Commentary: Free Speech at the 2000 Democratic National Convention

Free Speech is Not a License for Mayhem
By Scott Holleran

As Democrats prepare to nominate Vice President Al Gore for president, a wave of protesters prepares to overwhelm the Democratic National Convention that starts Monday at Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles.

Though protesters have the right to assemble, freedom of speech is not a license to let mayhem loose on the city of Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Police Department, led by Chief Bernard C. Parks, must fully enforce the law. That’s what Philadelphia Police Commissioner John F. Timoney did – and it worked.

Backed by city residents, most politicians and The Philadelphia Inquirer, Timoney took no chances in applying the rule of law during the Republican National Convention. He arrested hundreds in a sweeping confrontation with anarchists, neo-hippies and thugs who sought to disrupt the city and its GOP convention.

Commissioner Timoney, whose daily appearances in bicycle shorts also provided some comic relief, stood his ground with steady enforcement of the law. Few were hurt, the convention went on uncorrupted, and the protesters’ coordinated plan to use pipes, chains and physical force was largely prevented.

But L.A. is shaping up to be the anti-Philadelphia story. Restrained by a judge’s ruling against their protest proposal, a mayor and City Council who have thoroughly politicized the city’s police, and a councilwoman who thinks freedom of speech means freedom to destroy property, the LAPD faces its toughest challenge.

It all began years ago with the Rodney King verdict, which prompted a riot that consumed the city in violence and flames. Politicians of both parties scurried to condemn or critique the LAPD by saddling the department with a government commission that has plagued the city’s law enforcement troops.

Since then, guided by Mayor Richard Riordan and the City Council – and fueled by internal problems, including low morale – the concept of law enforcement has been replaced by politically correct press releases and public relations ploys.

Whatever blame career policeman Parks bears pales in comparison to the responsibility of Mayor Riordan, who insisted upon a disastrous post-Lakers party last June that undermined the LAPD; Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who bullied the council into turning Pershing Square into a time bomb; and the entire City Council, who let the fiasco in progress happen by conceding to Goldberg.

Councilwoman Laura Chick, who complained to The Associated Press that the police plan is less than perfect and that “it’s way too late to be working out the details,” spoke volumes about her own complicity and complete lack of leadership. LAPD was shoehorned by the council into presenting last-minute plans.

And then there are the protesters, whose right to speech is not in dispute. Their antics in Philadelphia and elsewhere – obstructing traffic, assaulting police and property – prove they fully intend to practice what they preach: Their philosophy includes a proposal to confiscate private property.

By their own admission, the mob that will descend upon Los Angeles in the coming days – the herd that Councilwoman Goldberg is bringing into the city’s financial center by engraved invitation – does not seek to present their grievances in a peaceful manner. They intend to destroy. Peaceful protests are not staged by those who seek the seizure of property.

On behalf of those at risk, including those downtown small-business owners and jewelers forced to shut down and also those city residents whose regular police protection is diminished, Chief Parks and the LAPD should emulate the Philadelphia example: Police must conduct a thorough investigation of protesters’ plans, meet the protesters with a strong presence, and respond to violence with an unyielding hand.

Freedom of speech is not the freedom to disturb the peace. It does not mean the freedom to destroy property and threaten lives.

For their part, the city’s politicians should stand by the police, allowing them the greatest benefit of the doubt – and that means Goldberg, Chick, and other council members with a tendency to grandstand. It also means that Mayor Riordan, whose former chief of staff, Robin Kramer, described him as the absent-minded professor in a front-page story in The Wall Street Journal, must restrain himself from his familiar brand of befuddled boosterism.

Protesters have the right to exercise free speech. Police have the responsibility to protect everyone’s rights. On the eve of this week’s convention, politicians, who put the LAPD in its tough spot, should stand by those who protect the rights of residents, business owners, protesters, and visiting Democrats, not by those who seek to destroy property.

Published on August 13, 2000 in the Los Angeles Daily News for the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, California. (edited)

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