Jittery LA prepares to crush protests

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The Independent US

The City of Los Angeles is so thrilled to be hosting this week's Democratic convention that it has chopped down every tree and sapling around the convention centre for fear of rioters ripping off branches to use as weapons.

The City of Los Angeles is so thrilled to be hosting this week's Democratic convention that it has chopped down every tree and sapling around the convention centre for fear of rioters ripping off branches to use as weapons.

It is so thrilled it has plucked out every parking meter, mail box and newspaper stall in the vicinity for the same reason.

So thrilled it has drafted in extra supplies of gas masks and pepper spray, put the National Guard (Territorial Army) on standby, alerted a WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) rapid reaction team in case of chemical or biological attack, and cancelled all leave at the coroner's office.

The thrill is so encompassing that the city has also thrown up a huge chainlink fence around the Staples Center, the convention venue, scared local businesses into shutting for the week, established an exclusion zone and warned that protesters, even peaceful ones, can expect to be arrested and flung into jail. "Los Angeles has never looked better," said the mayor, Richard Riordan, as he blessed the latest in a series of convention-inspired beautification projects at the airport.

The American Civil Liberties Union is seeking a restraining order against police, alleging intimidation, illegal entry, unwarranted searches of cars and other tactics they said were designed to suppress the demonstrators' right of peaceful assembly and free speech.

Activists at the so-called Convergence Center, a downtown meeting point for puppet-makers, leaflet printers and other demonstration organisers, said they had been buzzed by police helicopters and closely watched by officers on the ground. They feared being raided and closed at any moment. Two women protesters said they were handcuffed and threatened for jaywalking.

When four members of the Ruckus Society, an agit-prop group active at many protests, were stopped unfurling a giant US flag with corporate logos instead of stars and stripes, they were held on $20,000 bail apiece.

In the Sixties, officers would routinely pick up radicals on minor offences, then pitch bail payments so high their organisations would be slowly bled of manpower and funds.

So does Los Angeles 2000 threaten to be a rerun of Chicago 1968, when the Democratic convention was overshadowed by anti-government protests and violent police retaliation? The activists - a motley crew of environmentalists, anti-free traders, vegetarians and anarchists - would like to think so.

"This is the beginning of the end of the big dumbdown," said Celia Alario of the Ruckus Society, who thinks this week's protests might be the impetus to remove big-money interests from US politics and give democracy back to the people.

Police and the city fathers cannot afford a rerun of the Los Angeles riots of 1992, when half the city burned. This convention is a chance for Los Angeles, after recession and with a reputation for race-fuelled violence, to prove it is a dignified world city, a chance Mayor Riordan is anxious not to blow.

The police want to avoid street confrontation because of their own notoriety as brutalisers. The force is embroiled in a massive corruption scandal involving crooked anti-gang officers, and it runs a serious risk of losing its autonomy to a federal oversight committee. This convention is the LAPD's chance to prove its worth. If that means breaking a few rules ahead of time, so be it.

Hence the tension, the rhetoric and the over-reaction to what, in the end, are a laughable group of subversives and revolutionaries. Since Seattle, when 50,000 unionists and opponents of unfettered corporate power successfully scuppered a World Trade Organisation summit, the so-called Direct Action Network has shrunk in size and seriousness. Many of the fair trade advocates who looked so impressive in Seattle have been shunted aside; those who remain are overwhelmingly, white, middle-class, politically naive and unable to connect to many grass-roots activists.

They have infuriated civil rights groups by appearing to waver on their commitment to non-violence. They have angered African-Americans, Latinos and the homeless by refusing to listen to what it's like to be poor and oppressed. And they have no idea how to get convention delegates to listen to their message.

"They are a bunch of trust-fund babies who are oppressing the real working poor by draining taxpayer money here in LA," said Ted Hayes, a prominent homeless activist. "Once they get out of jail they'll be flying home on daddy's credit card, but we will have to bear the cost of their stupidity and their recklessness." LA is thrilled to have them all.

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