Failure to Disperse: The L.A. Police Riot

Against the Current, No. 28, September/October 1990

Mike Davis

On Friday, June 15, a march organized by the striking janitors and their supporters as part of the Justice for Janitors campaign was assaulted brutally and without warning by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). Mike Davis, a political activist and labor historian, witnessed the attack. This account first appeared in the LA Weekly and appears here with the author’s permisston.

DOES THE AVENUE of the Stars now lead to Tiananmen Square? For two bloody hours last Friday June 15), the LAPD sealed off Century City so that they could beat and arrest scores of striking janitors and their supporters.

While horrified office workers and residents looked on (including, perhaps, Ronald Reagan in his Fox Plaza suite), the police repeatedly flailed the front lines of the justice for Janitors march with riot batons, before launching a flanking attack that swept an en­ tire section of the crowd into an underground parking structure.

Those trapped inside were mercilessly pummeled; trying to flee, they were arrested for “failure to disperse.”

The police riot was both unprovoked and unexpected. As the Los Angeles Times independently ;confirmed, the LAPD had assured the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) that they would not interfere with their right to peacefully assemble in Century City. But when the first of the 500 marchers arrived at the corner of Olympic and Century Park East, they were met with an ominous police skirmish line.

While the majority of the marchers were still below the crest of the hill, a police commander gave a curt order to “disperse within 30 seconds”–a physical impossibility. Frenzied efforts by two prominent strike supporters to negotiate with the police were rebuffed by officers who refused even to identify their commander.

When the disoriented but orderly marchers then attempted to sit down in the street, the cops attacked without warning.

Although evening news footage (with the dishonorable exception of Channe l7) transmitted the berserk fury of the police assault, the media reproduced the erroneous LAPD claim that there were no serious injuries. The reality was grimly different.

Not counting numerous casualties among their supporters, half of the 120 striking janitors were hurt. Nineteen suffered major injuries that included fractured skulls, jaws, arms and legs. Three pregnant women were beaten. One of them was struck with a baton while cradling her one-year-old child; another, hemorrhaging and with broken water, remains in danger of a miscarriage.

Forty more workers are nursing cuts, abrasions, sprains and other minor injuries.

But even unscathed epidermises will long carry the psychological scar of the violence. In my own case it will be hard to ever forget the image of Maria Guardado, a distinguished Salvadoran poet partially disabled by torture, literally being pounded into the pavement by a giant helmeted figure. Or Charles Gladstone, a 75-year-old retired trade unionist, viciously jabbed and prodded by a rookie cop his grandson’s age.

Why did police batons strike out at marchers with such ferocity? Perhaps the cops believed they were demolishing some demonic Other. A flabbergasted onlooker who phoned the LAPD to complain about the brutal treatment of the marchers said that the police described the predominantly Central American janitors as “illegal aliens hired by the union to disrupt Century City.”

The Cannibal King

There is nothing like a gory sacrifice to make cannibals feel dewy-eyed about each other. Historians report that after feasting on the meat of their slain enemies, the 16th-century Carib Indians rejoiced in moving displays of communal hugging and kissing. A similar scene evolved among the cops in the middle of Olympic Boulevard after the massacre in the parking garage.

I have never seen the LAPD in a more exultant mood. As visors were lifted, broad grins broke out and backslapping congratulations were exchanged. A small, blonde female officer who had wielded her club with compensatory sadism was practically lifted on the shoulders of her male colleagues. She had made it through the rite of passage to macho solidarity.

A few yards away from where I was standing, a hulking motorcycle cop was boasting to admiring comrades how he had “taken down” one of the marchers. He mimicked a janitor crying in pain or fear. When I suggested he should have the guts to go down to the union hall to meet the strikers and hear their case, he arrested me for “challenging an officer to a fight.”

Cuffed to a bench in the West L.A. Division building, I witnessed more of the festive aftermath as cops traded war stories, high fives and affectionate shoulder punches.

But the street cops merely reflect company policy. Channel 9 superimposed the Orwellian voice of Chief Daryl Gates (“the police did not use excessive force”) over images of janitors crumpled beneath bone-crushing blows. At Monday’s meeting in the mayor’s office “to open lines of communication between the unions and the police,” Acting Police Chief Jessie Brewer threw the same denial in the face of labor leader Jim Wood, who had been clubbed on Friday.

If, by some unprecedented mustering of its moral fiber, the Police Commission actually carries out Mayor Bradley’s mandate to “find out what really happened in Century City,” its report will probably read very much like the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) autopsy of the infamous police attack on anti-war marchers in front of the Century Plaza hotel in the summer of 1967.

The ACLU found that police planning had been “solely directed to protection of President Johnson [today read: corporate property] with no thought to the safety of demonstrators or protection of their constitutional rights … officers made few concessions to the aged, the very young, [or) pregnant women.”

This was pretty much what happened last Friday, except that police violence, concentrated on a much smaller march, was more intense and produced even more serious injuries than in 1967.

In one sense, the police riot last Friday recalls the 1920s more than 1967. In 1920, Los Angeles was the burgeoning Open Shop capital of America, the LAPD routinely filled the jail with trade unionists, and picketing was outlawed by statute. Over the last decade the Open Shop has returned with a vengeance. Private-sector unionization has plummeted. And labor faces a new regime of restrictive injunctions and arbitrary police violence.

Although Mayor Bradley, like Cool Hand Luke, evokes the “What we have here is a failure to communicate” thesis, events at Century City communicate all too well Daryl Gates’ ongoing immunity from public accountability. The council’s and mayor’s past inaction in numerous similar instances have convinced the department that it is free from civilian control.

September-October 1990, ATC 28

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