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Rubber bullets hit protesters in L.A.

by Judy Rebick

"When protests become effective, governments become repressive," said Tom Hayden during the Chicago Eight conspiracy trial during the war in Viet Nam. Thirty years later young people demonstrating in the streets of Los Angeles at another Democratic Party Convention have also been hit with repression.

While the mainstream media focus on the predictable show inside the Democratic National Convention, outside the LAPD is responding to peaceful protests with tear gas, truncheons and rubber bullets. Tuesday evening a peaceful gathering outside the Convention was attacked by armed riot police.

The crowd had just finished listening to a concert by Rage Against the Machine. Just as another band was beginning its set, police shut down the electricity and warned the crowd to disperse. A Globe and Mail reporter at the scene said the riot police were blocking the exits. The police again warned the crowd but according to the Globe reporter, "Nobody knew where to go...Then the mounted officers charged, clubs swinging...The police and their horses drove the crowd straight into a long line of riot police on foot. They were kneeling on the ground with shotguns aimed at us." The reporter then heard some pops and realized that police were shooting rubber bullets.

The police action was provoked by a few self-described anarchists who had climbed the fence and were taunting police. The police attack was an intense over-reaction that is becoming typical in these types of demonstrations. Ever since Seattle when well-organized protesters caught the Seattle police off guard and managed to high jack World Trade Organization talks, police in the United States and Canada have responded to relatively mild acts of civil disobedience with excessive violence.

A recently released American Civil Liberties Union report on the Seattle demonstrations said, "Demonstrations in Seattle were overwhelmingly peaceful, not so police." After an extensive investigation, the ACLU said the City of Seattle's response to the protest was characterized by "unwarranted restrictions and outright assaults on citizens and their basic rights." At the beginning of the summer I personally witnessed the same kinds of assaults in Windsor, where perfectly peaceful protesters were pepper sprayed for no apparent reason.

It's not only police that are the problem. Two weeks ago, a judge ordered John Sellers, head of the Ruckus Society, which trains protesters in non-violent action, held on $1 million bail for what amounted to misdemeanor charges. This is usually the kind of bail reserved for murder. While a high court reduced the bail, it remains that the District Attorney attempted to get Sellers held on that high a bail saying, "he facilitates the more radical elements to accomplish their violence and mayhem."

There are similarities to the Crown attorney in Toronto defending the harsh bail conditions against John Clarke and other leaders of the Ontario Coalition against Poverty, calling them a "cancer" that has to be removed. The purpose of these repressive actions is not really to limit violence and mayhem but to intimidate others from joining these protests. What is truly frightening is how little media attention they are getting in the U.S.

While these demonstrations are signs of a burgeoning protest movement and new radicalization among youth, they are nowhere near the size or the strength of the anti-war protests in the United States. Yet two things are similar. First, there is a growing group of young people willing to put their bodies and perhaps even their lives on the line to fight for what they believe in. Like in the 60s, this generation sees no opportunity to influence the political process from the inside. The only option for them is on the streets. The only street action that gets attention is civil disobedience.

Police assaults against demonstrations were also common during the 60s. Like today, there was an attempt to criminalize the most militant leaders of the anti-war movement. Like today, basic civil liberties were suspended when it came to radical youth. All that stopped in 1970 with Kent State, when the National Guard fired on student protesters and killed four.

Hopefully, it won't require deaths this time to stop the growing police violence and state repression against political protests on both sides of the border.

This column originally published on August 17, 2000 on CBC. Reproduced by permission of the author and CBC News Online.

Judy Rebick is host of the CBC show Straight from the Hip and author of Imagine Democracy (Stoddart). You can e-mail her at Judy Rebick. This and other columns by her are available on-line here.

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