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LAPD Reassigns Two Top Commanders Who Ordered Police to Shoot Rubber Bullets at Protesters & Journalists During May Day Immigrants Rights Rally

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The fallout continues in Los Angeles from the police attack on a largely peaceful May Day immigration march. Police with riot guns fired hundreds of rubber bullets, shot tear gas and clubbed protesters and journalists gathered in MacArthur Park. At least 10 people were injured, including seven journalists. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryMay 03, 2007Journalists Covering Los Angeles Immigration March Assaulted by Police
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we turn to Los Angeles, the fallout continues from the police attack on the May Day immigration march. Police with riot guns fired hundreds of rubber bullets, shot tear gas and clubbed protesters and journalists gathered in MacArthur Park. At least 10 people were injured, including seven journalists.

On Monday, the Los Angeles Police Department chief, William Bratton, announced the demotion of two high-ranking officers involved in the police response. Deputy Chief Cayler “Lee” Carter Jr. of the Operations Central Bureau and his number two, Commander Louis Gray, were reassigned. Meanwhile, up to 60 officers in the Metropolitan Division’s elite “B Platoon” have been taken off the streets, most of them permanently. The move comes as city officials offered their strongest apology to date. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said, “Accountability begins at the top. What happened on May 1st was wrong.”

My next guest is a veteran Los Angeles civil rights attorney with first-hand experience of police brutality both in and outside the courtroom. Carol Sobel is president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. In 2000, she was hit by police pellets while serving as a legal observer and negotiator at the protests outside the Democratic National Convention. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Carol Sobel.

CAROL SOBEL: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the latest developments and the demotion of these two top commanders as a result of the attack on the protesters and the journalists.

CAROL SOBEL: Well, I think that the mayor, certainly, and the police chief are attempting to defuse the situation, and the two people involved were the commanders at the incident. The irony for me, in particular, is that the commander, Commander Gray, who was relieved of duty yesterday, or reassigned from Central Division, at least, was the individual who gave the order to shoot people with less lethal weapons in October 22, 2000. And, you know, the city wound up paying a little over a million dollars for all the cases that resulted from that. Here we are seven years later, and the very same person gives the order again. So it’s pretty remarkable. Either way, I think that the transfers were probably warranted in this instance.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what is understood at this point about what happened on May Day, about how this attack took place and also the surprise of it being on the journalists, the journalists with the hefty cameras, journalists that were standing in place doing their stand-ups in front of the protest, very clearly identified. These police knew they were on camera.

CAROL SOBEL: Well, they knew they were on camera, but I think what’s sort of extraordinary here is that as we get further and further away from the actual May Day event, the number of people who are alleged to have caused the police reaction keeps dropping. We started with Chief Bratton saying there were 50 to a hundred, quote, “agitators,” either agitators, anarchists or communists, depending upon what day of the week it is that he’s talking about it. But that number is now down to 30, from the police chief, and I’m willing to put money on the fact that by next week at the latest that number will be down to about 10 people.

And, quite frankly, what happened is when the police decided to sweep the park and close it down, there was no one that was doing anything more than heckling them. And they were — I wouldn’t say “heckling,” even, I would say “criticizing” them — and they were doing it because what happened during the course of this march is that the police wanted open up a street, and rather than talking to people and saying, “Can you move onto the sidewalk? Can you move into the park now?” what they did was run their motorcycles into women and children in the Aztec dancers group, who were in the street at that point still. And the street was closed to traffic, but they were in the street performing their ritual circle dance at the end of the march. And so, you had the police doing one of the most provocative things they could do, and all of a sudden it is the fault of the demonstrators when the police literally use their motorcycles to strike people as a means of crowd control and to strike women and children as a means of crowd control, when people were peaceful.

AMY GOODMAN: The story of Pedro Sevcec, who’s very well known, broadcasting live for the Spanish-language television network Telemundo — police knocked over his monitors and the lights, hit the staff with batons.

CAROL SOBEL: Well, at that point, you know, they decided that everybody was going to be out of the park. And this was a decision by Metro Division. Under the Democratic National Convention litigation that occurred in 2000, we had two settlement agreements: One applied to the press, one applied to how they would do crowd control with demonstrators. The agreement with the press required them to set aside an area where the press could be and could conduct their interviews and cover the events, and they did that for the morning march, but they never did that for the afternoon march. And that was up to the commanders. That was up to Deputy Chief Carter, that was up to Commander Gray, to make sure that someone did that and set aside a place for the press.

The press weren’t in their way. I mean, this is just a situation where the police department just decided anybody in the park was going to be subject to their brutality. And in a couple of instances — I know there’s particular outrage about the press, but, you know, Chief Bratton’s response initially was “Well, how can you tell who’s the press and who’s not the press? Everybody has a camera these days.” That’s not the issue, because just because a person has a camera doesn’t mean they’re doing anything unlawful. So press or no press, they shouldn’t have assaulted them.

But the particular concern here is that there are rules within the LAPD about how you set up a press area. They just didn’t care. I mean, they just — you know, if a press person was knocked down, they struck him with a baton to get him up. If the cameraman got knocked down and the reporter tried to help him up, they beat the cameraman and the reporter. It was just — it was senseless.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Carol Sobel, who is a California civil rights attorney, president of the L.A. chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. She herself was hit with — was it pellets, rubber bullets in 2000?

CAROL SOBEL: No. It’s a stinger round. It’s a hard rubber ball. It’s not a pellet.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Mayor Villaraigosa was in El Salvador when this happened. What is your assessment of his response at this point? Do you also see the Police Commissioner Bratton, going down? He’s the former commissioner of New York.

CAROL SOBEL: I’m sorry, Amy, do I see him going down?

AMY GOODMAN: Yeah, do you see Bratton being fired or resigning?

CAROL SOBEL: No, no. I don’t think so. I can say with probably relative certainty Bratton is not going to be fired. And I don’t believe that Bratton — you know, I just don’t believe he’s going to be fired over this at all.

What’s been remarkable is the response of Bratton, which I think is different than the response of the last — most of the last police chiefs in this city, which would have been to say, “My officers did nothing wrong, and we will investigate.” And instead, Bratton has said, “This is bad. People did things wrong, and we will investigate.” And that is such a marked change for us.

Now, I’m not saying that Bill Bratton is the best police chief Los Angeles has ever had. I’m not saying that by any means. And I’m certainly — you know, I have no appreciation for Bill Bratton’s police tactics on the homeless in this city or any other city, and there are other issues, as well. But this is a marked difference in this city from what has happened in the past. When there’s been a police shooting, when there’s been a police beating, it was always exonerate the officers and then ask questions. And in this instance, that’s not occurring. And I think that that is — you know, I think for those reasons and for other reasons, Bratton is not going to be — he is going to be renewed.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think this shows the power of the press when the press is in the right place, when the press is on the ground with their cameras focused?

CAROL SOBEL: It does show the power of the press. And I think it’s incredibly important that the press was there to cover this, that the community was there to cover this. I do have to say, though, as somebody who’s usually on the other end of the police officer’s stick, I think that — I wish the press were as outraged when it was just the demonstrators who were subject to that brutality.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Carol Sobel, we’re going to leave it there, and I thank you for being with us, president of the L.A. chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.

CAROL SOBEL: Thank you, Amy.

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