LOS ANGELES Less than an hour after leftist rockers Rage Against the Machine played a highly charged yet relatively peaceful set, police pulled the plug on Latin funk-rock ensemble Ozomatli, using rubber bullets and pepper spray to disperse a crowd of protesters gathered outside the Democratic National Convention.
As President Clinton concluded his speech across the street at the Staples Center, the Los Angeles Police Department shut off the power at the designated protest site, where about 10,000 people were gathered on a fenced-in lot. Police warned protesters they had 15 minutes to disperse.
"The actions of a few people acting violently ruined it for the other demonstrators," LAPD Cmdr. David Kalish said. "Because of the aggressive nature of the crowd, it was determined necessary to declare an unlawful assembly. Twenty minutes was ample time for people to remove themselves."
But 20 minutes or even 15 were not given. The 400-strong police force made its move within 10 minutes of the declaration, herding the crowd out the few available exits. Those who didn't move fast enough were forced to move faster. Some were hit with billy clubs, others with rubber bullets.
Both Sides Claim Provocation
"I saw a guy getting bashed with a billy club," said Robert Calvert, 33, of Huntington Beach. "He was standing still. He turned to me and said, 'Get out of here. You don't want to mess around with these guys [the police].' "
"I was hit twice with rubber bullets," said Maggie Ward, 35, of Santa Cruz, who had two large welts on the back of her thigh. "The police were the provokers here."
Not that the police weren't provoked. About 30 self-described anarchists, clad in black and wearing gas masks, made repeated efforts to scale a 10-foot-high chain-link fence.
"If anything's going to happen, it's going to happen tonight," predicted J. King Capone, 22, of Los Angeles, who was wearing a hammer-and-sickle pin on his T-shirt. "There was a goal to bring the fence down. We have wire clippers, but we decided not to use them."
Although the number of people targeting the fence grew as the night wore on, with demonstrators throwing blocks of concrete and metal poles at police guarding the barrier, protesters were unable to make it over the fence and were doused with pepper spray.
Kalish defended the LAPD's use of force, saying, "We believe we used a great amount of restraint. Our response was appropriate and measured.
"Obviously, when people did not leave within 20 minutes, the idea was to stop violence, ensure public safety and protect property. It's almost a no-win situation. Some will view it as waiting too long, others not long enough."
Capone disputed allegations of violence, saying, "Property damage is not violence."
Police thought otherwise. Ten protesters were arrested, said Kalish, who added that no injuries were reported.
Earlier in the day, Margaret Prescod, of D2KLA, the activist group that reserved the protest area, warmed up the crowd for Rage Against the Machine by leading demonstrators in a chant of "No Justice, no peace, no racist police."
When Rage took the stage, singer Zack de la Rocha told the cheering crowd, "Our democracy has been hijacked. Our electoral freedoms in this country are over as long as they're controlled by corporations. We built this city, and we can tear it down if they don't give us what we want."
L.A. Band Stages Rallying Cry
The hometown heroes then erupted into the hit "Bulls on Parade" (RealAudio excerpt), off their 1996 album, Evil Empire. "While arms warehouses fill as quick as the cells," de la Rocha sang, "Rally 'round the family, pockets full of shells."
Even the anarchists storming the fence turned their attention to Rage Against the Machine during the band's 45-minute set, which included such songs as "People of the Sun," "Guerrilla Radio" and "Testify."
The band left the stage after nine songs, concluding with their incendiary protest anthem, "Killing in the Name" (RealAudio excerpt), which builds to a crescendo that has de la Rocha repeatedly screaming, "Fuck you; I won't do what you tell me!"
Aside from his lyrics, de la Rocha never made an explicit call to arms. But the atmosphere in the protest area was tense from the beginning, as some protesters made no secret of their intention to cause a disturbance.
"This is the battle for Los Angeles," said demonstrator Ward Landis, 26, of Palos Verdes. "I think people are going to be very expressive tonight. They want to show the world what's going on. You got a lot of pent-up rage out there. Is there gonna be violence? Yeah, violence is just another form of expression. I'm gonna burn the first flag."