A Plan for Very Civil Disobedience
Four hundred people will be arrested early this evening for blocking Century Boulevard near Los Angeles International Airport, in what could prove to be one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in the city’s history.
At least that’s how the script reads.
For much of this year, the national hotel workers union, labor leaders and immigrant groups have been planning today’s protest. Marchers are supporting a drive to organize the mostly immigrant, nonunion workers employed at 13 hotels near the airport.
If the event goes as envisioned, organizers say, it will be a highly choreographed episode of street theater, timed for news broadcasts and peaceful enough to persuade but not enrage the public.
The Los Angeles Police Department has been involved at nearly every stage, advising organizers on how to proceed without endangering public safety. Experts say the close cooperation with law enforcement reflects a more powerful and mature labor movement, and a city government that is far friendlier to labor than its predecessors.
Organizers obtained a permit this week for 1,000 to 2,000 marchers. About 400 of them have signed forms pledging to be arrested and have taken a mandatory class that taught them how to remain calm even when screamed at or insulted.
The driver’s license numbers and other personal information of those volunteer arrestees have already been passed on to the LAPD to expedite processing. (Police sent word that six of the volunteers should rethink their participation; though no official reason was given, the six may have outstanding warrants, union officials said).
For its part, Unite Here Local 11, which represents hotel workers in Southern California, has arranged for parking, storage of the arrestees’ car keys, lawyers to defend them, crews to clean up after the event and vans to pick up the protesters from jail.
Upon release from jail, expected within 24 hours, each protester will receive a meal (burritos and bottles of water) and a souvenir (their protest sign reading “I Am A Human Being”).
“We don’t want any surprises,” said Paulina Gonzalez, a Unite Here staffer who is handling communications for the event. “We want nobody to get hurt. We want the most peaceful event possible.”
Such cooperation would have been almost inconceivable less than a generation ago. Many labor leaders and police commanders remember a protest in Century City in June 1990, when more than 300 demonstrators marching in support of an effort to unionize janitors clashed with police in riot gear. More than a dozen people were injured.
Police officials say the current model allows them to speed up the booking process in a city that typically sees 500 arrests a day. Union leaders say that working with police allows them to keep members safe. Both sides are keenly aware of the public relations advantages of keeping the protest orderly and peaceful.
“The union is trying to present to us the people who are going to be arrested, so we can anticipate some of the booking,” said LAPD Capt. William Hayes of the Pacific Division. “We can plan.... We don’t want to impact the regular police functions.”
Lou Cannon, author of “Official Negligence,” a book about the LAPD, the Rodney King case and the 1992 riots, said Los Angeles police officers have a strong union and now “have more of a union consciousness than the general public.”
“It’s also that we’re in an age where the police and the union are quite sophisticated,” Cannon said. “There’s something in this for both sides.”
Peter Dreier, an Occidental College professor of politics who is an expert on cities and labor, said the union is seeking to maximize attention while minimizing disruption. The blocking of Century Boulevard will trigger media coverage of workers’ concerns about low pay and expensive health benefits that could not be obtained in other ways.
“What they’re trying to do is get a lot of publicity and make it a high-profile issue,” Dreier said.
In the face of cooperation between the city and the union, the objections of hotels have fallen on deaf ears. Managers at the LAX Hilton alleged this week that the protest was part of an effort by Unite Here to intimidate workers so they would join the union.
Michael T. Pfeiffer, executive director of the Hotel Assn. of Los Angeles, which represents 80 hotels, objected to the protest in a letter this week to the Police Commission. “There certainly must be a better location for the September 28 march than on Century Boulevard, the primary thoroughfare in and out of LAX,” he wrote.
The commission granted the union’s request for a permit for the protest the very same day.
That permit calls for a rally at 4:30 p.m. next to the Radisson Hotel, just outside the entrance to the airport. At 5:30 p.m., the union will begin a march east along Century, occupying three of the four westbound lanes.
