When women's rights advocate Tammy Bruce learned last October that O.J. Simpson was a free man, she knew she had precious little time to amass the troops for a candlelight vigil to protest the verdict.
"I knew I could say two words," she recalls, "and people would know where to go."
The 17-story building on Wilshire Boulevard, flanked by Sepulveda Boulevard and Veteran Avenue in Westwood, is L.A.'s demonstration central. Its popularity is explained in three words: location, location, location.
The monolithic structure with expansive lawn occupies a perpetually busy stretch of Wilshire, just off the 405 freeway.
With about 113,000 cars each day whizzing through this, the busiest intersection in the city, any rally there is virtually unignorable--especially when the issue is volatile enough to elicit drive-by reactions of honking and yelling.
"The Federal Building is like the Town Hall," says Bruce, who held a number of events there when she was president of the L.A. chapter of the National Organization for Women. Nowadays she rallies around the Women's Progress Alliance, a national nonprofit women's and children's rights organization she co-founded with Denise Brown.
"That area really gives people a true grass-roots sense, and it's valuable for them to know that there's somewhere to go," says Bruce. "What's exciting is the public discourse, the exchange--then you're a part of the process. Even in a passive way it empowers people."
The Federal Building has been a popular spot for public forums since it opened in 1969. The facility, which houses a number of offices--including the local FBI and CIA bureaus and a passport office--averages two to five events a month. That number can "vary dramatically," according to Mary Filippini, the San Francisco-based spokeswoman for the General Services Agency Western Region, which provides federal agencies with space, supplies, etc.
Who takes up that corner can vary too, depending upon current local, national and worldwide events. Banners have been hoisted in the name of AIDS, illegal immigration, Tibet, Iran, Iraq, marijuana and a janitors' union.
Some like the fact that the building is a visible and handy (it's freeway close) symbol of the government, while others simply like the convenience of the large parking lot.
These virtues are not shared by the downtown Federal Building, which pales in comparison. "I went to one rally there," Bruce remembers, "and by the time it was over there were people still driving around the block looking for parking."
The Westwood location appeals to organizers of annual events like the Garlic Festival, who appreciate the space that can hold a stage, vendor booths and crowds in the thousands.
And rally veterans insist that weekends and the weekday evening rush hour produce the best reactive audiences. Some observers have been so inspired they've parked their cars and joined the cause.
Gay Macdonald has mixed feelings about the three demonstrations in as many years she's helped stage there as part of "Worthy Wage Day" to protest child-care workers' low pay.
Macdonald, executive director of UCLA Child Care Services, says of the 50- to 60-person events, "Basically it's not a very rewarding experience to stand on that corner when it's boiling hot and traffic's flying by and you're breathing in exhaust fumes. Some people are honking [to show support] and others are trying to run you over. A lot of us are kind of old ladies like me who did our initial jumping up and down in public in the '60s, so we've been there.
"But," she adds, "sometimes it makes things happen. If we can bring an end to a war, why not some attention to this issue?"
Bottom line, Macdonald does feel she reaches people: "Otherwise, why would I waste my time doing all this stuff?"
The price for this public forum is certainly right--it's free. (Large groups needing to tap into the building's electricity are charged for that, as well as any grounds maintenance they don't handle themselves.)
A permit, issued by the building manager, is preferred but not essential, Filippini says. Some groups book in advance, others take their chance and wait until the last minute.
And some just show up, which may be fine as long as they don't interfere with people coming in and out of the building, don't block the entryways, are peaceful and quiet, don't sell anything on the property (sidewalks are city property and are exempt), don't burn anything and don't carry any weapons.
"If there's a loud, riotous group of hundreds of people swarming over the entry to the building, then we're going to clear the area," Filippini explains. "Our job is to keep that building accessible to the public and the tenants in it."
Should a rally become disruptive or result in violence, federal and / or local police could be called.
Security has been stepped up since the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing last year, Filippini says. Besides metal detectors and scanners inside the building, "We are more attuned to what's happening on the perimeter," she says. Federal police also may relegate protesters to the plaza or parking lot, depending on the group and its size.
Bruce's "lite" brush with the law occurred a few years ago during an AIDS demonstration. She blithely recalls this feel-good scenario: "It was a planned arrest demonstration and we were taken down to the basement. The officer was very, very nice, and gave me a ticket for trespassing and blocking the doors. It was a very good demonstration and everyone handled it very professionally. I was very impressed with the organization of the federal police and the way they handled it."
More recently, a July 4 rally involving groups for and against tougher immigration laws got into a scuffle; no arrests were made but police were called out and one man was treated for injuries.
The head of the anti-illegal immigration group, Voices of Citizens Together, has planned another rally in August, despite the fact his group was involved in the melee.
"The reason we use that for our demonstrations," says Glenn Spencer, "is that symbolically we are petitioning our government for redress of grievances. It also happens that it is well located and has plenty of parking and there is the opportunity for those driving by to see that people are petitioning the government."
Showing support for the other side of the issue was Roberto Lovato, executive director of the Central American Resource Center, which was not involved in the altercation.
"To me the Federal Building represents a local expression of the national government, a government that serves the interests of all Americans," he says. "Politicians do watch what goes on on the streets, and the message does get back to them. People say that this is an outmoded way of getting the message across, but I don't agree. It's one method, along with voting, voter registration and education. . . . To go in front of the building and protest is very American."
"What's cool about it," adds Bruce, "is if your beef is with the government, how perfect! It's like one-stop shopping. It's very representative of the best of American politics and grass-roots activism. And I think there will always be a sense of that."