There are moments right on the edge of things when you know that what's about to happen is going to be a defining event. As I stood on the stage about an hour before the Rage Against the Machine and Ozomatli concert at the opening night of the Democratic National Convention, I knew this was one of those moments.
I looked out over the concert area/ protest site and there were already thousands of people waiting for everything to start-some of them had been there since 6:30 in the morning. Shortly after 6 p.m. the protest march entered the site and the crowd swelled to 15,000 people. What happened next made headlines all over the world and helped define the tone for the week, for the both the system and the people.
It had been a fight with the city to have this concert-and everyone was amazed that it was actually happening. The message on the Rage website for the day was: "Rage Against the Machine are playing this concert today for all the people who feel left out and excluded by the two major political parties." Organized by the Artists Network of Refuse & Resist!, the musicians, and people in the D2K network, the concert was a featured part of the opening night protest rally at the DNC. The theme of the rally-Human Need Not Corporate Greed- seemed to tax the brains of network anchors, who declared the protest message "blurry."
As far as anyone could see, stretching out beyond the fenced-in site, there were people. Black and Chicano youth from East L.A., Echo Park, Pico Union and South Central mixed it up with protesters. Mexico City chilangos from the street corners of downtown L.A. crowd-surfed with white youth from West L.A., Santa Monica and Orange County. Cut-out images of the cover of Rage's last album, "The Battle of Los Angeles," were visible all through the crowd. Giant puppets floated above the crowd. Banners denouncing corporate greed and politicians danced in the air right next to banners condemning globalization, capitalism, and imperialism.
To the right of the stage stood the 14-foot-high prison fence surrounding the Staples Center. Behind the fence were hundreds of riot-geared cops guarding the Staples Center and menacing the protesters. A JumboTron TV screen on the outside of the Center broadcast the ugly images from the inside the DNC. The front door to the convention was only about 100 yards away.
Culture Clash, a Chicano Comedy/ Theater group, welcomed everyone to the "Battle of Los Angeles" and brought Rage onto the stage. The crowd pressed in on the barrier wall around the stage with incredible force. It was like the earth was breathing. The people cheered and danced as Rage greeted them with their song "Bulls on Parade." For the next 45 minutes Rage gave one of the most powerful rock performances I have ever heard. They gave us their songs "Guerrilla Radio," "People of the Sun," "Testify," and "Sleep Now in the Fire." They did a brilliant cover of MC5's "Kick Out the Jams." They slammed into one of their early songs, "Freedom," changing the wording slightly as the audience joined in a huge crescendo of "Free Mumia." And as a giant image of Hillary Clinton flickered on the JumboTron TV, 15,000 people gave the finger to the DNC shouting the lyrics to "Killing in the Name Of," "Fuck you I won't do what you tell me!"
Rage sent out a musical challenge that reverberated off the fence surrounding the Staples Center and all the ugliness inside the center, as President Clinton spoke about peace and prosperity. Their music fused with all the different sentiments against the injustices of the system dancing in front of them. The music reached in and grabbed our hearts, pulled us towards the stage and to each other. Rage fed our brains. We were really, really becoming one united, courageous, determined and defiant people.
Shortly before the end of Rage's set, the weird behavior of the Community Liaison official from the DNC, who suddenly booked from the backstage area, and the hurried departure of police who had been stationed backstage, running off with their chairs, might have been a tip-off of things to come.
When Ozomatli took the stage, the crowd began to dance joyfully. All over the site, people were celebrating the week of protest and the fact that this amazing concert had happened. Meanwhile the police started violating people in the crowd. In a far corner of the site police confiscated giant puppets and people demanded their return. At the fence closest to the Staples Center, police pepper-sprayed some youth who were just standing along the fence. When two youths scaled the fence around the center and held a black flag up in the air, the police brutally attacked them-literally drenching them with pepper spray and shooting them with "non-lethal" bullets. Later the police would blame these youth for their massive attack on the crowd-echoed by too many voices who should know better.
The stinging odor of pepper spray began to reach the stage, and many of us reached for masks and bandannas to cover our noses. Suddenly, midway through Ozomatli's second song, the police pulled the plug. The police never gave an official warning to anyone that they were going to turn the power off. The only way people working on the concert ever found out about it was that a young woman happened to overhear a police commander and she reported it to people backstage. When concert organizers confronted the cops about this they just said that it was "too late" and that "nothing can be done to stop it now."
