Until Tuesday, the immigrant-rights movement had been defined by its bouyant, almost jubilant nature. Immigrants and their supporters had marched peacefully by the millions for more than a year in cities and towns across America. All that changed on May Day in L.A.'s MacArthur Park. In one evening of baton-swinging, camera-crushing good old-fashioned police work, the LAPD trampled upon the rosy optimism of countless L.A. families asserting their rights and dignity in the heart of the city's Central American community. And the department immediately drew rebuke for its brutish, seemingly injudicious show of force. Again.
Here's how it went down. As the planned rally winded down on the park's north soccer field, a ruckus drew attention at the southeastern edge of the park, where a small number of more rowdy protesters, looking mostly like youth or students, were blocking Alvarado and Seventh. LAPD cleared the street, then formed a riot line against the crowd.
The sight of cops standing shoulder-to-shoulder menacingly holding batons drew more onlookers, which drew more cops, which drew more onlookers. The pointless showdown kept escalating. What happened next is under dispute. In a hurried press conference later in the evening, LAPD Chief Willliam Bratton told an indignant gathering of local media that preliminary information suggested officers suffered "missile" attacks -- bottles and food -- which forced them to respond. Witnesses and reporters said the police began pressing forward at one point, firing foam bullets upon the crowd indiscriminately. Video footage online and on local TV stations shows officers clubbing and violently shoving teens, seniors, adults holding small children, and even reporters. One piece of footage shows officers senselessly beating a FOX 11 cameraman who had been knocked to the ground, and then striking FOX 11 reporter Christina Gonzalez who had stepped in to protest. (See YouTube clip embedded below.)
At the edges, behind the outer police lines, marchers were in shock, fuming, and frightened as they watched small squads of police in riot helmets running around the park with no apparent direction or orders, shooting at or striking people along the way. Little children wept out of fear and confusion while helicopters roared overhead. One woman was nearly hysterical as she explained how she was separated from her 7-year-old daughter. Another woman, Sarah Araiza, said officers pushed her 13-year-old. "They were pushing children! See that police officer, laughing like a jack-ass? That officer pushed my daughter. He pushed her for no reason," Araiza said.
By 7 p.m. most of Alvarado had been cleared but police activity was still going on on Sixth Street above the park. Sheriff's deputies holding what looked like high-powered rifles blocked off access to the Westlake/MacArthur Park Metro station, causing many in the crowd who would have otherwise just taken a train home to mingle and watch. Rally organizers, who had staged a peaceful, permitted event at the park, retreated to the CHIRLA headquarters on Third Street and held a impromptu press conference. On television they appeared stunned, defeated, and angry. "I feel police instead of controlling the situation made it worse," said CHIRLA executive director Angelica Salas.
Bratton had been on his way to meet up with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in San Salvador, but stayed behind at the mayor's request. The chief, dressed casually in a windbreaker, showed up to address reporters at the western edge of the park at 9 p.m. He was hit with a barrage of questions and accusations from journalists who said some of their colleagues were taken to hospital after being beaten or hit with the PD's non-lethal bullets. "Do you think this will affect your reappointment?" someone asked. "All of our equipment was destroyed. Why?" asked another. Bratton said there would be an investigation, yadda yadda, these things take time. Well, how does he explain this?
That's right: "Double-time, it's tussle time." Nice. By the time most reporters had left, the rally organizers showed up, still looking rightly pissed. Maria Elena Durazo, Angela Sanbrano, and Angelica Salas, backed by staff and other organizers, approached Bratton directly, but he was talking on a cell phone near his unmarked car. The leaders instead spoke in hushed tones to Asst. Chief Earl Paysinger, who was overheard telling them that "I was at the DNC."
The Spanish-language media did not hold back. On Univision's 11 p.m. newscast, one anchor said he felt "rage" when he saw the footage of police beating other journalists. On Channel 22, anchors drew comparisons to the 1970 Chicano Moratorium and the killing of reporter Ruben Salazar via a sheriff's tear gas projectile. Commentator Carlos Rajo speculated that immigrants will now fear police even more than ever.
On Tuesday morning, Bratton suggested to KNX radio that he disapproved of the LAPD's actions at MacArthur Park. The Radio and Television News Association called for a investigation, CNS said. "There is evidence that officers knocked reporters to the ground, used batons on photographers and damaged cameras, possibly motivated by anger over journalists photographing efforts by officers to control the movements of the marchers," the RTNA said in a statement.
Could all this have been avoided if the MacArthur Park event had been allowed to march on the streets like the march downtown earlier in the day? You gotta wonder who was making the decisions here, and how. Meantime, for the most part, May Day was a success. Not even an army of strike-now-ask-later cops could stand down a brigade of mothers with strollers.
* Photo above by L.A. Times staff photographer Luis Sinco. All other photos by Times photographer Rick Loomis.