Half of the protesters who have signed up to be arrested will stop outside the LAX Hilton and sit down in the street, an action that is designed to lead to their arrest beginning at 6:10 p.m. The other half will continue east before stopping and being arrested in front of the Westin.
According to the union, those arrested will include Los Angeles County Federation of Labor chief Maria Elena Durazo, leaders of several other unions, about 100 students being bused in from Southern California colleges, about 60 religious leaders, more than 100 community and immigrant activists, 100 relatives and friends of airport hotel workers, and assorted elected officials.
“I’ve never taken this action before in my life,” said Assemblywoman Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park), chairwoman of the powerful Assembly Appropriations Committee, referring to what would be the first arrest of her life. “I feel that it’s important to make a statement.”
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is not scheduled to attend. A spokesman said Villaraigosa supported the hotel workers but agreed that those who disobeyed the law and blocked traffic must be arrested.
In addition, Tony Dolz, a Republican Assembly candidate who is active with the Minutemen, said late Wednesday that he had obtained a permit for a counter-protest by the group, which opposes illegal immigration. Dolz said he considered the union protest, because of its proximity to the airport, “an act of domestic terrorism.”
Union organizers have urged the airport-area hotel workers not to sit down in the street today, saying that federal labor law might not protect their jobs if they are arrested in front of hotels where they work. Workers have been encouraged to participate in the march.
On Monday night, 43 of those planning to be arrested gathered for nearly two hours of training at Unite Here offices near downtown Los Angeles.
As they entered, protesters were given several forms to sign, including one titled “Arrestees September 28th Action” and others authorizing a lawyer hired by the union, Erika Diaz, to represent them.
“Nelson Mandela spent most of his life in prison,” said Glen Arnodo, a top staffer for Unite Here, as he welcomed workers. “We’re going to spend one night.”
Victoria Vergara, who works at the Bonaventure Hotel and has been arrested four times in protests, told the volunteers: “I’m willing to get arrested as many times as I can to improve working conditions for us.”
The protesters also received a schedule, a primer on civil disobedience and a “Frequently Asked Questions” sheet with queries such as “Where Should I Park at LAX?” “What Do We Do to Get Arrested?” and “How Long Will I Be In Jail?”
The protest will be color-coded. Those planning to be arrested will carry yellow signs. Other marchers will carry white signs. Different colored armbands will announce whether a marcher is to be arrested in front of the Hilton or the Westin.
The Rev. Bridie Roberts, minister at Pico Union Shalom Ministries, a Methodist congregation, discussed nonviolence and asked anyone who intended to engage in “aggression” not to show up. With that, she asked the arrestees to pair off and stand nose to nose. Each person then took turns screaming at the partner.
Gustavo Licon, 26, who is active in the group MEChA at USC, bellowed at his friend and fellow student, Ana Valderrama: “Get out of my way! Let me get to the airport!”
The arrestees listened to presentations on the rally’s logistics and the legal consequences of arrest. Questions abounded. What about the unpaid speeding ticket in Kansas? What about my unanswered jury summons?
Those who are wanted by the law for other infractions should not get arrested, Diaz said.
Diaz said the city attorney has indicated that arrestees will not have to go to court and will not be prosecuted as long as they are not arrested again in the next 12 months. (A spokesman for the city attorney said that although that is the general practice in such cases, there is no agreement with the union.)
Being on time is crucial, the arrestees were warned, and everyone must check in and put car keys in a brown envelope.
“If you don’t check in, you’re not going to get arrested,” said Arnodo, the Unite Here official.
Other advice was specific.
Leave wedding rings at home. (Police have to remove jewelry and process it, which means you’ll stay in jail longer.)
Don’t carpool. (Arrestees will be split up and taken to three different police stations, so you may not have a ride back.)
Bring your family and loved ones (for moral support).
Their questions answered, the arrestees clapped and chanted “Si se puede.” Spanish for “Yes, we can!” Then they walked upstairs to have their forms notarized.
Times researcher John Jackson contributed to this story.