Riot police use rubber bullets to disperse street protests

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The Independent US

Less than 24 hours into the Democratic Convention, smouldering tensions between street protesters and phalanxes of heavily armed riot police erupted into violence. Mounted officers, reacting to a fringe group of anarchists, swung batons and fired rubber bullets indiscriminately into a crowd leaving an open-air concert opposite the convention centre.

Less than 24 hours into the Democratic Convention, smouldering tensions between street protesters and phalanxes of heavily armed riot police erupted into violence. Mounted officers, reacting to a fringe group of anarchists, swung batons and fired rubber bullets indiscriminately into a crowd leaving an open-air concert opposite the convention centre.

Dozens of people were shot in the back and the legs as they sought to escape the scene, which coincided with President Bill Clinton's speech to convention delegates. Hundreds more shrieked in panic and burst into tears as the mounted police pinned them against the concert stage and charged at them, trampling at least six people underfoot and beating several others with long wooden sticks.

A leading community activist for the homeless, who is black, was hit in the chest with a beanbag and taken to hospital. A television cameraman trying to film the scene was knocked over by a police rifle butt. A Los Angeles Times reporter, a civil rights lawyer and a professor from a nearby law school were also injured.

"We were trying to walk away with our joined hands in the air, and they just shot us from behind," said Tracy Robson, a San Diego teacher who was following the convention protests for a class project. Her right shoulder blade was heavily bruised and bleeding from a rubber bullet.

Yesterday, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups roundly condemned the behaviour of the Los Angeles police, saying it was out of all proportion to the provocationand threatened to poison the atmosphere on the streets for the rest of the week.

An ACLU statement said: "Had the police cooperated with the rally organisers, the night could have ended calmly and smoothly. Instead, the police response tonight created huge risks. When people see batons raised, riot gear and mounted police clearing an area, a tense situation becomes a volatile one."

The event that sparked the confrontation was a concert by the highly political rock band Rage Against the Machine, whose latest album is called Battle in Los Angeles. The police, concerned that the band's frenzied anti-government lyrics could provoke trouble, had sought to prevent the concert taking place.

It was only once the band's 90-minute set was over that the trouble began. A group of 50-100 black-clad anarchists climbed the security fence dividing the venue from the convention centre, set fire to a rubbish bin and an American flag, tore up handicapped parking signs and lobbed lumps of concrete at the ranks of riot police. They also squirted bleach and spray paint at the lenses of nearby television cameras.

At first the police reacted by pepper-spraying the trouble-makers and appeared to have the situation under control. Their decision to charge caught most of the 8,000 concert-goers unawares. With all possible exits cut off, several demonstrators begged the police for clemency, to no avail.

Tim Pershing, a documentary film-maker who filmed much of the action said: "They had them pinned against the stage and were charging them with their batons like polo ponies." When six concert-goers sat down in protest, they were trampled by police horses. One man who tossed a half-empty water bottle in the air in indignation was hit by rubber bullets three times.

The police action far outweighed anything protesters faced during the anti-globalisation demonstrations in Seattle last winter. David Kalish, a spokesman for the Los Angeles police made no apology. He said: "Today, tomorrow or the next day, or the next day, or the next week, our response will be exactly the same." Organisers of the protests and civil rights lawyers were concerned that the crackdown could only lead to further trouble. One concert-goer, a travelling hippie called Prem Ananda, nursed his rubber bullet bruised foot and said: "There'll be more of this tomorrow night."

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