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LAPD’s May Day strategy: Relationships, numbers and invisibility

Thousands of demonstrators gathered in downtown Los Angeles on May 1, 2017, to take aim at President Trump’s policies on immigrants here illegally. (Jessica Q. Chen / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles Police Department began laying the groundwork four months ago.

Community organizers were contacted. Plans were shared. Relationships developed.

Through it all, the department had one complicated goal: Be out in force to prevent violence without being the focal point of the May Day protests or becoming part of the drama.

May Day has long been a key event for political protest in Los Angeles, most notably 10 years ago when police and others clashed at MacArthur Park. That incident became a textbook case of how police should not handle demonstrations, and many of the lessons learned were evident this year.

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Authorities were especially concerned about this year’s May Day, given the rise in activism after the election of Donald Trump, which helped spark violence in Berkeley, Huntington Beach and elsewhere.

But this May Day turned out to be tame. Crowds were relatively modest compared to last year, and the LAPD’s strategy of big numbers but minimal interaction appeared to work. Police formed a line on Spring Street that divided pro- and anti-Trump supporters. Insults, and apparently a few plastic bottles, were thrown, but both sides kept the peace.

The police presence was both hard to miss but easy to ignore amid the vocal chants and flag waving, which got all the attention.

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said he believed those weeks of preparation — particularly meeting with the various groups to understand their plans and create some ground rules — made a difference.

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“We spent a lot more time pre-event than we ever have in the past, and that’s really important,” the chief said.

It’s a far cry from what happened 10 years ago, when a rowdy crowd and an ill-prepared police department combined to give the LAPD an expensive black eye.

Officers from the agency’s elite Metro Division used batons and fired rubber bullets to disperse what was a predominantly peaceful gathering. Officials said the confrontations were prompted by a group of agitators who threw bottles and other objects at police. Dozens of people, including a number of journalists and officers, were injured. The whole thing was broadcast on television and sparked criticism of LAPD’s tactics. The city ended up pay more than $12 million in damages.

A scathing internal LAPD report blamed fateful decisions by police commanders that escalated hostilities and resulted in a widespread breakdown in discipline and behavior by officers.

The LAPD responded with a series of reforms, including some of those employed during the May Day event and several other protests that have occurred in downtown L.A. since Trump’s election.

The department won high marks, at least from Trump supporters, who were greatly outnumbered by Trump foes but felt they got their message across.

“The LAPD did a real good job of protecting everyone’s free speech rights,” said Ed Baker, a Trump supporter from Antelope Valley, adding that supporters felt more protected in L.A. than in Berkeley, where there have been several clashes between extremists on both sides.

Compared with Berkeley, Monday’s protests in L.A. seemed downright tame.

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At MacArthur Park, where thousands showed up to rally in the morning, the mood was fervent but festive. Hands beat drums, whistles punctuated the air, a band played from the bed of a large truck. The rough monotone of vuvuzelas buzzed as a group of police officers zipped past on bicycles.

“I’m proud to be a bad hombre!” Tom Morello of the rock band Rage Against the Machine shouted to the crowd before singing a rendition of “This Land is Your Land” — a song he said was for workers and immigrants.

The group marched to downtown Los Angeles, moving quickly over pavement baked by the sun. Women carried babies on their hips or pushed strollers. Some people danced. Before long, a familiar refrain: “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido,” a common “stronger together” message. And then another: “Work, yes. Migra, no!”

It felt in some ways like a mashup of previous protests across the country. Some wore T-shirts from the Women’s March or that showcased their support for Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. A woman carrying a pink Planned Parenthood sign stood next to a man sporting a “Climate change is real!” shirt and a hat that read “FACTS.”

The messages had a common target: Trump.

“I want him to look this fake news in the face,” said 12-year-old Joseph Moreno of Huntington Park, who arrived with his aunt and held a poster that read, “If you build a wall, my generation will knock it down.”

At Olympic Boulevard and Broadway, where another thousands-strong group marched toward City Hall, a mariachi troupe played rancheras as some demonstrators raised banners that read “Unite the Working Class” and “We Can Resist.”

Meanwhile, dozens of Trump supporters were making their way to LAPD headquarters, having gathered at the downtown Federal Building.

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“I am here to support President Trump as he is the leader of our great country,” said Johnny Cadillac, 61, an Army veteran.

Shortly after noon, the group faced off with demonstrators at the corner of 1st and Spring streets where shouts of “USA, USA!” were matched with “Si, Se Puede!”

The groups shouted back and forth as a line of LAPD officers in helmets stood between the two crowds.

Nearby, vendors hawked chips, ice cream and bacon-wrapped hot dogs, while onlookers leaned against buildings and took photos.

By midafternoon, authorities estimated that about 15,000 had gathered in downtown Los Angeles, far less than the 100,000-plus they had predicted.

Organizers later put the crowd total at 30,000, but the low numbers were frustrating, said Elizabeth Cordova, 38, who marched the rally route with her mother and husband. “It’s kind of like embarrassing, because this is our biggest chance to make a difference and to show the government we are not alone.”

Similar demonstrations took place across the state and throughout the nation.

Four May Day demonstrators were arrested for breaking into an Alameda County building and hanging a large banner protesting immigration enforcement, authorities said.

Many protesters said it was about honoring their immigrant parents and defending their family. Some brought their children with them for a life lesson.

Among them was Juan Becerra, 58, who waved an American flag while his family stood nearby. He said he encouraged his 13-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter to attend, because fighting Trump’s immigration policies was more important than a day at school.

Times staff writers Ruben Vives, Esmeralda Bermudez, Paige St. John, Joseph Serna, Corina Knoll and James Queally contributed to this report.

marisa.gerber@latimes.com

veronica.rocha@latimes.com

kate.mather@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

Follow @marisagerber @VeronicaRochaLA and @katemather for crime and police news in California.


UPDATES:

2:10 p.m.: This article was updated to reflect the number of demonstrators and information about Trump supporters.

1:25 p.m.: This article was updated with interviews from protesters.

12:20 p.m.: This article was updated with information about arrests in the Bay Area.

12:05 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details from demonstrators at MacArthur Park and comments from LAPD Deputy Chief Robert Arcos.

This article was originally published at 11:15 a.m.


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