A 2-week-old feud between a labor union that is trying to organize Century City janitors and the Los Angeles Police Department burst into violence Friday when 50 baton-wielding police officers cut short a march by 400 people, arresting 40 and injuring about two dozen after the demonstrators refused to disperse.
Much of the violence occurred after the demonstrators, reeling from an initial conflict with police in the middle of the normally jammed intersection of Century Park East and Olympic Boulevard, linked arms and walked swiftly and defiantly toward the officers, who clubbed and pushed them back.
Most of the injured demonstrators suffered cuts or bruises during the half-hour, shriek-punctuated confrontation, which took place around 1 p.m. as the demonstrators were marching toward a planned rally at several Century City office towers where janitors went on strike May 30.
During the scuffles, police knocked numerous demonstrators to the pavement a second time as they were trying to rise. Other demonstrators fell as they stumbled backward over their colleagues.
John J. Sweeney, president of the 760,000-member Service Employees International Union, which coordinated the march as part of its national "Justice for Janitors" campaign, said from a conference in Germany that he held Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley "personally responsible for the brutalization of these courageous strikers."
Bradley said through a spokesman that he had arranged for leaders of the union and the Police Department to meet in his office Monday.
Police defended their tactics. Sgt. William de la Torre said police "reacted with quite (an amount of) restraint," given the fact that demonstrators outnumbered officers four to one.
James Wood, the No. 2 official in the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, who participated in the march, said police broke their promise not to interfere with the march from Roxbury Park in Beverly Hills to an office courtyard in Century City. Similar assurances were made by police in interviews with The Times.
De la Torre said police decided to block Century Park East after receiving reports Friday that the marchers were going to intentionally tie up traffic.
Just before the march began, organizers urged participants at a rally to be scrupulous about obeying traffic lights and crossing signs.
The labor dispute that triggered the violence involves more than 100 janitors at a dozen Century City office buildings cleaned by International Service Systems.
The janitors called a strike against ISS two weeks ago to protest the company's alleged harassment of employees involved in a union-organizing drive.
The strike is financed by the national office of the SEIU as part of its 4-year-old "Justice for Janitors" campaign. The Century City dispute grew Friday into a nationwide "trash-in," in which participants began mailing trash to Chicago-based JMB Realty Corp., which manages many of Century City's office buildings and hired ISS as its cleaning contractor.
Relations between the union and police quickly soured. In response to frequent demonstrations, one of which involved placing large amounts of trash at office doors, police from the West Los Angeles Division last week set up a command post in Century City.
On June 7, police arrested 13 people on suspicion of blocking doorways. The union began circulating literature accusing the Police Department of operating as a tool of rich business interests. Many marchers Friday symbolically wore red bandannas over their face, a tactic used by labor demonstrators in Central America to avoid detection by police.
The strike has drawn considerable emotional support from many quarters of Los Angeles' labor movement because the economic status of the janitors and the wealth of the businesses that they clean at night personifies the growing gap between affluent and poor citizens.
Janitors in Century City make about $4.50 an hour, about a dollar less than janitors with union contracts at numerous downtown Los Angeles buildings, and receive no health insurance.
Friday's march was proceeding orderly as demonstrators marched west on Olympic Boulevard from the park. But when the marchers attempted to turn right on Century Park East, heading toward the office towers, they encountered a line of riot-helmeted officers.
Officers told the marchers they could not continue and should turn around. In response, demonstrators moved into the middle of the street, continuing the chants they had used during the march. Many sat in the middle of the intersection of Century Park East and Olympic, anticipating arrest. They were told by a police supervisor, via a loudspeaker, that the march had been declared an illegal assembly and that failure to disperse immediately would result in arrest.
However, police made no immediate attempt to arrest the demonstrators. Instead, after a standoff of several minutes, police briefly attempted to prod the demonstrators to disperse by shoving and then hitting them with batons.
After that initial conflict, the demonstrators backed up a few feet. Several minutes later, they stood, many of them linking arms, and walked toward the police line. There was contact between the two sides and police began to force demonstrators back.
That led to another standoff during which dozens of other officers were called in as backups. Then police, maintaining their line, began to gradually push the crowd down the middle of Olympic Boulevard. Several more skirmishes broke out. At one point police shoved and clubbed numerous leaders of the demonstration into a parking garage driveway on Olympic, where they were arrested.
Early in the fray, several officers ignored calls from supervisors to stop charging the demonstrators. Three officers were pulled out of the center of the line and sent to the edge by a supervisor.
"The demonstrators had a choice to disperse or (be) arrested. They chose to be arrested. They wanted to be peaceful. The police chose to be violent," union spokesman Alex MacPhail said.
Sgt. de la Torre, a supervisor on the scene, said the fact that police were outnumbered required them to use force.
"That was only after they refused to move," he said an hour after the violence. "You do not have a right to say, 'I'm not going to move.' "