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Postcard From Patriotic Hall

August 27, 2000|ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR | Anne-Marie O'Connor is a Times staff writer

It wasn't exactly "Armies of the Night." It was, however, a telling footnote to the just-concluded Democratic National Convention here in Los Angeles. The scene: American literary institution Gore Vidal, facing down dozens of Los Angeles Police Department riot police.

Vidal already appeared mildly withered by the heat when he arrived at sunset wearing an elegant black suit and made his way through the crowd spilling out of the Shadow Convention at Patriotic Hall, just a few blocks from Staples Center.

The five-day event, parallel to the main event and focusing on the growing divide between rich and poor, the inequities of the drug war and campaign finance reform, had been thrown into momentary disarray by a muddled bomb scare. Police ordered organizers to clear the crowded auditorium, where Vidal and other panelists were to comment on a live telecast of the first night of the Democratic National Convention.

Arianna Huffington and the panelists, a diverse cast which included Vidal, noted polemicist Christopher Hitchens, actor Michael McKean and Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, decided to move the panel to the back ramp of a truck parked in front of Patriotic Hall on Figueroa Street. What they did not count on was the arrival of LAPD officers in full riot regalia.

Falling into formation, the officers sealed off Figueroa on both sides of Patriotic Hall. They cut off 18th Street, where there happened to be a Mercedes-Benz dealership, with a solid blue line of officers who faced the panelists with riot gear, batons in their hands and very serious expressions on their faces. Sirens wailed. It was a bizarre, surreal moment. What, exactly, was going on? Vidal stepped forward into the deepening twilight.

"It is evening in America and now we have a concert," he said dryly, as if he were hosting "Masterpiece Theater." "We've just heard the French horns."

A helicopter whirred overhead.

"Offend them in no way at all and save your lives," he deadpanned. "I'll do my best to report from the front. Reminds me of Chicago in 1968," he mused, in a world-weary tone. "That was a merry time. And yes, William F. Buckley was there. I'm simply killing time here 'till the bomb goes off."

"It's a great day to be an American," fellow panelist Hitchens chimed in brightly, in his crisp British accent. "Now you can get a general taste of what it's like to live in a banana republic."

Around then, an officer hustled up and sputtered an embarrassed explanation. Someone had phoned in a tip that people had broken into Patriotic Hall and were looting and rioting, he said. It was, obviously, in error.

The panelists--who would have been the world's best-dressed, most articulate rioters to threaten the sanctity of Los Angeles--went back inside and finished the program, minus a fatigued and fading Vidal.

Huffington, regarding the spectacle of writers mounting the barricades, said: "It was like the Keystone Cops. They threatened that if we did not move off the street, they would use tear gas. . . . I think we sent a clear message that we will not be silenced, and if they take us out of Patriotic Hall, we will take to the streets."

The origins of the bomb scare remain murky. Los Angeles County Office of Public Safety police assigned to guard Patriotic Hall say they had heard a tip over police radio about a bomb in a van somewhere in Los Angeles. Police say their supervisor volunteered a van in the parking lot of Patriotic Hall. They cordoned off the van with yellow tape and detained three independent journalists.

The van was later cleared as a suspect.

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