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Small turnout, big questions

Rallies draw a fraction of last year's crowd as activists ponder the movement's future. Clash erupts in evening.

May 02, 2007|Teresa Watanabe and Francisco Vara-Orta | Times Staff Writers

Waving U.S. flags and demanding citizenship for undocumented immigrants, tens of thousands of jubilant protesters marched through the streets of Los Angeles on Tuesday during a mostly peaceful day that ended with clashes between police and demonstrators in MacArthur Park.

Fifteen police officers were among those hurt. About 10 people were taken from MacArthur Park by ambulance to hospitals for treatment, said d'Lisa Davies, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Fire Department. She said the injuries mainly were cuts, including head and neck wounds. None of the injuries were believed to be serious. Police reported that one demonstrator was arrested.

About 35,000 people turned out at two Los Angeles rallies, far fewer than the combined 115,000 that organizers had anticipated and greatly fewer than the roughly 650,000 who turned out at rallies last year.

Turnouts were light across the country compared to last year, when millions of marchers in 150 cities took to the streets.

Chicago -- home of the original May 1 International Workers' Day more than a century ago -- drew the largest crowd with 150,000, while New York's rally drew only hundreds.

In Los Angeles, after police tried to disperse demonstrators who had moved off the sidewalk onto Alvarado Street about 6 p.m., some of the few thousand participants still in the park started throwing plastic bottles and rocks at officers.

Then, several dozen riot police, clad in helmets and wielding batons, started clearing the park, firing a few dozen volleys of foam bullets into the crowd.

Late Tuesday, a spokesman for Telemundo confirmed that one reporter and three camera operators from the Spanish-language TV station had been injured and had been taken to a hospital by police.

Another TV station, Fox 11, showed video on its 10 p.m. newscast of a Fox camerawoman apparently being struck by a baton-wielding police officer.

The violence began unfolding when a helicopter flew low over the east side of the park and sirens blasted as police ordered people out of the park, telling them they would be arrested if they didn't leave.

The police formed a riot line across the park on the east side, forcing the crowd to move west. Some participants were yelling at police, "You can't do this."

About 6:45 p.m., police ordered the last people out of MacArthur Park, mostly news personnel and some marchers filming the police actions, declaring an "unlawful assembly."

One of those at the scene, Hamid Khan, who works at South Asia Network, termed the police action "absolutely an atrocity" and said officers overreacted.

The police action had cut short several speeches, he said, as people left when the confrontation began. "All this shooting is an atrocity," he said.

Another confrontation came about 6:50 p.m., still well before nightfall, when a police car with lights blazing was bombarded by bottles and clothes as it passed. A line of officers fired several volleys of the foam bullets from wide-barreled launchers resembling shotguns. People started running while throwing things, including plastic bottles and palm fronds, at Metro buses. One hit a bus with a piece of wood.

More police cars streamed north on Rampart Boulevard and west on 6th Street. In Lafayette Park, several police jumped out with batons and tackled crowd members, arresting someone in the big pile. They chased reporters away.

Late Tuesday, Police Chief William J. Bratton, speaking at a hastily arranged news conference at MacArthur Park, promised a department review "to determine if the use of force was appropriate."

He said police responded after "certain elements of the crowd ... began to create a series of disturbances."

During that activity, Bratton said, "Missiles were being thrown at the officers, and officers [were] responding."

Still, Bratton said, the demonstrators creating problems were few and "that the vast, vast majority of the people who were here were behaving appropriately."

L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who was traveling in El Salvador at the start of a nine-day trade mission, called the MacArthur Park incident an aberration in an otherwise calm protest.

"This was a most unfortunate end to a very peaceful day," Villaraigosa said in San Salvador. "Order has been fully restored. The situation in the neighborhood is presently calm. There continues to be a police presence in the neighborhood."

Villaraigosa said he asked Bratton, who was scheduled to join the mayor in El Salvador and Mexico, to remain in Los Angeles to oversee a "complete and comprehensive review of this incident, including deployment, tactics and use of force."

The mayor said he also was calling for the Police Commission to assess what happened.

The incident capped a day of disappointment for march organizers, who -- along with Los Angeles police and other officials -- mobilized for massive crowds that did not materialize, and pro-immigrant activists pondered whether their movement had fizzled.

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