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Day January 6, 2015

Los Angeles: Hands Up, Fight Back

  1. Saturday, August 9, 2014
    The unarmed Michael Brown is killed by police officers in Ferguson, Missouri.
  2. Sunday, August 10, 2014
    Folks begin to riot in Ferguson, Missouri, and just don’t stop.
  3. Monday, August 11, 2014
    Ezell Ford, an unarmed 25-year-old black man, is killed by LAPD while walking home on 65th Street in South Central, Los Angeles.
  4. Thursday, August 14, 2014
    A march for Ezell Ford is held in South Central, from the intersection of 65th and Broadway to the LAPD 77th Precinct Police Station about 11 blocks away.
  5. Sunday, August 17, 2014
    Hundreds of people stage another rally for Ezell Ford, outside LAPD headquarters downtown, and then march illegally to Union Station about 5 blocks away.
  6. Monday, August 18, 2014
    The LAPD puts an “investigative hold” on the coroner’s investigation of Ezell Ford’s death, keeping the autopsy from the public.
  7. Tuesday, August 19, 2014
    Black Democrat LA City Councilman Curren Price holds a “community meeting” at Paradise Baptist Church, at 51st and Broadway in South Central, inviting LAPD Chief Charles Beck to ease tensions over the shooting of Ezell Ford. The crowd heckles him. Ferguson, Missouri, is still burning.
  8. Saturday, August 23, 2014
    A rally is held in Leimert Park, at the northern border of South Central, for both the shootings of Ezell Ford and Michael Brown, the strangling of Eric Garner, and the brutal beating of Marlene Pinnock by a California Highway Patrol officer on July 1.
  9. Monday, November 10, 2014
    LA Mayor Eric Garcetti orders the Ezell Ford autopsy released—soon. Before the end of the year.
  10. Monday, November 24, 2014
    The Missouri grand jury decides not to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who murdered Michael Brown. Activists in Los Angeles attempt and fail to block the I-10 freeway, protesters march around the Crenshaw district in South Central, Los Angeles, and rally outside LAPD headquarters downtown, whereupon they march to the University of Southern California (USC), whose relationship to South Central is like that of Columbia University to Harlem.
  11. Tuesday, November 25, 2014
    Activists block the I-110 freeway for about an hour.
  12. Friday, December 5, 2014
    A Hollywood Walk of Fame street performer known as “J” was executed by LAPD on the corner of Hollywood and Highland. He was wearing a Scream serial-killer costume with the attendant fake plastic knife.

The above is a basic and incomplete chronological overview. Protests and marches continued throughout the fall in Los Angeles, linking the Ezell Ford, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Antonio Martin murders together.

Friday, December 12, 2014
My wife and I discovered the #FTPFridays Twitter hashtag and the Los Angeles Peoples Media and FTPFridays Facebook pages events and decided to go to the protests at Hollywood and Highland, where J, the Scream street performer was killed. We arrived around 7 pm. It was quite clear almost immediately that the main leaders of the action were a trio of young black women, and I would place money on none being over 30: the first, a babyfaced woman with with a bicycle. I will call her Babyface. The second, a smaller, waiflike woman with an extremely loud voice, was the most impassioned, so I will call her Fire. The third woman seemed, and has seemed, each time I have seen her, like she just came from a party, because she has never stopped dancing. I will call her Dancer, obviously. The only man in a position of leadership at the protest was a heavyset young black man. I’ll call him Smiley, because he was always smiling, and had a very mild personality to contradict his very large voice. This is not anonymization, but actual anonymity, because I know the names of none of the participants. There were mostly black and Latino young adults here, and the majority were women. There were between a dozen and 20 black men, closer to a dozen, and I am sure I was the oldest black man, or black person for that matter. I am pretty sure I was the oldest black person there, and I just turned 40. There were maybe a handful of older “veteran activist” types, people who might have party newspapers and things like that. Most of the white people were young marginal-looking types—scruffy, tatooed, costumed, etc. A few had explicitly political clothing bearing slogans like “Capitalism Kills.” A handful of actual teenaged boys, mostly Latino and one white, joined us shortly. There was one typical “black bloc” person, a white man with a scarf around his face and lots of riot kit dangling from his belt loops.

