Yeah, go ahead, forget the L.A. Riots in the wake of the Rodney King decision. Forget the looting and the fires in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Atlanta. Sure these events were tragic enough to keep pundits and political candidates busily opining for months thereafter. But like all unusual outbursts of sentiment and action, the Riots were the exception not the rule. To cite a typical Boomer example, consider: the real face of the opposition to the Vietnam war wasn't the big Mobilization marches in D.C. and N.Y. but the lame, half-assed and unsung demonstrations out in mid-America where a few dozen awkward friends hung around in the Student Union or Shopping Center holding signs and garnering precious little media coverage.
Just so. If you want to contemplate the hardcore reality of political power and impotence - of the day-to-day effectiveness of demonstrations as a means to get a point across - you must focus on the non-events, the demos that crop up repeatedly and go nowhere. I assert this not only from a deep conviction about the greater scheme of things but - more importantly - because I had just finished writing up such a non-event when the L.A. Riots exploded onto the stage of history. Was I going to let the biggest outbreak of domestic violence since the Civil War get in the way of letting you read about this much more typical exercise in futility? No way!
It was an existential kind of assignment from the very beginning, even before the Rodney King riots hogged the limelight. I got a call from Krassner the Sunday night, April 26th, 1992: would I be willing to be the Realist's man on the scene at the demonstration in downtown San Francisco to shut down the Pacific Stock Exchange scheduled for the next morning? Sure. The catch? It's scheduled for 6 a.m.
I immediately had two options. I could get up the next morning at 5 a.m., stumble into the shower, grab a bit of breakfast, and take BART downtown to the demo. Or, in the best tradition of Realist journalism, I could sleep in, skip the demonstration altogether, and write up a fanciful account out of whole cloth. Who would know the difference?
Previous demonstrations against the Pacific Stock Exchange had been the scene of civil disobedience, street theatre, small-scale rioting, broken windows, and mass arrests. Would this "third annual" shut-down, sponsored by the Earth Action Network, be more of the same? Ultimately my curiosity won out over my desire to sleep in and I hightailed it downtown. As I soon discovered, instead of a riot we got possibly the most cliched demonstration in years. And that, perversely enough, made for an interesting anthropological study.
I attended the demo (details to follow) and went back home to write up the experience. Three days later the Rodney King trial verdict was announcless spontaneously. Although on a much smaller scale than in L.A., rioters and looters in downtown San Francisco managed to plunder several dozen stores along Market St. and its side streets, causing millions in business damages and losses and over $750,000 in police overtime alone. However, such an explosion was almost unimaginable on Monday.
Flyers announcing the demonstration told supporters to gather at the Pacific Stock Exchange (P.S.E.) at 6 a.m., Monday, April 27, in order to block employees from entering. The stated goal was to stop, if only for a day, the buying and selling of the earth for profit. An honorable enough goal, I suppose, but one that it is very hard to generate much enthusiasm for at sun up on a Monday.
I arrived at the site at Pine and Sansome about 6:15 a.m. after walking a couple of blocks from BART past dozens of cops stationed in front of every major office building entrance in the vicinity. At the P.S.E. a small crowd of maybe two tood on the sidewalk in front of the building while barriers and more cops sealed off the entrance. Another couple of dozen demonstrators and observers hung around across Pine St. and down at the corner, waiting for something to happen.
As luck would have it, the P.S.E. employees, alerted in advance about the demonstration, had been told to come in early and were already merrily working away buying and selling the earth for profit. In short, the demonstration was already a failure before it began. What follows is a blow-by-blow diary of the subsequent exercise in futility.
6:20 - Girl with long frizzy brown hair and body painted day-glo green in Deadhead dress screeches poetry into a tiny loud speaker system. Refrain: "What happened to the green?" There are four others sporting the same bodypaint. The rest of the demonstrators look like spare change artists swept off Haight St. and teleported to the demonstration en masse.
6:30 - Green girl announces "we are asking people to come forward and make a physical link with the green." Disheveled bum rushes up and catches green girl in bear hug. Wait, he may be a demonstrator too. Hard to tell. Green people all hold hands and urge others to do same. Few do. One demonstrator dressed in suit and tie comes forward and dramatically rips his tie off. Two women and two men, all painted green, disrobe and make circle. They invite others to surround them. This sparks a little more interest but not much.
6:40 - The naked green people line up for a group photo in front of the P.S.E. A loud truck arrives to pick up a dumpster from across the street. This drowns out the demo for five minutes until it drives off.
6:50 - The green men and women put their clothes back on. More people gather. Man waves the earth flag. Guy in stylish red and white striped Dr. Seuss hat walks around. Two guys with guitars, another guy with a conga drum, woman with straw hat covered with play monotorcycle cops and 35 riot police in military formation march down Pine St. past the demonstration. Demonstrator in rainbow hat, red bandana, and "One Less War" sweatshirt gives the Nazi salute and heckles the cops.
7:05 - Small bald guy in blue worksuit passes. Asks me what the demo is about. I say the environment. He says, "Well, they have a point, but peons like myself have to go to work. Don't they have a job?" I feel myself beginning to drown in cliches.
7:15 - Middle aged man with sharp looking fedora makes short speech about the destruction of the ecosystem. Demonstration has reached maximum strength: maybe 85 people. After his speech is over he and the green paint crew disappear, leaving the demo in the hands of blowhards with bullhorns.
