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Convention Planners Wary of a New Style of Protest

Security: Havoc at Staples after Laker victory piqued concerns. August will bring better-organized hordes.

June 23, 2000|NICHOLAS RICCARDI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the Democratic Party comes to town in August to crown Al Gore as its presidential nominee, no one other than credentialed press, convention staff and delegates will be allowed within shouting distance of Staples Center.

Wary of the hordes of protesters who disrupted World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund meetings in Seattle and Washington, D.C., and who have long been targeting the Democratic National Convention, local authorities have designated the streets around the arena, where the convention will be held, an impassable "secure zone."

It was on those same streets this week that crowds of Laker fans celebrating their team's championship wreaked havoc, setting cars on fire and running wild. That sight sent a shiver through Los Angeles City Hall and reverberated in Washington and Gore's campaign headquarters in Nashville, as Democrats are looking toward Los Angeles to host a gala that they expect to launch his final push to the White House.

But the violent flare-up Monday night has only surface parallels to the events that will unfold here around the convention. The Monday vandals were late-night, probably drunken revelers who took to the streets around Staples. What's coming in August is a far more organized, disciplined and determined bunch of protesters--people here to make a point, not to blow off steam.

So different are the issues that organizers of the convention protests worry that police will take advantage of this week's unrest to justify tougher measures in August.

"They're using the specter of violence to scare the people of L.A. from coming out," said Preston Woods, an organizer of one planned demonstration. "But demonstrators are not the source of violence in L.A."

Faced with the challenge of allowing those demonstrations but not allowing them to get out of hand, authorities have taken steps that they call prudent--but that the demonstrators say are oppressive.

Police are asking all demonstrators to sign up for hourly turns in a designated protest area on the side of a Staples Center parking lot farthest from the arena. They are planning to barricade some of the rest of the 10-acre area around the stadium, blocking at least one section with fences.

And, after three months of deliberation, they still are undecided about whether to grant a protest permit to one march--a demonstration for death row inmate and cause celebre Mumia Abu Jamal--scheduled to enter the security zone the day before the convention begins.

Balancing a Set of Competing Rights

To activists and their attorneys, who plan to challenge the restrictions and the city's permit policy in court, the moves are a blatant attempt to stifle free speech.

"This is the core democratic exercise in our society. This is where people come together and select a candidate for president," said attorney Carol Sobel. "But you can't let the people get near them."

Authorities defend their plan as balancing the rights of demonstrators against those of the thousands of visitors and delegates expected to arrive in August.

"We're confident the measures are being implemented in a way that protects people's rights to express themselves but also allows people to participate in the convention, which is also a form of expression," said Peter Ragone, a spokesman for the convention committee.

The attempt by Los Angeles and federal authorities to control protests is similar to actions by police at the 1992 and 1996 conventions, where demonstrators were also confined to official protest areas. In those years, activists grudgingly stayed inside their protest zones and held their demonstrations on schedule.

This time, they promise something different: They say they will refuse to be penned in, either here or in Philadelphia, site of the Republican National Convention.

The fight over the site of the Battle of Los Angeles--as some organizers have dubbed the August protests--demonstrates the recent sea change in U.S. activism.

"There's a new movement which sees corporate power, government power and police power as merging together to marginalize the rights of indigenous peoples, the powerless and workers," said organizer Don White. "To participate in a police [protest] plan is almost an insult."

That new assertiveness is combined with a protest movement that has been studying and practicing all year. Los Angeles Police Department officials acknowledge that they are facing a new movement and say they're prepared to use special vigilance as a result.

"Attitudes have changed considerably since Seattle," said Lt. Len Hundshamer of the department's convention planning group. "While attitudes toward how to demonstrate have changed, obviously, that has changed attitudes on the security side.

"We don't want them closing down a political convention in our city."

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