The crowd slowly built up over the next thirty minutes or so, and we had maybe 75 people by the time Fire announced that we were ready to block the intersection of Hollywood and Highland. My wife and I went out into the intersection, the far side of Hollywood. All the blockers were facing Hollywood traffic, either east or west. Therefore our bodies were perpindicular to north and southbound Highland traffic. The chants were a combination of “Hands up, don’t shoot,” “No Justice, no peace,” and “Indict, convict, send those killer cops to jail / The whole damned system is guilty as hell!” I sometimes tried to yell “Hands down, shoot back,” and this caught on only a few times. Fire and a few others had followed us to the far side of Hollywood, so that we had perhaps 6 people over there, maybe 8. But most of our people were clumped on the westbound side of Hollywood, and the lopsided density of the blockage was a weakness. Drivers started attempting to cross us, feeling that they could drive on the sparse eastbound side, pushing us out of the way. About 5 minutes after we began this traffic blockage, the driver of a car southbound on Highland—a light-skinned, curly-haired black woman—sped out behind the Hollywood blockers, and almost hit me, slowing only a little bit to swerve around me, so I hit her window with my hand as she sped on by. She shrugged strangely and looked sad. Babyface, tooling about on her bike, suggested that I should have broken her window. I would have, but for the proper tools. No one else attempted to cross us in any way again, though. I was focused on trying not to get hit, and yelling for sidewalkers to join us. We had stranded a motorist in the dead center of the intersection, and he had been sitting there for the whole time, and this also was a weakness. He divided the clumps of our people, so that communication was a little more difficult than it should be. It came to be that we were out there with maybe 3 or 4 people on the eastbound side, and the westbound folks had already gone back to the corner. Fire was yelling at us to come back. So we did. The police were arriving.

Shortly we experienced the first sign of a problem that I have never seen before, and which I hope will become clearer throughout this little piece. This crowd of militant, angry, mostly black and Latino youth began to harass and curse and heckle the police. I was filming them and heckling them as well. Several people actually walked out between the police cars parked there to curse and denounce the police in their faces. I stood back a bit from that. This lasted perhaps 15 minutes. Suddenly, Babyface and Fire were leading us out into the street again. An older white activist woman was unfurling a large graffiti-style (but quite legible) FUCK THE POLICE banner in the middle of the street. I went out into the street again, figuring that we were going to block the intersection again, but this was a march now. She asked me to hold one end of the banner, so I held the banner, and off we went.

Our first go-around was pretty successful and also uneventful. We had a relatively large crowd—around 75, like I said—so we felt quite powerful. We walked down Highland to Sunset, and then over toward Orange, and then La Brea, back up La Brea to Hollywood, and back over to Highland. A circuit of a couple of blocks, blocking traffic the whole way. We made it back to our destination, and some people dropped off.

We were down to perhaps 50 at the start of the second, much longer circuit, when we headed east on Hollywood toward Vine, where we turned south. I was still carrying the banner, and we were still chanting, blocking traffic the whole time. The police held up our rear, following us as closely as they could. The helicopter came out. Babyface was cycling about, corraling the crowd so that we wouldn’t split into discrete clumps and stragglers wouldn’t get snatched by the cops. It turns out that I and the other banner carrier, the older activist woman, kept falling behind, and there were many times when we had to speed up, because we were just a few yards from the police. An ambulance crossed us, lights flashing, in front, slowly, and it disrupted our progress for a couple of seconds. It didn’t seem to be on its way to an emergency.

