The Protests

Daily Convention Coverage


Lowell Fletcher and his girlfriend set out for Los Angeles from Kansas 12 days ago, their thumbs extended on the side of the road. It took them a while to get picked up, but the hitching got good soon enough and a series of truckers and cars got them to L.A. in time for the protests. Fletcher, 19, was born and raised in Kansas. Despite living in the most prosperous era in the most prosperous country the world has ever known, he say he's neither happy nor prospering. "I absolutely don't feel free," he tells me in L.A.'s Pershing Square, the staging area for the protesters. "I have to watch my back for the cops. I have to work to pay my rent. I only travel twice a year. I have people over me."

There's a reason Lowell has to watch his back. He's running with the now notorious Black Block, a loose confederation of young anarchists. He was with them in Seattle and D.C. "Seattle was empowering," he tells me in language borrowed from Lawrence, Kansas, the college town he calls home. "But it hurt, too." D.C. was just a disappointment, he adds, because his tactics failed.

By now, all the reporters know to follow the Black Block: That's where the action is. If car windows get smashed, it'll be them. If the police line is charged, chances are it'll be by people dressed in black, their faces covered with a signature black or red bandanna. Those are the tactics of which he speaks. The cops know this too. Later, when the march sets out for the Staples Center, the LAPD flanks the Black Block; the cops go so far as to clear local onlookers from the sidewalks as the marchers pass.

Lowell's a well-spoken, intelligent guy. He became interested in radical politics through the punk scene, and he's envious that I, 11 years his senior, used to regularly catch bands such as Suicidal Tendencies, Circle Jerks, Seven Seconds, and Social Distortion years ago as they passed through the Sacramento music scene. He wants to be a teacher, but says he can't afford college out of pocket and is unwilling to take out loans for that purpose. He feels hemmed in, oppressed. He takes his intellectual inspiration from Noam Chomsky and Emma Goldman. He recently saw former Dead Kennedy front man and failed Green Party presidential nominee Jello Biafra read poetry.

"I'm an anti-capitalist," he tells me, as the So-Cal sun bakes us both, although him a bit more since he's dressed entirely in black. "I support autonomous communities, power at the local level, not the state." He says he's wants to get his message out to the people in the streets and especially to the suits in the offices. But when I ask him what his message is, he replies, "I couldn't give that to you. So much needs to change."

I push him on the issue of "freedom," asking him what system other than capitalism provides more individuals with more freedom to find meaning, pursue their happiness, and live life on their own terms. He says he hasn't studied the other prime alternatives–Castro's Cuba, Tito's Yugoslavia, Mao's China, Soviet Russia, post-colonial Africa–and he gets upset when he thinks I'm inferring that he's a socialist. Yet he's sure that other things could work. At rock bottom, what he seems to want is a guaranteed income, guaranteed success.

"There's a lot of things I want to do but since I have to work for money they're just not options," he tells me, as we walk towards a returning march dedicated to saving trees. "I'd like to be a musician, but I can't make enough money. I want to be a writer, but I can't make enough money. So I have to serve coffee to rich people."

I point out that people do earn livings both as musicians and writers. But that's no good. "Even if you're a major musician, you have to do what someone else wants," he complains.

Lowell is just one data point–and I make no claim that he represents the General Will of the protesters. But having been of a like mind in high school and my freshman year of college, and having spent two days among them recently in D.C., a day with them in Philadelphia, and another with them in Los Angeles, I don't think he's an exception either.

Many protesters are kids raging not against the machine per se. Rather, they're upset that growing up entails a series of bitter disappointments. First, they find out that there's no Santa Claus. Then they figure out that one has to work to eat and to make rent, that having more free time generally means less money, and that fame and success aren't a birthright, not even in America. You've got to earn everything, and that, they conclude, just sucks.

This is what I learned on Monday, when I spent time with the protesters at Pershing Square. As various speakers lectured the crowd from a makeshift stage, the longing for Seattle was palpable. "Anyone remember Seattle?" said a woman longshoreman in a typical refrain from the stage. "We have to remember that labor and environmentalists are the majority of the world."

But the protesters recognize that it's all been downhill since Seattle. The protests in D.C. were a massive flop–partly because the police vexed them with questionable tactics and partly because the protesters failed to mobilize the numbers and stay focused. In Philadelphia, there were even fewer radicals in the streets. They were also more scattered and had less impact on anything, except the local bail-bond trade. In Los Angeles, they've managed to march in circles, throw chunks of concrete and water bottles at cops, and get roughly 40 compatriots arrested after a rock concert outside the Staples Center. But what exactly is the point?

