Last night, protests in Los Angeles against the not guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial—which had been mostly nonviolent, though there were occasional fights—turned ugly. A peaceful demonstration gave way to a brawl between police and protesters, and 14 people were arrested by the end of the evening.
For the LAPD, this marked one too many days in a row of people publicly wishing Zimmerman had been convicted of murdering Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old he followed home and killed last year. Since Saturday, when the jury came back with their verdict acquitting Zimmerman, Angelinos have been gathering in Leimert Park for protests, rallies, and marches.
People pretty much expect LA to go crazy, of course. According to the stereotype, whenever there’s a racially charged incident (or sports fan excitement), the always-present tension in LA boils over and spills into the streets in the form of uncontrollable riots. Sunday night looked like this:
Protesters got onto the nearby freeway and blocked traffic, while the LAPD started saying that while most of the protesters were peaceful, there were these opportunistic “splinter groups” taking advantage of the moment to run wild.
Then, most of Monday night looked like this:
Before I could even arrive on the scene, there was a spectacular show of force by the LAPD, and by the time I got to Leimert Park, there were 300 cops in the area sticking their cop car noses into any group of people gathering on the sidewalk. Not far from where I stood, journalists were being mugged by random passersby.
Perhaps most importantly, a Walmart had been stormed, and the LAPD had decided enough was enough. They declared the protest an “unlawful assembly,” and broke it up faster than you can say “cleanup on aisle seven.” Soon the streets were so serene, they were able to safely escort newly elected mayor Eric Garcetti in for a press conference. I snuck in through a throng of onlookers to take photos with my smartphone.
He gave a speech in a cleared-out section of the park where protesters had been swarming not too long before. The cops had even cleaned the ground so the mayor wouldn't scuff his new loafers.
Garcetti told the press that there had been 150 bad guys, which is why there were 300 cops on the scene.
When the mayor wrapped up his two identical speeches, one in English and one in Spanish, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck delivered a much more substantive speech that drew a line in the sand.
“The rights of the many have been abused by the actions of a few," he said. "Because of that, tomorrow the Los Angeles Police Department will have a much stricter posture in the way that we deal with people taking to the streets of Crenshaw Boulevard. That is extremely unfortunate. We want to facilitate First Amendment rights.”
How that “stricter posture” plays out in the coming days is anyone’s guess. With the LAPD’s history of taking extreme stances against acts of political resistance (and some people's tendency to turn any protest into an excuse to start fights), there could be many more confrontations to come.
For more on Trayvon Martin and the George Zimmerman trial verdict: