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Police defend use of pepper spray, rubber bullets at Democratic Convention protest

LOS ANGELES -- Civil libertarians on Tuesday said police overreacted to protests during the opening day of the Democratic National Convention, but police said their response -- which included the use of pepper spray and rubber bullets -- was "outstanding."


In this story:

Police move in on foot, horseback

Disruptive behavior observed

A 'significant risk' for city


At least six people were arrested Monday night when a group of 50 to 100 demonstrators began throwing rocks and bottles at police on the fringe of a free concert by the band Rage Against the Machine outside the Staples Center, where President Clinton was speaking.

But there were signs the violence could be flaring again. A group of animal-rights demonstrators broke windows shortly after 3 p.m. (6 p.m. EDT) Tuesday in the downtown business district about seven blocks from the convention center. Forty-five people were arrested, bringing to 83 the number of convention-related arrests, an LAPD spokeswoman said.

Police had no immediate explanation for what caused the incident. They said those arrested would be charged with vandalism.

handcuffs
Los Angeles police handcuff a protester Monday night  

Monday evening's clashes occurred a few hours after thousands of people marched to the convention's designated, fenced-in protest site. The concert, which started around the time of the convention's evening session, swelled their ranks.

Some demonstrators set bonfires with leaflets and scraps of wood torn from protest signs. The concert came to an abrupt stop when an LAPD commander interrupted to announce that fans had 20 minutes to disperse or face immediate arrest. Police pulled the plug on the electricity to the stage.

Police move in on foot, horseback

Within minutes, a line of police on horseback charged into the fenced-in area, cutting off one of the two main exits. While many confused protesters rushed into a narrow alley, others were pinned against the chain-link fence. Police on horseback were observed battering stray protesters with clubs as they rushed toward the exit, Reuters reported.

Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard Parks told CNN on Tuesday he thought the police response was "outstanding."

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 VIDEO
CNN's Charles Feldman examines how Los Angeles police responded to the situation

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IN-DEPTH COVERAGE
NEWS
Democratic conventioneers dismiss new Lewinsky grand jury
(8-17-00)

Police tactics draw criticism outside convention hall
(8-16-00)

Lieberman recounts 'only in America' story
(8-17-00)

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View live video of the Democratic National Convention while in session and highlights of CNN coverage.

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ANALYSIS
Stuart Rothenberg: Gore's challenge is not to lose in Los Angeles

Time.com/James Poniewozik: Joseph in the technicolor dream factory

BACKGROUND
Democratic convention at a glance

Interactive convention history

More coverage

"I thought it was clearly disciplined, and we gave the right commands. The field commanders were right on top of it," Parks said.

Protesters argued they were not given enough time to comply with police demands. "There was no way for people who wanted to leave to get out of that event last night," said Jim Lafferty, head of the left-wing National Lawyers Guild. Lafferty said he saw police club people who were scrambling to get out of their way and shoot them in the back with rubber bullets as they fled.

"This was a huge overreaction. The LAPD almost started a riot. Their rubber bullets hit reporters and people following their orders to disperse ... This was the most outrageous thing I have ever seen," said the veteran activist.

Police said there were no serious injuries. Four people were treated for minor injuries at the scene, they said.

But California state Sen. Tom Hayden, a delegate to the convention, said when he walked outside the Staples Center the scene "looked like a war zone."

"I was amazed the police said there were no injuries," he said, adding that he knew of at least three people injured by rubber bullets, including two ACLU attorneys.

Lafferty said he was hit twice with rubber bullets, even though he wore a special hat identifying himself as a legal observer and had his hands up.

Disruptive behavior observed

Parks told CNN that before police entered the concert area they had observed at least an hour of disruptive behavior.

His department, which this year has been rocked by a mushrooming corruption scandal, was blamed for reacting too slowly during the 1992 riots that followed the acquittal of four white policemen in the beating of black motorist Rodney King.

At a news conference Tuesday, Commander David Kalish, who watched Monday night's scene from a helicopter, said it was a no-win situation. He said police are criticized for responding either too quickly or too slowly.

"We used a great amount of restraint," Kalish said. "Our response was strategic, measured and appropriate to the situation."

He said the disruption was caused by people in the crowd intent on "creating violence and creating confrontation."

A 'significant risk' for city

But American Civil Liberties Union spokesman Christopher Calhoun said the police reaction was out of proportion. "Rubber bullets to attack, the use of batons. All of it was over the top."

protester
A protester confronts a line of policemen near the Staples Center  

Calhoun said organizers had been working with police to clear the area when the police attacked, putting fans and onlookers in harm's way. Had police given the fans more time to leave, "We would have had a situation without any trouble at all," Calhoun said. "Instead, they created a significant risk for our city."

The ACLU won a legal battle for the convention protesters by securing a judge's order establishing a protected "free speech" zone outside the convention center.

The LAPD argued against the zone, saying it was too close to the center to allow police to provide adequate security. Parks told CNN that Monday night's incident proved his department was right, because the Staples Center became the object of attack . "We have evidence of rocks actually hitting the building," he said.

On Wednesday, protests aimed specifically at police are scheduled, but police say they are not overly concerned.

CNN Correspondent Charles Feldman and Reuters contributed to this report.


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Tuesday, August 15, 2000


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