I know this is sunny Southern California, but it was cold out that night, and my hand was swollen from hitting that car window, so I guess I was walking slow. A fellow with a loud portable soundsystem on luggage wheels joined our march, and kept blasting both Lil Boosie’s “Fuck the Police” and Ceebo’s “Fuck the Police” and “Mr. Officer.” Dancer was near the front of the march, dancing to the music, of course. I like both those songs, but the volume of the music messed up our chants and therefore our physical unity, so I asked him to turn it down. He did. I handed the banner to someone else and sped up to get to the center of the march.

We made it to Vine and turned south, perhaps down to 30-40 people now. There was a slowing for some reason near Selma, as Babyface did another corral run with the bike, and Dancer and a contingent of our people, including banner holders, ran into the Trader Joe’s there for a quick in-store protest. It was a real spur-of-the-moment thing, and while I was wondering whether it was a good thing to do, they went ahead and did it, and came back out within two minutes. Of course it was a good thing to do. I was worried that by dividing our number with the police so close to us, it would put our people in danger. There were no problems there, though.

We continued south to Sunset and turned west again, beginning the bottom half of our circuit. The streets are Morningside, Cahuenga, Wilcox, Schrader, Casil, Las Palmas, McCadden, Highland, Orange, and then La Brea. We took La Brea north to Hollywood on the first circuit. We had been blocking traffic in and around this area for about 90 minutes by now, and we were still going. Our chants were still strong, though our numbers continued to dwindle. Another disruptive ambulance was driven into our path to throw us off. The second one of the night. The group of teenage boys I mentioned above joined us on this bottom leg. We continued, lit up by the police helicopter, past supportive honkers, hateful drivers, various onlookers, etc., and a homeless looking fellow in our midst kept trying to get a word with Babyface as we passed Highland and came to Orange. Our numbers were falling off fast, and now we definitely were at or near only 2 dozen. As we passed Orange, we paused briefly to look up the street. It was pitch black, and some of the people wanted to walk back up Orange to Hollywood, so that we could stop the march. This is not verbal communication, of course, but more of a physical thing. But Orange was pitch black. We couldn’t see anything. The verbal knowledge filtered through our numbers that the homeless-looking man had run ahead scouting, and had told Babyface that the police were waiting in the darkness. The streetlights had been turned off on Orange, and we could just barely make out their outlines, as they were standing under a tree-lined part of the street anyway. So we moved on past that kettling attempt. The crowd still wanted to go back to Hollywood, so we stopped also at La Brea, and that was also the same kettling setup. We could not go north up La Brea to get back.

So we just headed south down La Brea. This is the second appearance of the problem to which I want to call attention. Our confusion at what to do when our way back “home” was blocked caused us to hesitate there in the intersection of La Brea and Sunset, and the police were able to arrange a cordon south on La Brea while we wondered what to do. We should clearly have broken up right there. We were down to perhaps 15 people now, as we decided to go south on La Brea to De Longpre Avenue. We marched slower now. The police had not disabled the streetlights here, and they were lit up like Christmas, in a line of maybe 20 across La Brea, right in front of the Jim Henson Company, home of the Muppets (which is police slang for “Most Useless Police Person Ever Trained”). Our crowd scattered across the width of the street, some on the sidewalks, some in the street, and we all reached the police line. My wife and I were on the west sidewalk, looking at the line of police, and I started to video the events. We were just a couple of feet away from them. A group of perhaps 6 of our people had gathered on the east side of the street and were attempting to continue to march past the line of police. They were yelling at the police to move, some were trying to push their way past them, not extra rough, but just squeezing between them. The police wouldn’t allow this. My wife and I walked over there to get a closer look. A mild tussle was developing between the through-pushers and perhaps 3 police officers, and then one man ran through the line of police to the other side of De Longpre street. And then he stopped there, like he had won a marathon. He had broken through the line. So a crowd of cops rushed to get him, they grabbed him up and tried to throw him to the ground, but then a crowd of perhaps 6 or 7 of our people ran in really quickly to unhand him. Now the other police from the other side of the line ran over, the 6 or 7 of our people retreated extremely quickly, the dearrest relinquished for the moment. I have never seen a dearrest, but the speed with which these things happen is extraordinary. The whole attempt, from cop hands on the man, to our people in and struggling, to the reinforcements running, to our people out and far enough from the scene to be ungrabbable was no more than 2 seconds.