7:20 - Fellow with white fairy wings, green cap with pink knit octopus on top, blue lower-face mask, and shorts cusses out the cops declaring that they're "nothing but pieces of shit." This sets off another yoith long blonde hair who demonstrates convincing emulation of Touret's Syndrome, waving the finger at cops and yelling "fuck you" repeatedly. Cops do not take up the bait.
7:30 - I talk to a bored young woman with a Sony Super VHS camcorder. She's there to film the demo if "anything happens," meaning violence. She complains that these demonstrations always look the same with the same people at them.
7:40 - Nothing much is happening. Bearded fat guy with Silence = Death sweatshirt takes the microphone and announces that the demonstration will be back tomorrow and every day until the Earth is saved or whatever. I seriously doubt it. Woman with camcorder gives up and splits for work.
7:50 - Three cops confer across the street. Ranking officer with mustache announces jauntily, "We're going to try a new tactic - assign each protestor they're own personal cop. Build a one to one relationship." Demonstrators begin to march off. Flotilla of motorcycle cops and several dozen cops on foot escort the march, keeping it on the sidewalk.
8:00 - Demonstrators cluster in front of Charles Schwab office. Chant: "Stock Market Crash! Go! Go!" over and over. Dow Jones drops 7.6 points according to the moving electronic sign.
8:10 - Demonstrators, now down to less than forty bodies, march around the block taking particular pleasure in leading motorcycle cops down one-way street and then suddenly doubling back.
8:20 - Demonstrators gather in front of Citicorp Center. Cops rush into courtyard entrance and giant motorized glass gates close off courtyard from the street. Demonstrators amuse themselves with pounding on thick glass for a bit and making faces at cops on other side. However, their attention soon shifts to the BART exit nearby from which people are emerging on their way to work. Demonstrators attempt to build support by hooting at secretaries and office workers in suits. Does not appear to work.
8:30 - Ever-thinning crowd moves across Market St. to front of Chevron Building. This proves even more boring than Citicorp. Crowd soon moves on again accompanied by dozens of cops. Demonstrator declares, "Hey, maybe we can walk around doing nothing all day!"
8:40 - Gather in front of a McDonald's on Market St. Same place that got trashed in last year's demo. Some demonstrators go inside. Cops increase alertness. Two people from Office of Citizen Complaints on hand in O.C.C. jackets. However nothing untoward happens. Crowd contents itself with muttering about the rain forests. Passerby asks me "What's the demo?" I tell him and he says, "I thought maybe it was for good deals on Fajita Breakfasts."
8:50 - Young woman in black leather jacket, with red and white braids hanging from the shoulder, walks by McDonald's and ignores demonstration. Blonde surfer-looking demonstrator in black Utah t- shirt screams after her, "Nice leather jacket! Everyone has to have their 15 minutes of rebellion, right bitch?"
9:00 - Crowd walks up to corner of New Montgomery and Market and mills around outside Sheraton Palace Hotel. Every now and then chants, "Earth First, Profits Last." While cops are still catching up, a dozen demonstrators charge into the Sheraton Palace. Two minutes later they pop out the back of the hotel and walk around the block to the front again. Tanned fellow in beard yells "Earth First over here!" Crowd moves to him. Guy with bull-horn yells "Revolutionaries over here!" and crowd, including the bearded Earth First guy, shifts over to him. After short conference crowd runs off around the corner hooting and hollering. Police doggedly follow. Demonstrators stop in front of Kuppenheimer's Men's Clothing, ponder the conservative men's suit bargains in the window, abruptly reverse course and march off back across Market St. Busload of cops drives by.
9:10 - The demonstrators, now down to under two dozen, pause in front of the American Savings Bank at the corner of Market and Kearny. Cops rush to block the entrance. Crowd moves on down Kearny St. And so on and so forth. This saving the earth business sure does drag on.
9:20 - I finally lose interest and take the BART back home to 16th and Mission. As I leave the station, two cops on the beat are questioning a Chicano leaning up against the ticket machines.
What conclusions can be drawn from this travesty? What was most clear in the wake of the subsequent King riots on Thursday — and more significantly, with the mass arrests of 300 peaceful demonstrators on the next day as well as 500 marchers a week later — was that this pissant stock exchange demo was a trail run for the S.F.P.D.'s new hardnosed approach to crowd control. No one was arrested Monday, despite hundreds of cops being mobilized, because it would have looked too much like shooting fish in a barrel. However, at the much larger follow-up demonstrations against the King decision and against the cops themselves in the weeks following, those lines of cops went toxic, scooping up innocent bystanders, journalists, tourists, and anyone in the vicinity into waiting police buses. In a city like San Francisco, where there's commonly at least one demo per week, this doesn't bode well for freedom of speech.
On the other hand, the travesty of the Monday demo was not merely in the low turnout or the meandering focus. Rather it was there in the ease with which the protestors fell into pat postures. Office workers were cast as sell-outs and accomplices in the earth's destruction. An ostensibly progressive male succumbed to the temptation to harass a female passerby because she didn't appear to fulfill his notion of how someone wearing a black leather jacket should act. Cops, who in this particular instance were only guarding the peace in an unprovocative manner, got the finger and "fuck you"s in their face. In short, the Monday demo was also a trial run for the mob psychology that ran amuck in Thursday's looting.
In the wake of the riots, I have friends who wonder if the sixties are finally "back", if things are finally heating up again. Such a prospect leaves me with mixed feelings indeed. Because if we revert to yet another round of oinking at "pigs" and straight-baiting, then those who complain that "it's twenty-five years since Watts and nothing has changed" will be closer to the truth than even they imagine.
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