Protests show you the dark and the light side of humanity. Just as I do not understand how a corporate CEO can look at a mountain range and only see profit, I do not understand how authority can look at a peaceful protestor and see an adversary.
On the third night of the LA solidarity Ferguson protests, action began at 3 p.m. at the Federal Court House on Spring Street and then made its way through downtown once again. Since the beginning of these protests, on the day that Darren Wilson was acquitted sans indictment, I have been impressed at the amount of organization, calm and restraint exhibited by organizers and protestors. I would even go so far as to say that it is the most organized, peaceful and effective protest that I have seen since moving to LA 10 years ago.
On Tuesday, protestors literally took over the streets of downtown, stopping at various intersections to “Shut It Down.” It was moving and inspiring to walk amongst a flood of people, hands in the air, as we snaked our way through cars and buses caught unawares in the midst of a popular uprising. On Wednesday, the same democratic power blanketed the protestors like a glowing aura as the streets of downtown once again became a soap box for voicing the injustices of a corrupt and racist system.
It was the best of humanity. It was people taking to the streets, peacefully, organized – the evolution of anger, a pointed protest against a system that does not serve nor protect, that doest not offer justice but injustice. It was people moving to use their power, to stand tall in the face of corruption, armed with nothing but sense, dignity and perhaps a sign, camera or loudspeaker.
I’ve been going to protests since my mid teens and even as an introvert, I have never failed to meet new people. It’s because of that aura – that energy that just fuels human interaction. We all know why we’re here, we know we’re all here for the betterment of ourselves, of our friends, families, even foes. We know that we seek justice and truth. From these foundations, we are all friends – and the discomfort found in striking up a conversation with a stranger is no longer felt. No social barriers exist – once I spent 20 minutes standing next to someone who I deduced was from Japan and by the end of the day exchanged numbers and hugged, laughing at the fact that if we did indeed call one another, the conversation would be rather short lived. But that doesn’t matter in a protest. Where you’re from, what you do, your race, background, religion, tastes – none of it matters. All that matters is that we’re here, together. That this is our fight, our fight for ourselves, each other and all of humanity. Indeed, it is humanity. It is the ability of humans to see in one another ourselves, to see a connection as opposed to a separation, and in that to fight for the best possible world.
As beautiful as this is, we do not live in this best possible world. We are far from it, in fact. Any activist or really, any person knows that a protest cannot continue without being met at some point by the “powers that be.” In LA, those powers love their power, and they love testing its boundaries.
I found it interesting on a recent trip to DC to find how incredibly chill, for lack of a better word, the “powers that be” were in the belly of the beast. I even got a business card from a Homeland Security officer who was casually talking to the organizer whom he’d known for 20 years. Cops were calm, collected – issued warnings clearly and without threat of violence. No one was wearing riot gear or carrying semi-automatic weapons. There were no arrest buses or SWAT vehicles. When arrests did come, they came without excessive force, and were dealt with quickly and efficiently. Having lived in LA, I was unaccustomed to this. I actually felt that the cops respected our right to be there, to voice our opinions loudly – to assemble in the name of we, the people.
I have never gotten that feeling in LA. In fact, harkening back to the protests in DC where officers made loud and clear orders to disperse followed by three warnings of arrest, in LA, cops preferred a mass hostage approach.
On Wednesday night, cops ordered protestors to disperse at 7th and Flower following a barricade at 7th and Figueroa. Protestors were kettled in and initially not allowed to even leave via the sidewalks. Cops in riot gear pushed back against a few clearly unarmed protestors. When asked whether anyone had declared this an Unlawful Assembly, a sergeant quipped that he didn’t know. Well, then how are we supposed to know? Protestors have to be made aware of the situation clearly and audibly. The only thing I heard was that protestors were given a 4 minute warning to disperse or “less than lethal” means would be used to force that dispersion.
Much of the crowd did disperse but the protest was not over. Groups continued through downtown, down alley ways where cops were audibly given the order to push through. Streets were blocked off, sidewalks were blocked off. This wasn’t an attempt to keep us off the streets. This was an attempt to get us onto a specific street. At the intersection of 6th and Hope (ironically), arrest buses and SWAT vehicles were already parked waiting. Air support hovered overhead.
Amidst this sad failure of justice, this atrocious display of power over peace, the aura remained. The humanity was not and would not be crushed.
The image of the Iraq war veteran flitted through my mind – the night before he had been outside of LAPD in full Army dress holding a cane in one hand and a sign in the other. The sign had an image of smiling cops in old fashioned “blues” on one half and heavily militarized cops on the other half. The sign read “When did this…become this?” I tried to remember the last time I had seen a peaceful protest met with peaceful cops. Nothing came to mind.
Cops began pushing through. The group was splintered but protestors did not continue on without the others. It soon became clear that the protestors could not continue. No order to disperse came. No unlawful assembly declared. Cops pushed protestors into smaller spaces yelling “Get back, get back.” People tripped over one another – a few were arrested. One young black man (big surprise) was thrown to the ground for shining a light in the cops face. A middle-aged woman let out a yelp when a cop shoved a billy club into her chest. The protestors chanted “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” as the situation escalated at the hands of LAPD. No protestor threw a punch or even resisted arrest. To say protestors pushed back would even be a stretch – it’s not easy to push back against a billy club and riot gear when you’re wearing a t-shirt and jeans armed with an iPhone and a sign about justice.
Then came the announcement. Everyone here was under arrest. Immediately, several protestors attempted to leave – via the sidewalk mind you – and were quickly shoved back by LAPD. No one was allowed to leave, even if they wanted to. Protestors were held, against their will, kettled in by cops in riot gear when no order to disperse was ever given and no unlawful assembly was ever declared. Oh if Orwell could see us now, I thought.
Another billy club flew, push backs and reinforcements. And a granola bar.
Someone was passing around a granola bar and a water bottle, saying that it would be a while before anyone got food so they should be sure to eat something now. A distressed woman asked if she would make it to Thanksgiving with her family, close to tears. A seasoned activist said probably not but immediately attempted to make light of the situation with jokes about cell block slumber parties and dressing a jail mouse up as a turkey.
Amidst this sad failure of justice, this atrocious display of power over peace, the aura remained. The humanity was not and would not be crushed. As this mass arrest of over 100 peaceful protestors continued, the humanity only grew – as if in direct response to the injustice unfolding before our eyes. People passed around food, water, cigarettes. People shouted out the jail support number and tossed pens so people could write it on their arms. People hugged and held one another, consoled and were consoled. The chants rose from the chaos of mass arrest – “No Justice, No Peace,” “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” “Indict, Convict, send the killer cops to jail. The whole damn system is guilty as hell!”
Yes, the whole damn system is guilty as hell. And as disheartening as that is, as disheartening as it is to see hundreds of peaceful protestors go to jail after being held hostage by those sworn to serve and protect us – it is a thousand times more inspiring to see that humanity is not lost. That no matter what we are faced with – this and far worse – we will not lose our ability to help one another, to reach out and protect one another. We will not cave in the face of ill placed authority and corruption. We will only grow stronger, our resolve harder and faster. We will rise up, we will stand up and we will continue to stand. No billy club can take down the will of the people, no sound cannon or MRAP can disperse this movement.
You may have arrested a few hundred, or across the nation, a few thousand. But that will not shield you from those who seek justice in an unjust system. As long as there are humans, there will be humanity. As long as there is injustice, there will be those fighting for justice. Expect us.