COPS, DON'T MESS WITH L.A.'S PRESS.
BEFORE the tear gas came the warning. I clearly heard, "This is an illegal assembly. You are ordered to disperse." The helicopters circled menacingly overhead and I, along with the rest, faced a Hobson's Choice of bad options.
You see, while we were ordered to disperse, we were also surrounded by the police. There was literally nowhere to go. Maybe a backhoe to dig us out, or rescue, deus ex machina, from one of the helicopters. The helicopters supplied no relief -- only the tear gas canisters that begat the running, the beatings and the rage.
What I'm describing was a riot in Berkeley in the late 1960s. As a survivor of that era, I know something about what happened on Tuesday in MacArthur Park. While "riotology" is not my academic field, living through Berkeley in the '60s gives me an informal masters, if not a PhD.
Typically, a peaceful demonstration turns ugly when people in the back, craving the adrenalin charge of blood and destruction, start throwing rocks and bottles. I have never seen riots start totally unprovoked (not since the days of Bull Conner and the civil-rights movement). The people in the front then bear the brunt of the police violence, while those who started it remain in relative safety.
Sometimes protesters riot, and sometimes it is the police who lose control of themselves. This latter seems to have been the case at MacArthur Park.
Both sides share a lot in common during a riot. The protesters see the police as nonhuman and the source of unreasonable authority. The police see the protesters (soon to be rioters) as the force of anarchy and chaos. They meet at their mutual inability to see the other as anything but the enemy. This is how good cops hit women, broadcasters, members of the press and people who are just trying to get out of the way.
The early 20th century sociologist Gustav LeBon wrote about how the members of a mob join in the energy of the moment and lose their individual sense of self and their own values or morals. This is true of both police and protesters.
Once the violence starts, it is easy to get lost in the passion of the moment. It takes tremendous discipline and the willing suppressing of our natural instincts to hold to our own values. This discipline comes from training. Our police were clearly not prepared for what they saw in the park.
This is a failure, not so much of the individual police officers, but of leadership. They were not trained for dealing with a largely peaceful group with some violent -- and probably inebriated -- people. They were trained for civil insurrection. Their leaders, our leaders, called the wrong play from the wrong playbook.
Pundits often observe that the military prepares for the previous war. Well, the police are no different. Their use of force was properly designed for urban insurrection, for the Watts Riots or the Rodney King Riots. Thousands of people looting stores, setting fires and beating innocent shop owners might need to be cleared with the kind of authority and level of violence we saw Tuesday. But that level was not appropriate for thousands of peaceful people trapped in front of some provocateurs.
Am I prejudging without having been there or before the official reports are issued? Yes. Isn't that irresponsible? No.
The reports and results of investigations will most likely follow the established pattern of blaming a few bad apples among the marchers and a few bad apples among the police. Like Abu Ghraib, no report will place the responsibility at the high level where it belongs -- on the playbook and whoever called the play.
This was a protest that did not need to become a riot. But it became a police riot because they were given orders to quell an insurrection instead of arresting a few violent thugs.
We, the people, deserve better leadership. The police, too, deserve better leadership.
(color) Mounted Los Angeles police officers in riot gear keep watch over a march.
David McNew/Getty Images