On Monday, the first day of the convention, the atmosphere inside (well, not quite inside, as I only have a pass to enter the hall next to Staples Center) is as dull as an airport lounge. This is not a nominating convention in the traditional sense, but a coronation, as Bill Bradley and other candidates have long since conceded to Gore. A powder-puff forum on hiphop and politics called Rap the Vote ("Register. Vote. Represent.") offers up John Singleton, Russell Simmons, and rapper Common telling kids how only Democrats will protect us from those scary Republicans. Meanwhile, a delegate from Florida is busted for trying to bring in a cardboard sign promoting campaign finance reform--only signs made by the DNC are allowed.
Outside, hundreds of uniformed police stand in cordons on the sidewalk. Across a wide, empty street from the cops is a long, four-foot-high concrete barrier topped with a 12-foot wire fence. Behind that, in a parking lot reserved for the 10,000 protesters already here for the convention, fenced in on three sides, is the crowd. People stream into the parking lot, 20 abreast: the Big Mountain Navajo, Earth First! members wheeling a huge wet stump, and people from all over the country there to protest the consequences of corporate influence on our government. It's a relief, after an hour inside the convention center, to be out here where people are passionately arguing about issues of life and death.
Also, it is very hot, as $500,000 worth of tree plantings recently installed around Staples have been removed to deny shade and possible projectiles to demonstrators. The music of Rage Against the Machine, who are about to play in the parking lot and who I have always found shrill and insincerely angry, is suddenly exactly what I want to hear. The band roars into "Kick out the Jams," which the MC5 played outside the Chicago DNC in 1968. I see delegates passing through the gate at the north end of the lot as they enter Staples, and they seem to belong to another world, so much so that the man I have always considered my dark doppelgänger, George Stephanopoulos, walks by alone and I do not approach him.
After Rage's set, a couple of speeches, and two songs from the next band, the LAPD orders everyone to disperse. A mattress is set on fire near the containment fence closest to the convention, where most of the loiterers are masked point men and women of the anarchist Black Bloc. The police come on horses, firing rubber bullets and tear gas directly at demonstrators who are leaving in the direction they were told to go. Everybody disperses into the enormous, orange-skied sprawl that is downtown Los Angeles.
The organization coordinating DNC protests, D2KLA, has established a Convergence Center in an old, four-story warehouse in the Pico-Union district. D2KLA's guidelines forbid property destruction and verbal assaults--they are not trying to shut down this meeting, just influence it. Locals call Pico-Union "the Red Dot," according to Ivan, a 62-year-old native of the Yucatan who owns a nameless shoe-repair store across the street from the Convergence Center. He advises against walking into nearby MacArthur Park, and tells me the Red Dot is the most dangerous section of town. The damage was most intense here during the 1992 Rodney King riots, and police refused to enter the neighborhood. Ivan sat up with a shotgun across his counter and a sidearm on his hip as his neighbors looted the stores on Alvarado Street. My father grew up just a few blocks away in the 1940s, before the white middle class fled to the valleys around the city. Here, there are intersections, names I heard in stories when I was a child, dilapidated Art Deco department stores and tenement hotels, old streetlights, and little shops where everyone speaks in Spanish.
A judge gave the Convergence Center a restraining order against the police, but it's common knowledge that there are infiltrators in the building, and this adds an element of paranoia to the already deadly-serious atmosphere. Dirty, exhausted kids sleep piled on the three floors upstairs, and after shaking my media escort, I speak to a middle-aged woman making tiny coffins for the protest against sanctions on Iraq. She pulls out documents that record the deaths of hundreds of thousands from malnutrition and lack of medicine. What she describes seems like an unaccountable evil, like earthquakes or tornadoes. Yet it is accountable, and the result of particular human actions. The very horror puts a lump in my throat, and staring it down has made this very serious and kindly woman a little crazy.
The police presence at the DNC is enormous, and one delegate tells me he is alarmed at the "police state." Downtown, as various affinity groups collect and drift through Pershing Square--the city's old, lost, and recently rehabilitated heart (excavated and overlaid for an underground garage)--clusters of 50 or 100 officers linger on nearly every block and ride around in packs of as many squad cars, with lights and sirens. By week's end, they travel in packs of 300. The protesters, mostly on foot and public transit, move slowly and exhaustedly through the intense heat. The sun-bleached sidewalks are speckled with black spots, spaced widely, clustered at corners like the pedestrians. In this climate, chewing gum sticks to the concrete and works itself in like a stain, resembling the wide first drops of a summer storm. At least here, close to what passes for L.A.'s core, there are sidewalks; farther out there often aren't any.
The populace around downtown L.A. is alienated by poverty, political helplessness, and the brutality of a police department so embattled it behaves like an army of occupation. L.A. is also a place of contradictions: On Wilshire Boulevard, the glass lobbies of banks feed onto a dozen miles of ugliness and a gorgeous sea with the highest concentration of PCBs in the U.S.; massive resources are devoted to controlling and imprisoning a black and Hispanic underclass, but the races, in the few places they mix on foot, seem more comfortably integrated than anywhere in the country. My family moved here from Kansas during the Depression, when L.A. was the whitest, most Protestant city in the U.S. When the post-WWII industrial explosion brought hundreds of thousands of blacks to the inner districts (followed by the slow and continuing wave of Central Americans, who are now the de facto majority), whites gave up on the city en masse. They filled the valleys to the north and east, moving into cheaply built houses with huge yards and no access to public transit (the streetcar system, the world's largest, was bought up by General Motors and liquidated). What was left after that was a sparsely populated, auto-dominated region where a car is necessary for simple survival. The Bus Riders Union, marching on the second day of the DNC, claims to represent some 400,000 transit-dependent residents of this region of 12 million. The group fought the costly light-rail subway, which broke the bank for future transit projects. Because of the lack of public space in L.A.--the engineered isolation--there is nowhere to take one's grievances to the people. Without TV cameras, one might as well be demonstrating in the middle of the desert.
