Truncheons in the dark drown out sunny message

As Clinton spoke words of hope,
the riot police swung into action

DOUG SAUNDERS

Wednesday, August 16, 2000

LOS ANGELES -- The taste of tear gas did not begin to tickle my throat until Rage Against the Machine was near the end of its set. Bored by Hillary Clinton's drone, I had stepped outside the Democratic National Convention to catch a protest concert by Rage, a band whose mestizo rhythms are an embodiment of the new Los Angeles.

They did not disappoint. Zack de la Rocha's strident voice carried an optimistic message of democracy, and Tom Morello's fuzz-box funk left the crowd shaking in the pit where the stage was set up. With half a dozen helicopters buzzing close overhead and razor wire surrounding the 100-metre-wide fenced-in pit, it was a fitting venue for the band, whose latest album is titled The Battle of Los Angeles.

Rage finished its set. Satisfied and placid, the audience began to wander out of the pit through its single, narrow exit. An ad hoc Latino combo began playing solid grooves onstage, and the remaining crowd, about 1,000 kids, began to dance.

But over by the fence, a few dozen troublemakers had been tossing water bottles and debris over the fence, taunting police and setting small fires on the asphalt, since about half way through the Rage performance. The police had answered with some shots of tear gas and pepper spray, enough to give the air an acrid sting. It was typical rock-and-roll machismo, and about 200 people stood around to watch the skirmish.

I listened to President Bill Clinton's speech from inside the arena on my Walkman as the band played. The stench of pepper spray was becoming overwhelming, so I moved closer to the stage. Mr. Clinton uttered a line borrowed from Harry Truman: "If you want to live like a Republican, you better vote for the Democrats."

At that instant, the power to the concert was cut. A voice came over the speakers.

"This is Commander Brennan of the Los Angeles Police Department. We declare this to be an unlawful assembly. We command all protesters to disperse. You are now in contravention of section 409 of the California Criminal Code."

The troublemakers, wearing anarchists' black hoods, linked arms and ran through the exit.

The concertgoers remained, milling about and confused.

The single narrow exit was blocked by riot police.

"Now, we're also more hopeful because we ended welfare as we knew it. Now those who can work must work," Mr. Clinton was saying.

Cdr. Brennan repeated his warning. Another phalanx of riot police, these on horseback, appeared at the exit, and slowly moved toward the crowd, pinning us against the opposite fence. Nobody knew where to go. There was a stronger stench of tear gas.

"We are a more secure country because we cut crime with tougher enforcement, more than 100,000 new community police officers," Mr. Clinton was saying.

Cdr. Brennan, meanwhile, was repeating his warning for the third time, but the crowd still did not know where to go. About 20 minutes had passed since the power had been cut.

Then the mounted officers charged, clubs swinging. The crowd panicked and ran. My wife, who has been in riots before, held my arm and reminded me that running is the worst thing to do. This entailed a difficult act of restraint because the horses were gaining on us, and I could hear clubs hitting heads immediately behind me.

"Now, the American military is the best trained, best equipped, most effective fighting force in the world," Mr. Clinton said. "Any adversary who believes those who say otherwise is making a grave mistake."

The police and their horses drove the crowd straight into a long line of riot police on foot. They were kneeling on the ground with shotguns aimed at us. We were pressed into a narrow gauntlet about four metres across. I heard a pop, and sparks and smoke emerged from a shotgun muzzle. There were more pops, dozens of them. A man beside me keeled over in pain. I saw hard rubber pellets the size of marbles on the ground. Those who moved back from the shotgun fire were clubbed by the officers on horseback.

Some of us raised our arms in the air, moving to kneel on the ground. The riot police advanced forward, cursing us and clubbing people randomly. Those who asked for help finding an exit were clubbed repeatedly. The narrow street exit suddenly cleared, and we moved through the gauntlet toward it.

My wife and I escaped just as the horses advanced again, trampling people as they went. We saw a man pinned under a horse, his friends trying to pull him out.

Mr. Clinton burst from my headphones. "My fellow Americans, are we better off today than we were eight years ago? You bet we are. You bet we are."

The crowd was corralled into a city street, slowly moving away from the arena. There was nowhere to move but forward. More pops filled the air -- they were firing rubber bullets into our backs from behind.

There was more panic and running. An 11-year-old girl was struck in the back and fell. A group of cameramen sheltered an unconscious, older man struck in the chest. A group of people tried to hoist an injured man over a fence. The police fired in their direction. Those who lingered behind to help the injured were clubbed repeatedly.

"Remember, whenever you think about me, keep putting people first. Keep building those bridges. And don't stop thinking about tomorrow," Mr. Clinton said.

The dreadful Fleetwood Mac song by the same title -- Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow -- then filled the stadium. The Democrats filed out, staring at the field of debris, rubber bullets and bloodstained clothes.

"It's all right if they want to protest," one woman said, surveying the scene, "but do they have to litter?"


This article was free to distribute.

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.