So, that was one arrest for 2 hours of traffic interference. Not bad. My wife and I walked back as individuals, with Smiley and the teenagers, to Hollywood and Highland. Smiley got caught up with some other of our people, but relayed to us that there had been one more arrest. He hung back to get more information, and we kept on. It turns out the teenagers lived in the neighborhood, and when they heard the chants and saw the copter, they came out to join us.

Friday, December 26, 2014
We visited Hollywood and Highland the night after Christmas and found not a lot going on. Smiley was there, and some of the older activists were around. I asked Smiley whether he knew anything about the permitted rally planned for Saturday, December 27, the Millions March LA. I had discovered it on Facebook, but a long thread there with some activists asking who the heck the organizers were made me wonder what it was all about. The fact that it was planned in coordination with the LAPD made me wary. Smiley didn’t know anything about it really, other than it was happening, but he pointed me in the direction of an older white activist and said she might know more. I didn’t want to walk up to her and start asking her questions because I didn’t know her and had never seen her. My wife and I hung around for a little while, and then I tried to strike up a conversation with another older white activist. I asked “Hey, doesn’t look like enough people to march tonight, huh?” Just small talk. She jumped back about a yard and looked at me crazy. She looked around and answered, “Well that depends on what the people want to do.” I said “Yeah.” Clearly, she thought I was a police officer. Like I said, I was definitely the oldest black man around, and I can look like I mean business of some sort or another.

Saturday, December 27, 2014
My wife and I decided not to go to the Millions March LA, organized by a group called ((WE)), about which I still know very little, because it just didn’t seem right. However, it turned out to be enormous. It started in a park near a shopping center called The Grove, on 3rd and Fairfax. We watched it on ustream, and it was full of middle-class blacks, young, middle-aged, and old. Overwhelmingly black, and entirely decent if you get my meaning. The sort of people who vote for Obama and go to church, or tell people they do. And then there were celebrities like gangsta rappers The Game and Tyga, and basketball player Steve Nash.

One fun thing to note about the ustream video is the overbearing choreography of the march. The ((WE)) organizers stayed at the head of the march at all times, and passed out chant leaflets, congratulated themselves over their soundspeaker at every stop, and several times used their sound system to change chants. They wouldn’t even let people chant “No Justice, no peace / No racist police!”

When the march arrived at Wilshire and Masselin, in front of the building that houses both E! Entertainment Network and OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, the organizers stopped it to whip the people back into the designated side of the street. By that point, the march had grown to multiple thousands. Bourgeois press reports cite 5,000, and organizers report 13,000.

At one point in the video, Bryan Hayes, the streamer, films ((WE)) organizers attempting to get some recalcitrant protesters to come back to the designated side of the street. They refuse, standing there, holding black power fists in the air, while the organizers wonder what to do. One is recorded saying, “We’re not talking about it any more. Let the police take care of them.” Meanwhile, the organizers had stopped directly beneath a billboard for the movie Selma, and announced over their soundsystem that media should take a picture of the marchers under the billboard.

Picture of Selma Billbaord and MillionsMarchLA

Real spectacular.

So, the Millions March LA was a step backward in power and consciousness, though many thousands came out to participate. I still don’t know who ((WE)) are.

At the end of the video, Bryan Hayes mentioned another action taking place in Hollywood, and that many protesters from the Millions March were going to that one. My wife and I figured that must be the #FTPFridays group at Hollywood and Highland, so we checked Facebook, and surely, it was. We rushed right out, excited.

