Nov. 30 2011 02:03 PM

Remembering some pretty rough stuff 20 years ago

D.A. Kolodenko
The argument you hear sometimes in defense of police brutality at the Occupy demonstrations is that protestors cross the line when they start camping (i.e. occupying stuff, which is kind of the point). If protestors refuse to obey orders, the argument goes, the police can do whatever it takes to make them comply. They can even pepper spray them in the face with the casualness of a drunk peeing on a tree, or, speaking of urination, hold arrested protesters in vans for so many hours, as the Sheriff's Department did at the recent Civic Center crackdown, that the detainees are forced to relieve themselves in the vehicles.

But make no mistake: This is just an excuse. It doesn't matter what protestors do; demonstrations must be stopped. Policing democratic expression takes up too much time, energy and resources. Police will isolate and destroy public demonstrations that last too long. That's just how they roll.

Consider the protests in San Diego against the first U.S. invasion of Iraq back in 1991. As the march to war was ramping up, the protests got larger and larger in our city, along with hundreds of other cities across the country and around the world. The arbitrary deadline of Jan. 15 set by the U.S.-led coalition forces—before which Saddam Hussein's forces were required to leave Kuwait—was met by the most massive protest yet.

Thousands of people marched through the streets of Downtown San Diego— the police estimated about 3,500, but some placed the number at more than 10,000. Simultaneous protests around the world made that date historic: It was the largest global anti-war protest in history.

The protests were unsuccessful in that they didn't stop the Gulf War, but they certainly made it apparent that in the era of instant global communication, the world was much smaller. The recognition that war is an outmoded form of discourse became unstoppable.

Once the 1991 war was underway, the protests dwindled. But a few hundred diehards returned to Balboa Park, the site of the city's initial protests. Within weeks of the launch of the war, the usual weekend march through the park into Downtown, and back up Sixth Avenue, ended with a police assault. The cops had been spotted earlier on the other side of the park equipping their belts with plastic handcuffs—this was new. There were also more police mounted on horseback than usual.

An aside: I was reminded of those extra horses I saw in Balboa Park 20 years ago, when I saw a truck full of police horses from San Jose headed south on Interstate 5 around North County last week. It wasn't difficult to guess where they were going and why.

But back to that demonstration two decades ago: Once protestors had returned from their march, police surrounded them from all sides and charged into the crowd on horseback. There was screaming and chaos as police swung their clubs into the crowd. Right in front of me was a man of about 60 wearing a peace sign T-shirt. I'd noticed him at other demonstrations because he walked with difficulty and used a cane but still marched. Now, four cops had him on the ground and were beating him into submission. Or, rather, he was already in submission. His face and head looked so bloodied and swollen, he could have been an extra in a zombie movie.

The cops finally stopped wailing on him and dragged him to a police truck. I ran after them, screaming, "Take him to a hospital!" I'm surprised they didn't throw me into the truck, too.

They made him sit in jail all night without attending to his injuries. Later I was asked by an attorney to testify in court about what I saw. The man, who used the cane because he was epileptic, was charged with assaulting a police officer. Allegedly, he had struck a horse when they charged into the crowd. He claimed he had raised the cane to his face to protect himself. I never saw him hit a horse, and I don't know if he did. All I knew was he was on the ground being beaten senseless by a bunch of bullies in uniforms right in front of me.

On the stand, I pointed out the cops I recognized and told the court what I saw. A woman who had been in the park pushing her kid in a stroller, who was not a protestor, testified that she saw the same thing. A photograph of the man taken after he was released from jail on bail was passed around to all the jurors. I saw the picture, too. He looked like he'd done 10 rounds with Muhammad Ali.

Then, an amazing thing happened. All four cops took the witness stand and lied. Not only did they say that the man swung at a police horse; they also said there was no beating. Since there was no video evidence, and this was before cell phones, the police could lie easily. It hadn't occurred to me that they would. The man was found guilty, in spite of the photo of his wrecked face. The jurors wanted to believe the police, so they did.

That's what happened in 1991 in San Diego. After that incident, the protests just fizzled out. It might work with Occupy, too.

The police don't want to be stuck babysitting a bunch of whiners every day. They want to go home to their families and have Thanksgiving dinner. But if there's even one cop out there who thinks that Lt. Pike of the UC Davis police force and his ilk are out of line, I am thankful for you. You are the exception to the rule. Good luck getting anyone else on the force to listen to you.

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