Half a mile south of where the Demo-crats are meeting is the Independent Media Center, which ran a website (la.indymedia.org), made radio and TV broadcasts, and published a daily newspaper throughout the DNC, just as its Seattle counterpart did during the WTO conference last November. The IMC is on the sixth floor of Patriotic Hall, a grand old office building in charming decline, where activist-type writers and webmasters work all day and night, keeping abreast of developments on the street by shortwave radio. On the first night of the convention, the LAPD evacuated the building in response to what it claimed was a bomb threat, but which the IMC is calling an excuse for the police to make trouble and gather information. The police use similar tactics on other protesters, forcing them to ride bicycles the wrong way down one-way streets and then arresting them. They strike marchers slyly on the backs with their batons, or rush in and surround small groups and take them to jail.
By Tuesday, the second day of the DNC, the circus is in town. A group facetiously decrying breast-feeding argues with rabid Christians in the fenced protest pen, while a masked Mexican wrestler named El Culo Negro proposes that the presidential contest be held mano a mano in the ring. Finally, 1,000 members of the service employees' union arrive, the sort that lent WTO protests mainstream credibility, bringing a brassy attitude and a big truck blasting Aretha Franklin's "Respect." The unions are exactly what has been lacking here, and the crowds are smaller and fringier than the recent Seattle and Philadelphia actions led one to expect.
I rode down to L.A. from Seattle, sleeping like a sardine with a crowd of mostly early-'20s activists, in an old school bus belonging to a Portland church group. Twenty-four-year-old Cal lives in Pierce County and volunteers at a Seattle collective; his story seems to typify the experiences of the mostly young and scruffy members of the Black Bloc. His father, a near-stranger to Cal, was a street alcoholic who died when Cal was 18. His mother and younger brother are poor and live in Federal Way. He spent a fair amount of time in his teens on the streets, but managed to spend a couple of years in college, studying history and philosophy. Earnest and handsome, he is an extremely convincing spokesman for anarcho-syndicalism (a milder, cooperative, organization-based counterpart to hardcore baby-and-bath-water anarchism), and we discuss the Unabomber Manifesto's dead-on critiques of a left hobbled by identity politics and affluent guilt.
At a restaurant near the Convergence Center, I have a Maxwell House latte with 32-year-old D. J., the toughest-looking but sweetest Black Bloc member I meet in L.A. D. J. works short-term jobs to support a traveling life dedicated to the cause, and sings the words to Jimmy Buffett's "Margaritaville" on the ride home. I also encounter protesters with comfortable upbringings, like Jon, a friendly 20-year-old Maoist from Orange County who shares melon slices with me while we watch 100 cops do marching drills in the middle of the street. Jon says that while it would not be useful for him to go up into the ARCO building and kill its executives yet, the time will come. Then he bends down to pick up the melon rind I let fall to the ground, and walks off looking for a garbage can.
By mid-week, the heat and distances take their toll on demonstrators; the lack of street-level communication and the simultaneity of many of the actions are producing small turnouts. At noon on Wednesday, some 500 marchers proceed with puppets and signs to the LAPD's infamous Rampart Division, the subject of the biggest police corruption scandal in recent U.S. history. As usual, there is too much talk of death-penalty mascot Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is owed a fair trial but may well be guilty of murder. However, the march is an interesting catalyst for the neighborhood: Support is strongest from black residents, one of whom--Robert, a registered nurse who looks like Ice-T--has been harassed by the cops all his life. Last month, they impounded his car on suspicion of dealing drugs (he wasn't). He can't afford to get it back.
When the protesters reach the LAPD's Rampart Division on Wednesday, a dozen people block the steps to be arrested. Their demands are read haltingly, while, over a slow drumbeat, the names of those who have died at the hands of the LAPD are spoken in the heat. I hope it's apparent to the young anarchists (many of whom are from L.A.) that what they are doing here will have local ramifications, that their numbers are far more significant in a city than in a nation. Though ignored by national media, local TV stations carry the Rampart protest live; the marchers' demands make the daily papers.
The same group will be in Prague for the meeting of the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank in September, and in Cincinnati for a smaller WTO gathering the following month. These actions will have a larger impact nationally, because they will have a wider representation of the progressive spectrum on their side. While mainstream liberals--afraid of supporting Ralph Nader and sabotaging Al Gore--sat in Staples Center listening to a suddenly loose-limbed and aggressively mellow Gore inveigh against the corporations whose donations will run his campaign, those literally and figuratively outside were addressing the soft-money contributions of Wells Fargo and Citigroup by marching through the financial district. The division between these groups will all but evaporate if Bush is elected. And this is the legacy of Seattle, where the magic and force of the WTO protests grew out of a long-awaited joining of mainstream and radical forces from across America.