We expected hundreds, and there were dozens. Smiley was there, Fire, Dancer, and Babyface were all there. But we didn’t even have the 75 or so we had the night of December 12. Our dozens were milling about the corner, and Fire started rallying people to block traffic. Soon the third sign of the problem I seek to address appeared. Babyface had got the idea in her head to burn the flag while we blocked the intersection, so Fire went to go purchase one. I’m hardly patriotic, but I wondered why we should do that. I didn’t say anything, because what the hell, it’s just a flag, and if they want to burn it while blocking the intersection, we’ll still be blocking the intersection. Whatever.

It was really hard to ignite, and someone had to spray the flag with something or other to light it. Like the night of December 12, my wife and I went to block the eastbound side, most stayed on the westbound side, trying to light the flag. Nobody tried to cross us this time, but there were many more hostile pedestrians. We stayed blocking the intersection of Hollywood and Highland for perhaps 10 minutes, chanting “Fists up, fight back!” The weaker “Hands up, don’t shoot” had been replaced, and unambiguously, but not by “Hands down, shoot back,” Ismaaiyl Brinsley having performed his misguided exemplary action in killing those two NYPD officers.

Our people flowed back to the corner of Hollywood and Highland when the police arrived and parked in the middle of the intersection. Our numbers were certainly no more than 15 by this point as well, and the fourth sign of the problem I am outlining appeared again when almost the entire crowd rushed to heckle and harass the police cars. The police were taunting back childishly, pointing significantly at the people cursing them out. No finger-guns, but winks, middle fingers, and knowing nods. This heckling went on a good ten minutes, just shouting. Then most of the police left, and Fire wanted to go back into the street. Now we had only a dozen people. I thought that if my wife and I left, they would never attempt to block the street with only 10 people. So we decided to leave, in order to get them to stop. It seemed silly to try to block the street with those low numbers. It seemed like a recipe for getting arrested and beat up. So we left.

We checked social media that night to find out what happened. The small group we had left walked away from the intersection deeper onto Hollywood, and did indeed attempt to block the entire street, without having to worry about traffic from the intersection with Highland. They held hands across the width of Hollywood and held it for a good five minutes.

Bryan Hayes, the streamer, was hit by a very large Cadillac Escalade, as the video above shows. Our people left shortly thereafter to care for him. There were also some arrests, more than one.

The Problem

To state it plainly: We need to learn when to stop. I am not interested in getting arrested and wasting my time in the criminal justice system, or in having a record, or in getting beaten up. I am willing to risk it, as we do when we engage in illegal demonstrations, but I would rather avoid it. The group my wife and I have been demonstrating with is fiercely militant, courageous, and intelligent, as their actions over the past months show. But despite our effectiveness in actually disrupting business as usual, there is still a very large component of pure demonstration. This is why they wanted to burn a flag, why they wanted to heckle a gang of police, why they wanted to rush a line of 20 cops with a dozen people, and why they wanted to try to block a major street with 10. The way I figure it, the first night I went out with them, we had demonstrated our power to ourselves and anybody trying to drive that night with our first circuit around the area. We didn’t need to go back out a second time. The second time was just gravy. There was certainly no need to continue, randomly, down a street we hadn’t planned on taking to avoid a kettle. Better to disperse, regroup later, and fight another day. The same goes for the December 27 intersection blockage. I have not felt comfortable enough to raise my concerns yet.

Protesters Blocking the I-110

Not the End Note: Monday, December 29, 2014
Ezell Ford’s autopsy was released, and showed that he was shot three times, and the last shot was fired into his back at such a close range as to leave muzzle imprints and burns on Ezell’s skin. The very same group of protesters my wife and I have been demonstrating with started at the place of Ezell Ford’s murder, marched up to the I-110 freeway, and succeeded in blocking it again briefly. Meanwhile, they’re beginning a series of sit-down strategy meetings. We will be there.