L.A. protesters and police in spotlight as arrests mount

Los Angeles saw more arrests in one day – 183 – than Ferguson, St. Louis or Oakland

As hundreds of protesters confronted officers outside the Los Angeles Police Department's headquarters, police supervisors kept watch not just on the demonstration but on how their troops were reacting.

The crowd was largely peaceful Tuesday night. But on the skirmish line, some protesters loudly confronted officers, calling them "killer cops." One told a black officer: "Black men have no place in a white man's army."

As demonstrators tried to dismantle a barricade, officers moved in. A woman jabbed a finger at Det. Kevin Coffey's chest, shouting: "You work for me!"

Within 10 minutes, supervisors rotated the front line, including Coffey, to the back, replacing them with fresh officers.

The scene illustrated part of the strategy the LAPD has adopted as the department deals with three consecutive days of protests following a grand jury's decision not to indict the Ferguson, Mo., officer who killed an unarmed black man.

At times, the LAPD has taken pains not to confront the protesters, allowing them to block streets and hold impromptu sit-ins at major intersections. Top LAPD brass said they didn't want to provoke troublemakers in the crowds to needlessly increase hostilities.

But the department has also been aggressive about making arrests when police believe that protesters go too far.

Los Angeles saw more arrests on Tuesday night — 183 — than Ferguson, St. Louis or Oakland, where protests have been far more destructive. On Wednesday night, the department made another round of mass arrests when dozens of protesters did not comply with an order to disperse in downtown L.A.

The Los Angeles protests have also revealed differences in the strategies of those doing the demonstrating. Some in the crowds spoke of maintaining the peace, while others ran onto freeways and in some cases confronted motorists at intersections.

"A lot of the people wanted to be arrested to make a statement," said Cmdr. Andy Smith. "Unfortunately, in this case, some people's goal is to break the law. And at some point we have to say enough is enough. ... When you are trying to block traffic on the streets and freeways, there are going to be consequences."

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said at a news conference Wednesday that his department and the California Highway Patrol were "extremely generous in allowing the expression of 1st Amendment activities." He said police gave protesters an "absolute opportunity" to express themselves, but that has certain limits. Once the limits are met, he said, police have to take enforcement actions.

"It's very easy to demonstrate in the city of Los Angeles and not get arrested," he said.

By nightfall Wednesday night, L.A. police had arrested nearly 200 protesters in three days of demonstrations.

Most of the arrests came Tuesday night, with 167 protesters held on suspicion of disturbing the peace, 15 juveniles on suspicion of curfew violations and one person on suspicion of felony battery after a frozen water bottle was thrown and hit an officer in the head, Beck said.

Wednesday morning, nine more protesters were arrested after blocking the 101 Freeway at Alvarado Street, he said.

Three other arrests were made Monday night, when the protests broke out.

The demonstrations on Tuesday started near Leimert Park in midafternoon, with a rift growing among activists throughout the day on whether the action would be peaceful or more disruptive and even violent.

At one point, a protester insulting an officer was whisked away by another protester.

At another point, demonstrator Elann Lee, 27, saw a man throw a plastic bottle. "Please just don't do that," she said.

A different man threw a bottle, and they began to argue with her, saying violent protests were necessary to effect change.

Lee, teary-eyed, let them talk. She understood their anger but not their actions.

"That's sad that throwing a bottle is the only communication they feel they have," she said. "It makes me emotional because I want good things. ... There's already been violence. There's a man that's dead, and there's many more out there."

Aside from the officer hit with the frozen water bottle, no other injuries were reported.

The crowd grew to about 400 as it moved toward downtown.

A splinter group of 100 managed to shut down the 101 Freeway downtown around 9:30 p.m. They exited into the intersection of Cesar Chavez Boulevard and Grand Avenue, where about 30 sat to block traffic. The police phalanx moved in, then backed away. One officer approached a protester and told him to get off the street.

"I am peacefully protesting," he responded. "You cannot make me move."

The officer grabbed the man's arm. "Don't touch me," the protester said. "You cannot touch me."

Suddenly the officer was himself pulled away by another cop, saying, "We're out of here."

Minutes later, two or three people were jumping up and down on a patrol car, having their pictures taken. One of them was tackled and arrested.

"Half of this protest I feel like is baiting cops," said Wilder Bunke, 21, of Hollywood. "And in a social media age, it's sort of about proving who you are against the police. ... I support the protest. I support this stand against police brutality and the institution of racism, but the antics of protesters are what delegitimize the protest as a whole."

The crowd began to dwindle, as police thwarted attempts to block the freeway and intersections. As the marchers were forced onto the sidewalk on Olympic Boulevard, one protester called it a "walk of shame."

Eventually, about 100 protesters were boxed into the intersection of East Temple Street and Broadway. Police announced that anyone in the intersection was subject to arrest.

"We want to go home!" one protester shouted. Another tried to reason with the cops: "We can go one by one."

They moved toward a street corner, but it was clear the police were going to arrest them. An LAPD spokesman said officers made a dispersal order three hours before, though it was unclear whether all the protesters heard it.

As the officers closed in, some sat and started singing a Bob Marley song, "Three Little Birds": "Don't worry, about a thing, because every little thing is gonna be alright."

They surrendered themselves in pairs.

"This is the calmest, most surreal arrest," said LAPD Lt. Andy Neiman. "I've never seen anything like it."

On Wednesday, demonstrators marched on the LAPD's headquarters again before heading to the downtown county jail, chanting, "kill killer cops."

But instead of chanting, Ray Spears of Eagle Rock struck up a conversation with an officer. When the 25-year-old told the officer he was a Christian, the officer responded that he is too.

"I think that all human beings are made in the image of God, and we have civil rights, human rights," Spears said.

"Hey man, we're on the same page," the officer responded.

When Spears held out his fist for a fist bump, the officer raised his hands; he was holding a baton.

"I would if I could right now," the officer told him.

Spears called the conversation "a little glimmer of hope."

angel.jennings@latimes.com

brittny.mejia@latimes.com

taylor.goldenstein@latimes.com

Times staff writers Joe Mozingo, Richard Winton, Samantha Masunaga, Tre'vell Anderson and Ruben Vives contributed to this report.

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