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CONVENTION 2000 / THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

Mediators Work at Ground Zero

Federal employees wage shuttle diplomacy between police and protesters. They are lauded for helping maintain relative peace.

August 18, 2000|DUKE HELFAND and CARLA HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Vermont McKinney was at the eye of virtually every explosive episode on the streets of Los Angeles this week.

Looking like a camp counselor in khaki pants, a navy blue polo shirt and baseball cap, McKinney placed his body many times between riot-helmeted police and shouting protesters. He helped bring the two sides together in private meetings to orchestrate everything from march routes to arrest procedures.

McKinney and 14 other mediators from the U.S. Department of Justice walked their own delicate blue line to maintain an intermittent peace during the Democratic National Convention, most memorably defusing a confrontation in front of the LAPD's Rampart station house Wednesday.

As members of the Department of Justice's Community Relations Service, they are unarmed civilians, unable to arrest anyone, and they cannot be subpoenaed to testify in court about events they encounter on the job. They carry only fanny packs with water bottles, radios, pens and paper.

Their ability to maintain peace won praise both from police and protesters.

"We are here to try to prevent an escalation of tension, to avoid violence," said McKinney, the team's leader and a former basketball star at Jordan High in Watts.

The mediator service was created by the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Although they are little known and understaffed--there are just 41 community relations mediators nationwide--they have worked behind the scenes through many of the nation's most explosive events, including the Elian Gonzalez tug of war in Miami, the aftermath of the 1998 police shooting of Tyisha Miller in Riverside and the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

Aware of the potential for sudden--and deadly--conflict in Los Angeles, the service tripled its local contingent, flying in staff from across the country.

In Los Angeles, the mediators helped protesters figure out where to park their buses and how to move their cumbersome flatbed trucks. More important, they waged shuttle diplomacy between police and protesters.

The mediators' first night was not a promising debut. On Monday, demonstrators by Staples Center began to throw concrete blocks at police. Officers on horseback moved in and other police began shooting rubber bullets.

Ron Wakabayashi, director of the mediator service's western region, pulled his staff out of the area just before police declared the protest an unlawful assembly.

"I knew there was nothing more they could do," Wakabayashi said. "It's a hard call. Some wanted to hang in there until the last minute."

Wednesday was much more successful. With the midday heat pounding downtown, mediator Kenith Bergeron planted himself on the sidewalk near Pershing Square after officers, guns cocked and loaded with rubber bullets, lunged toward the jeering demonstrators.

"Keep moving, keep moving, let's keep it moving everyone," Bergeron shouted as the tense moment passed and the protesters resumed their strained march toward Staples Center.

McKinney and mediator Carol Russo played the part of diplomats earlier in the day, when they helped broker and conduct meetings between Rampart Division police and protesters marching on the station. The two sides met in MacArthur Park, as they had the day before at the station, to iron out details of the march and the arrests. As a result, the civil disobedience ended peacefully; 37 protesters were arrested without trouble.

The Rampart station commander, Capt. Mike Moore, said the mediators helped keep tensions down.

Moore said that during the Wednesday march, he and other officers became concerned about a group of demonstrators who broke off from the rest of the crowd, covered their faces in hoods and began hoisting bottles containing an unknown liquid.

He spoke with one of the mediators, who then talked with the group, and those dissident protesters "just sort of dissolved."

"In my opinion, they've been able to work with the crowds, and reach out to some of the sub-factions, and say, listen, think about what you're doing here, you don't want to get arrested and not be able to have your say." Protest organizers said the mediators are effective because they have forged relationships with both sides.

"I've seen them de-escalate tensions in the streets," said Victor Narro, an organizer of a march Thursday against sweatshops and director of the Workers' Rights Project at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

"They're also risking their lives to be on the streets. It's a good side of the federal government."

*

Times staff writer Janet Wilson contributed to this story.

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