LOS ANGELES The American Civil Liberties Union and Latin funk-rock ensemble Ozomatli say police overreacted when they pulled the plug on the band's performance Monday night and dispersed protesters with pepper spray and rubber bullets.
The East Los Angeles group was performing a free concert across the street from the Staples Center, site of the Democratic National Convention, on the same stage leftist rockers Rage Against the Machine had played less than an hour earlier. Authorities warned protest organizers to control the unruly demonstrators, who were hurling blocks of concrete and metal poles over a 10-foot-high fence at police.
Barely 10 minutes into Ozomatli's set, the Los Angeles Police Department shut off power to the fenced-in designated protest area where the band was playing, ordering the crowd of about 10,000 people to disperse.
"The protest organizers tried to control the crowd, but some people couldn't be calmed down," said Ozomatli manager Amy Blackman, who was backstage when the LAPD pulled the plug. "We asked the police why they couldn't just eject the kids who caused the trouble. They didn't give us an answer."
So while about 400 officers clad in riot gear moved into formation, the 10-member band took to the crowd, apparently hoping to calm the atmosphere with music. But within 15 minutes Ozomatli found themselves caught in the rush of protesters fleeing the oncoming police, who used pepper spray, billy clubs and rubber bullets to clear the area.
"We have serious doubts that real public safety risks were occurring; at least not significant enough to provoke a complete shutdown and enforced dispersal of a crowd that was 99.9 percent peaceful, and definitely not enough to provoke what ensued afterward," the band said in a statement Tuesday (Aug. 15).
"This is yet another example of excessive force, ill-training, brutality and a violation of human rights," the statement went on to say. "How did the LAPD expect 15,000 people to disperse through one exit in 10 minutes? And when they didn't disperse fast enough, was it necessary to converge on us in such a violent manner?"
Police said they were provoked into action, and that their show of force was necessary to prevent what they said was a protest about to turn violent. "If people wanted to leave, they had plenty of opportunity to do so," Cmdr. David Kalish of the LAPD said.
The Los Angeles branch of the ACLU issued a statement critical of the LAPD's actions. "Had the police cooperated with the rally organizers, 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."
Spokespeople for Rage Against the Machine said the group had no comment on the clash between police and protesters because the bandmembers were not there to see it. The group left the area about 30 minutes before police shut off the power.
"The authorities would only allow their vehicles to stay for a certain amount of time, and after they finished playing they were required to leave," Rage publicist Kathleen Reilly said. "I know for one, Tom [Morello, the band's guitarist], would've loved to have been there."
The group's 45-minute set featured a cover of the MC5's "Kick Out the Jams" (RealAudio excerpt), recalling images of when the Detroit rockers, considered by many to be Rage's musical godfathers, performed outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago site of bloody clashes between police and protesters.