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Synthesis/Regeneration 23   (Fall 2000)

Thinking Politically

Active Nonviolence at D2KLA

by Bob Brister, Madera County Greens

Madera County Greens organizers Bob Brister and Whitney Zack participated in the Democratic National Convention protests in Los Angeles, August 13-17. Downtown Los Angeles had been transformed by the presence of massive numbers of police officers into a police state, and tensions between the violence-prone Los Angeles Police Department and the demonstrators were high.

A significant number of the protesters were "Black Bloc" anarchist youth. Recognizing the high potential for violence between the Black Bloc and the LAPD, Whitney quickly assumed a role of mediator between the opposing sides and advisor for the youth on the front line. She did this by interposing herself between the police line and the protesters, at considerable risk to her physical safety. Whitney was able to assume this role for several reasons.

Part of her method was to walk down the police line, smiling, greeting, waving two-finger peace signs, and making eye contact with each police officer. This served to humanize the situation by giving her a human face in the eyes of the police and showing that she was not a threat to them.

On Tuesday evening, an emergency meeting was called at Pershing Square to decide how to support the protesters that were being held in jail.

Whitney spoke to the organizers about the importance of holding a march to the jail before dark and of getting a strong commitment to nonviolence from the participants. This was especially important because it was a non-permitted march and we knew it was likely to draw a strong police reaction.

The main technique Whitney used...was to put herself on the skirmish line, making eye contact with the police and asking the protesters to make space between themselves and the police.

The group decided to walk two-by-two down the sidewalk toward the jail to keep it strictly legal. None the less, the LAPD stopped the walkers after they had gone several blocks. The police presence, which had been very heavy all day, responded in mass to the walkers, with circling helicopters, troop-carrying trucks, squad cars, motorcycle cops, and police on foot. By the time the police stopped us, it was getting dark. Whitney served as an intermediary to safely get one of the youth organizers to the police officer in charge for negotiations.

In another incident, Whitney stepped in front of a police officer who had fired rubber bullets at a young person on a fence and told the police officer he would have to shoot her before shooting any more people. Fortunately, he did not.

The main technique Whitney used in intervening in potential conflict situations was to put herself on the skirmish line, making eye contact with the police and asking the protesters to make space between themselves and the police. The police and protesters were not the only antagonists. A small band of far-right Christian proselytizers with giant signs seemed intent on getting into arguments with protesters, who were happy to oblige them. Whitney interposed herself between them and appealed to the better angels on both sides. Having grown up as a Presbyterian and having studied with the chief rabbi of Israel gave her a handy Biblical literacy at a crucial time.

Such nonviolent intervention is not without costs.

Such nonviolent intervention is not without costs. Whitney was poked in the stomach with a baton and was knocked to the street in a police line charge. Bob was hit from behind in an unannounced police line charge and landed on the sidewalk on his shoulder and head.

Whitney had a de facto ally in US Justice Department community conciliation staff that had been dispatched to Los Angeles for the protests. The Justice Department staff seemed to play an important role in reducing police violence. My theory is that the Justice Department wanted to keep a lid on the police violence so as not to embarrass the Democrats.

Nonviolence is an on-going experiment in love and truth. This experiment in nonviolent interposition seemed to reduce the amount of violence from the police but did not eliminate it.

One of the most memorable aspects of D2KLA, besides the police state, was the high number of youth of color and their courage in the face of police violence. The young people of color are more vulnerable to police, yet they were not deterred by the massive threat from the LAPD.

In such courage and discipline lies the hope for a more humane and ecologically sound Green future.

Another harbinger of hope was the support of many of the younger Latino and Asian-American police officers. One commander told Whitney that half of the officers on his front line agreed with the demonstrators.

Two out of three young Latino officers in a group I spoke with support Nader for president. Some of the Black Bloc seem to think that revolutions are won by fighting police in the street. Aside from the immorality of violence, the state will always win violent contests. In fact, revolutions are won by convincing the police and soldiers to put down their weapons and join the revolutionaries.

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