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The Unity Irony

Protesters in downtown L.A. during day three of the 2000 Democratic National Convention.
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A twenty-something nicknamed Champion sat on a shaded concrete stoop across from police headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. Champion was taking a break from the broiling Southern California sunshine as other activists, a few paces off, chanted against police brutality.

By Wednesday, the third day of the Democratic National Convention, this sweaty band of a few hundred activists felt frustration. Champion's face was covered with a bandana and Oakley Blade sunglasses. Above his rag and glasses, only a ruddy forehead and reddish hair stuck out.

"There's so much surveillance, it's making me paranoid," said Champion, a Green Party supporter, as he pointed upward at four police helicopters slowly circling overhead. "They have cameras on their helicopters that can see a zit on your face. It doesn't make you feel free to assemble. They'll build a dossier on you and target you for future oppression."

Maybe Champion was flattering himself with thoughts of dossiers and counter-agitation, maybe not.

Such intrigue aside, one thing has been clear this week in the City of Angels. Of all the divergent activist cells that have called for unity, none has displayed a more unified front so far than the Los Angeles Police Department. Call it the Unity Irony.

All this week, the millions of budget dollars and thousands of training hours have paid off for the L.A.P.D. blue. On two separate occasions - Monday night and Wednesday afternoon - there were clashes. But arrest totals are down from the hundreds that took place in Philadelphia during the Republican convention. Vandalism is almost nonexistent. Moreover, no single Democratic delegate has even remotely felt the activists' presence.

Another anti-police brutality activist, 27-year-old Jai Ching Chen of San Francisco, said of the L.A.P.D.: "They definitely have been prepared, but that doesn't mean I think they have been acting well. Even at permitted marches with no confrontational aspects, the police have been overly antagonistic."

Police readily admit they have been aggressive. But that was part of the plan. The L.A.P.D. has carefully drawn lessons from protests that took place over the last year in Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.

"We've sent people to each location and learned something from each," Sgt. John Pasquariello, an L.A.P.D. spokesman, said on Wednesday.

But, say critics such as Antonia Juhasz, a former congressional staffer-turned-activist for a group dedicated to protecting old-growth forests from loggers, police are enforcing the letter of the law without concern for its spirit.

"They've definitely used preemptive tactics to scare our group. It's definitely been effective. But then again, I think they totally overreacted," she said.

Juhasz is especially incensed over the police charge on Monday night, which seemed to come without warning - and which resulted in unsuspecting demonstrators getting nocked to the ground and beaten.

"Monday night, they broke the law," said Juhasz. "They told people they had twenty minutes to disperse. From all the people I talked to, they charged after only seven minutes. That's why you have children, and regular activists, getting trampled by police horses."

Police, who don't deny their strong-arm tactics, have a different take.
"The strategy is to be highly visible and to respond immediately to any unlawful protests," Pasquariello said.

Juhasz said each time police engaged in a little head-bashing, as they did Monday night and late Wednesday afternoon, it distracted the news media from topics of concern.

"Clashes with police have drawn attention from the issues," she said. "We had tons of press but no coverage, because the police actions stole the show."

Yet there are so many shows to be stolen. Anarchists, communists, Greens, socialists, anti-death penalty activists, and smaller cells from every micro-cause all are trying to put on a face of unity, despite their divergent interests.

"They've got things so under control," lamented Champion. "We ran Seattle for a couple of great hours, but not here."