper spray in the other. The bottle sprayed water on the crowd--a welcome assault on a day when temperatures climbed into the 90s.

As the marchers approached, some shop owners pulled down gates to cover store windows. "Hurry! Hurry!" they shouted in Spanish.

Amid the Stern Faces, Some Signs of Goodwill

The march proceeded under extraordinary police scrutiny along a route that included Fifth Street, Broadway, Seventh and Figueroa streets until it reached Staples Center. Officers with riot helmets and belts holding tear gas canisters occupied side streets and peered through transparent faceplates as the demonstrators wound their way noisily to the fence of the convention arena.

At one point, about 40 self-described anarchists, clad in black tennis shoes, black jeans, black shirts and black bandannas shrouding their faces--began shouting obscenities and chanting: "L-A-P-D, go away! Racist, sexist, anti-gay!"

At another point, a young man in Army fatigues dropped his pants, flashing his white briefs at the officers. Stone-faced, police didn't react. The youth then pulled an orange from his backpack and threw it down the street, where it splattered on the asphalt. As the youth stalked off, his fists pumping the air victoriously, police continued to ignore him.

But demonstrators as well as police showed self-restraint. And at some points, there were signs of goodwill--or at least good humor--breaking out between authorities and demonstrators. A Fire Department truck pulled up next to the fenced-off protest area outside Staples Center and showered water onto the crowd of sweaty, sun-scorched demonstrators. The impromptu spritzing prompted people to dance and frolic in the spray.

At another point, a man wearing a rubber devil's mask told police through a megaphone: "Attention! Attention! L.A. police, your services are no longer required. Come out with your hands up. You are surrounded by love."

Jim Lafferty, executive director of the Los Angeles office of the National Lawyers' Guild, praised the LAPD officers who lined the route and followed the marchers at a respectful distance as they snaked their way through downtown streets from Pershing Square to Staples Center. "They've been very low-key," he said.

Organizers estimated the size of the crowd at 7,000; police said it was half that. One man was arrested on suspicion of felony vandalism; police identified him as Daniel Katz Woutat, 18, of Long Beach. Paramedics treated as many as a dozen people for heat-related ailments.

Organizers said they were proud of the crowd's behavior.

"We have been orderly, disciplined and we have been able to put out our message that Mumia Abu-Jamal deserves a new trial," said Dele Ailemen, an organizer.

Abu-Jamal awaits execution in Pennsylvania for his killing of a Philadelphia police officer, Daniel Faulkner, on Dec. 9, 1981.

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