A police commander declared the concert an unlawful assembly and ordered people to disperse. He gave them 20 minutes to clear the area-an impossible task since there were about 10,000 people who would have to squeeze out the one narrow little exit from the site.
In the face of the police attack, Ozomatli did one of those things that makes people love them so much. They turned around and said, "We're going to keep playing. We've got to go be with the people and play for the people." Then they jumped off the stage with their instruments and made their way into the crowd. They beat out a Samba and moved back towards the Staples Center, where the police continued to assault the youth sitting on top of the fence. When it became clear that the police were going to attack and the people would be caged up in a cul-de-sac, Ozo helped lead the people out of the trap and into the streets.
Ten minutes after the cops declared an unlawful assembly-as people were still trying to leave the area-the police attacked. They came in waves. One group of cops pushed people north and east and began firing on people with rubber bullets, pepper gas, pepper balls and beanbags. Another group of cops came out of the east and pushed people west, firing on them and beating them with batons. Some people stood and faced down the police on the streets. Others regrouped and began to march. Many others simply tried to get out of the area. It didn't matter, the police indiscriminately fired on people in the streets for more than an hour. The firecracker bang of their rubber bullet guns echoed in the night for quite some time after most people had left the area.
Still people resisted. Many were bloody or bruised, or choking and vomiting from pepper spray, but people tried to walk away together, not be panicked and stampeded. They looked out for fallen comrades. People formed instant "affinity groups" - posse-ing up and talking about where to go, who needed help getting to a car, which way to go to get away. Banners kept flying. And in the midst of it all, I caught sight of the red flag of the RCP- looking like something out of the Paris Commune. Chants kept coming. Pigs were cussed. And people were pissed!
Organizers estimate that somewhere near 100 people were wounded by the rubber bullets and beanbag projectiles. Inside the concert area, as people made their way towards the exit, 50 mounted cops came charging into the area at a gallop and with clubs swinging high and hard. Four Chicano teenagers were forced up against the fence by mounted police and beaten mercilessly. People who sat down to protest all this were trampled on by the horses, and dozens of other people were knocked over by the horse police or beaten with their clubs. At least one man suffered serious head injuries from being trampled by a horse. Many hundreds of cops continued to pour into the streets around the area for the next few hours.
The police called a late night press conference and immediately set out to blame the people at the rally and concert for supposedly "provoking" the police into having no choice but to attack them. In fact, the police needed no provocation to attack.
Mari Matsuoka from the Artists Network of Refuse & Resist! told the press: "This was a police riot-open and shut. This was a preplanned attack. From the moment the police, without a word to the concert organizers, pulled their spokespeople out of the concert site, to the cutting of sound with no warning, to the massive orchestrated movement of hundreds of police-it was clear this was a police instigated act of violence on an incredible scale."
In fact, the police had been barking implied threats ever since the permits were granted. And they were coordinating their actions with the top levels of the DNC officials. Marcia Hale, a top official in Gore's campaign and a key convention planner, watched the police attack from the roof of the Staples Center and later told The New York Times that Democratic Party officials knew what the police were doing to the people and supported the police.
It always feels like madness to try to get inside the mentality behind a police attack. But I think the police attacked this concert because they were really afraid of the mix that it brought together. And the people loved the concert for many of the same reasons. As I tried to make my way out of the area that night, dodging police platoons chanting, "Whose streets? Our streets," as they ran through the streets, my mind just kept returning to the concert and the faces of the people. I flashed on something Mao once said about how the enemy can burn down a village but the people can't even light a candle. Outside the Democratic Convention, the enemy can beat people, trample them with horses, spray them with pepper gas and shoot them with real and rubber bullets. Yet the people can't lift their voices in protest or listen to the music that connects to their movement.
And then I thought about what the people had done that night. We had the rally. We had the concert smack up against the rulers' party. And the world saw it all. The police tried to set a tone of intimidation and fear for the week. Instead the concert helped set a tone of defiance and determination that continued to inspire and move people all week long. We had scored big for the people. A sister who was traveling with me that night put it all in perspective when, after we dodged a club-swinging cop about 10 blocks from the Staples Center, she looked back at the area, smiled, and said, "This night really does belong to the people!"