"I do a lot of tree-sitting, call me anytime," Kim Marks, who's with some anti-logging alliance, told me shortly after I arrived. The theme of the hour was clear-cutting and logging in general. Butterfly Lady, the tree-loving celebrity, was saying it's time to throw the tea back into the harbor.

Time passed and the program progressed. The former drummer of The Doors, John Densmore, was on stage, reading a poem about prison set to bongo beats. It was hot and the next march wasn't set to go off for hours. The only shade I could find was next to a concrete wall. The ground was moist. The air smelled of urine. I walked across the street to the air-conditioned Regal Biltmore and was granted entrance to the tightly secured hotel only due to my press credential.

Earlier in the day, marchers and police had clashed when, to hear it from the protesters, cops clubbed them without provocation. The cops I met inside the Biltmore were telling a slightly different story. Sgt. Andre Belotto of the LAPD was briefing reporters just inside the Olive Street entrance. "We welcome everyone to Los Angeles," Belotto said as Officer Reginald Gay looked on. "We want them to have a good time." He added a caveat: "We saw what went on in Seattle, D.C., and Philadelphia, and we are not going to allow that here." Those are somewhat chilling words, coming from a police department that long ago shed its Dragnet and Adam-12 image and is now best known for beating Rodney King, employing Mark Fuhrman, and a current scandal in which cops framed gang members while helping themselves to drug evidence.

Democratic delegates were walking by, thanking the assembled officers for their efforts. Ten feet away, hotel employees and conventioneers were taking pictures with two officers, who showed off the round shiny silver cartridges, roughly 8 inches long and 1 inch around, that held the foam rubber baton bullets that would later be fired at protesters.

Belotto elaborated on the LAPD's position: The cops are not going to let protesters, anarchists or otherwise, break their lines, which is exactly what they tried to do earlier. A group of protester, he said, charged the police line, and then retreated into the crowd. Arrests were made.

I asked Belotto how the cops separated the peaceful protesters from the provocateurs, mentioning the criticism that arrests often seem random. He explained the standard operating procedure: Protesters get a permit to march from point A to point B at a designated time. Marching implies motion, says Belotto, which means they are in violation of the law if they stop. If they do stop, the police will tell them to move and offer a route. If they don't ambulate, they are all in violation of the law and subject to arrest. It's the responsibility of the protesters to police themselves and ensure that a few rabble-rousers –that is, members of the Black Block—don't land everyone in jail. Said Belotto, "It's a matter of responsibility for the big group to police the small group."

This mindset explains events that go down later. In the evening, I marched with the protesters to the Staples Center, arriving sometime after 6:00 PM. On the way, I witnessed the cops mindlessly moving onlookers off the sidewalk and onto the street, even though they were simply shopping, or working, and had no active interest in the march. I witnessed protesters mindlessly taunting cops, who are working 12 hour shifts, plus overtime if they want it, every day in unbearably hot sun. "Racist, Sexist, Anti-Gay, LAPD Go Away!" chanted a woman at the front of the march as we passed an intersection secured by the cops. Just for effect, she also threw in "Fascists!"

The confrontation came a couple hours later, as President Clinton delivered his farewell address to the adoring crowd inside the Staples Center. The radical chic band, Rage Against the Machine, which had put on a free concert, had finished raging, but their machines still hummed with electricity. The cops, upset that some protesters were climbing the fence that separated them from the Staples Center, pulled the plug on the stage, announced that the fun was over, and ordered people to leave in 15 minutes. Many left, but some didn't, choosing instead to start fires, climb fences, and chuck bottles and softball-size chunks of concrete at police officers.

Depending on who you believe –after five to ten minutes, according to protesters, or after more than 15 minutes, according to the cops—the LAPD charged in on horseback, firing crowd-dispersing foam-rubber baton bullets. When I left the Staples Center after Clinton's speech, the fires were still smoldering and chunks of concrete and partially filled bottles of water littered the area just outside the protest zone. The cops had the area secured and the exits through which conventioneers had to pass were horribly congested. "The protesters are throwing bottles at us," a cop told me, as I complained about the clogged exits on the way out.

The LAPD arrested 152 people Monday. I don't know if Lowell Fletcher was among them. But I do know that we are no closer to living in a world in which he doesn't have to work to pay rent.