Cops Scare, Fool the Media

It was an odd fact of the demonstrations surrounding the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles that the only protests to get mass media coverage were those where cops moved in and arrested people.

The only news from the streets of L.A. on August 14, for example, was that the police broke up a 8,000-person rock concert that evening outside the Staples Center, carting off about 15 people who had thrown bottles and chunks of concrete across a high-security fence. The next day networks and newspapers covered the arrests of 25 animal rights activists who banged on a fur shop window and approximately 75 members of the bicycle group Critical Mass who were surrounded and arrested by a legion of motorcycle cops.

But other than this kind of coverage of police hauling off protesters to jail, the press seemed to be fairly befuddled about how to describe what the demonstrators were doing. Delegates were similarly unclear about the demonstrators' intentions. "I don't even know what they're demonstrating about," Michigan delegate Bill Hanner told the Los Angeles Times. "I don't think they're doing a very good job of getting their message out, because we're very willing to listen."

This is bad news for the thousands of activists, workers and students who poured into L.A. to attend peaceful rallies on the drug war, police brutality, corporate power, globalization, youth criminalization, welfare, educational reform, capital punishment, sweatshop labor, Ralph Nader's inclusion in the presidential debates and dozens of other issues on the progressive agenda. These issues are important ones, but because they are so diverse and because the protests weren't always directed specifically at the Democrats, media coverage has been less than astute. Typical coverage on CNN showed footage of demonstrators in handcuffs and black-clad, masked anarchists walking down the street and then quickly returned to covering the convention.

Certainly competing with a media event like the Democratic National Convention is no easy feat. But leaders of the various activist movements in L.A. could have been more media-savvy. Ever since activists had their coming out party in Seattle last November, there has been much hand-wringing about how to keep a coalition of labor, environmentalists, anti-globalists and other members of the American left together while remaining non-hierarchical: How to replicate the success of Seattle? How to get messages across?

"This weird psychology had set in where they're so afraid of losing the momentum of Seattle that they have to keep organizing the next Seattle or the whole thing will dissipate," says Naomi Klein, author of No Logo. "And so a tremendous amount of resources and energy and creativity is being thrown into moving bodies to protest. But the protests since have not been as pulled together, and the protests have been thrown together too quickly."

Klein says that a centralizing issue for demonstrators and activists in Los Angeles should have been corporate influence over politics. Yet no such thing happened. Speakers continually raised the issue of corruption of politics by big business, but not in a way that got the attention of the media who could disseminate their message.

One exception to this was the Million Billionaires March on August 14, where nearly 10,000 people showed up to condemn the wealth gap, chanting: "Corporation go to hell! Our community is not for sale!" Unfortunately, this successful protest was capped off by the concert outside the Staples Center where a few demonstrators became raucous and the cops moved in with their batons and rubber bullets.

In part, the Seattle protests were such a success because they showed that collective decision-making could work both to organize people and get Americans to think about the repercussions of globalization. Time magazine even published an article about globalization and the protests, which included a diagram of the activists' decentralized organizing methods.

No such coverage likely will come out of Los Angeles. Instead, the media will probably focus on the LAPD's extreme and questionable tactics of crowd control. The ACLU has announced plans to sue the LAPD for attacks on the media. The first night of the convention, police fired rubber bullets at press members documenting the violent end to a rock concert. On August 16, L.A. policemen hit a CNN soundperson who was recording the anti-police brutality march, sending her to the hospital. L.A. police are also doing their best to scare journalists away from the demonstrations. "The cops told me to hide my press pass under my shirt," says journalist Barbara Ehrenreich. "They said I would be attacked by the kids, but that is absolutely ridiculous."

Legal observers are also paying close attention to such events as a march and rally to protest police brutality and the death penalty on August 16. Police managed to divide a group of 1,500 or so demonstrators on a street through which they had a permit to pass, accused the demonstrators of "illegal assembly" and barred them from entering their final destination: a chain-linked fence area in front of the Staples convention that the police themselves had created for the protesters' rallies.

The day before, cops faced down a crowd of people who had witnessed the arrest of the Critical Mass bicyclists a few blocks from the convention center. Instead of taking the bicyclists off to jail, police placed them in a parked paddy wagon, brought in approximately 100 motorcycle cops and stood with their batons, pepper spray guns and other weapons at the ready, waiting, it seems, for the observers to either attack them or disperse from the area. "We are not the enemy!" shouted members of the crowd.

It is times like this that call for a leader (or even a few visible representatives from the various movements) to help get the message out to the press. These representatives could call in police abuses to media outlets and simultaneously talk up key issues. They could, as was the case during the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the protests in Seattle, get Americans to understand why they are on the street.

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