USA: Los Angeles Police Defend Crackdown on Protest

LOS ANGELES -- Civil liberties groups threatened to sue the Los Angeles Police Department Tuesday, saying it shot innocent people in the back with rubber bullets as they peacefully left a Democratic Convention protest, but the city's top cop said he felt good about police actions.

Hundreds of demonstrators continued to march though Los Angeles, undeterred by the swift and fierce police action on Monday night to break up a free protest concert outside the convention. Some demonstrators even offered the hordes of police accompanying their marches free sandwiches and spritzes of cooling perfumed spray.

Police Chief Bernard Parks told local television that the police were justified in their actions on Monday night when officers on horseback firing pepper spray and rubber bullets dispersed about 9,000 people after a concert that featured Rage Against the Machine and other groups.

''We feel very good about the way we handled it,'' Parks told a local television station. He said police were provoked by a small group of demonstrators throwing rocks at officers on the fringe of the concert. At about the time the demonstrators fled, President Clinton was telling the convention that his administration had created a better America.

Parks said police had to take action to prevent the violence from spreading. ''We gave full warning early on that we were not going to tolerate people throwing objects either at demonstrators or at police,'' he told local station ABC-7.

The American Civil Liberties Union demanded a meeting with City Officials and said if it did not get one, it would go to court Wednesday and seek an injunction to stop excessive police force and the breaking up of lawful assembly.

ACLU lawyer Dan Tokaji said, ''What you saw last night was nothing less than an organized police riot but make no mistake the protesters will not back down. The rallies and the marches will go on. If the LAPD cannot control itself, it is time for the federal government to come in and take control.''

The ACLU said it had talked to scores of people who had been hit or hurt by rubber bullets. But Parks shrugged off criticism. ''I think the ACLU are not the most objective group and we certainly disagree with them,'' he said.

Jim Lafferty, the head of the left-wing National Lawyers Guild in Los Angeles, said he saw police club people who were scrambling to get out of their way and also 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. It is the clearest example I know of why the LAPD is known as the most unprofessional, cowardly and brutal police force in the country,'' the veteran activist said.

He said he was twice hit with rubber bullets by police even as he wore a special hat identifying himself as a legal observer and had his hands up in a gesture of peace.

Police pulled the plug on the concert after the popular punk rock group Rage Against the Machine had finished playing and the local group Ozomotli had taken the stage.

A cluster of about 60 black-clad youths stormed the fence separating the concert from the convention, pressing protest signs against the chain links for protection and tossing water bottles, refuse and parking signs over the top.

Two protesters scaled the chain link fence waving black banners while police repeatedly pelted them with pepper spray. Medical staff among the protesters said they treated more than 40 people for exposure to the spray and other chemical fumes.

Meanwhile other demonstrators set bonfires with leaflets and scraps of wood torn from protest signs. The event came to an abrupt stop when an LAPD commander interrupted the concert to announce, ''I hereby proclaim this an unlawful assembly. You have 15 minutes to disperse or face immediate arrest.''

Then within minutes, a line of police on horseback charged into the fenced-in parking lot, 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.

Police department spokesman David Kalish said police expected no further problems with protests scheduled for the rest of the week. ''We do not believe there will be additional problems,'' Kalish told a news briefing, adding, ''We react to what people do. We react to people's behavior.''

Kalish said it was a no-win situation -- that police are criticized for acting too swiftly or too slowly.

The department has been blamed for reacting too slowly during the 1992 riots after the acquittal of four white policemen for beating black motorist Rodney King.

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