Mon, May

UCLA Protest: Lost Message Amidst Flags and Friction


GELFAND’S WORLD - I suspect that a strong majority of the American people want to see an end to the bombing and forced starvation of the Gaza population, but they are not really seeing this message in the college protests. Rather, the protesters are asking us to take sides in what is, ultimately, a land dispute. There do seem to be people who are hoping to see peace and survival as opposed to the current level of ruination, but that message has been lost in the sea of green, red and black flags. 

And attacking what is essentially the State of California -- or at least one of its proudest achievements in the form of UCLA -- wasn't going to last very long. 

As those waking up to the Thursday news discovered, the dramatic encampment of the night before was no longer. TV news viewers were treated to the view of grounds crews and street cleaning machinery where there once had been those provocative Palestinian flags. There may be an absence of graduation ceremonies for a while, but there will also be an absence of fortified encampments, at least if the administrators and the police forces have anything to say about things. 

There are a couple of observations that seem pertinent in the aftermath. 

It's not 1968. Really. All that stuff going on at UCLA and Columbia? Not nearly the same. Here's one thing that's missing: the military draft. Here's another thing that is missing: A strong streak of public support for the object of the protests. Put it this way: We haven't been hearing a lot from the student protestors about their demands that American and Israeli hostages be released. I seriously doubt that any substantial fraction of the American people wants us to forget about the hostages. 

I think we all know that an offer by Hamas to release all the hostages would result in an immediate cease fire. The fact that we are not hearing any such suggestion from the campus demonstrators is evidence that they aren't particularly upset about the hostage taking of October 7, 2023, not to mention the thousand plus murdered and raped and tortured. 

Rather, the news media report hearing the line, "From the river to the sea, free Palestine," which even local television people understand to mean a demand for the abolition of Israel. 

No, it's not 1968 all over again, however things may have played out in the fevered imaginations of the adolescent mind. There is, however, one element in common, which the City of Los Angeles would be well advised to avoid. Let's reminisce for a moment in order to introduce the topic. 

Back in the bad old days, following several years of escalation in the Viet Nam conflict, the President of the United States came to Century City to speak at some function at the Century Plaza Hotel. Lyndon Baines Johnson had done a lot to advance the cause of civil rights, but at that point, he was threatening the lives of thousands of young American men, not to mention the lives of more hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asians, and things were gradually coming to a boil. On that day of June 23, 1967, several thousand protestors gathered in what was then referred to as Rancho Park and walked towards the site of the Century Plaza Hotel. You can read about it here

Later reports claim that there were about ten thousand demonstrators who set off from the park with the intent of walking past the Century Plaza and chanting their views. Those of us who were in the back part of this crowd never got to the Century Plaza. By the time we were approaching, but still a block or so away, the march came to a halt. The reports say that a group of radical activists took that moment to sit down in the street across from the hotel. The police claim they gave the "unlawful assembly" announcement, but I can assure you that none of us heard it back where I was. But then the police gunned their motorcycles (we learned this after the fact), and people started screaming and running. 

What is interesting about this event is that -- from the standpoint of protesting the war -- it was a remarkable success. It showed that ten thousand people were strongly opposed. Many of us thought our number was closer to twenty or even thirty thousand. At the risk of repeating myself, let me reiterate that the purpose of the march was supposed to be to make clear a strong, public opposition to the war. Politically, it would have been a major mistake to make the event about the LAPD instead of about the war itself. 

But there we were, back in Rancho Park, and there was Donald Kalish, a UCLA professor, standing on the back of a truck and holding a bullhorn, and he was talking up the event as being about police violence rather than about the Viet Nam War dead. 

In other words, the organizers took a substantial antiwar event and reduced it to a mere distraction. The organizers should have said something about welcoming all Americans to the antiwar position, including our brothers and sisters in the LAPD. They didn't have that much imagination, and let it slip through their fingers. 

Unfortunately, there was also a real problem back in those 1960s days -- there was a lot of truth to the argument that the LAPD and the Sheriff's department were racist, brutal, and morally corrupt. They were not only racist within their own ranks (consider the history of Tom Bradley as he attempted to make his way up the LAPD ladder), they were violently racist when it came to the way they treated the public. 

I think that times have changed. If nothing else, the consent decree that kept the LAPD under a microscope for a decade has affected the way the Department acts towards the public and in public. You could see the result of 50 years of cultural revolution in the television shots from USC the other evening. The LAPD -- dragged into the USC mess -- managed to take its part in that brand of political theater known as civil disobedience by arresting a reasonably small group of people without violence, and apparently without even much in the way of harsh words. At least that is the way it was described by the radio commenter who was observing directly. 

If the LAPD has grown beyond its pre-consent-decree youth and into a more mature and responsible organization, then let's celebrate the fact and urge them on. The week's performance, including UCLA, tends to argue along that direction. Taking that into consideration, it is interesting that when the LAPD officers marched across the UCLA campus on Wednesday night, they were met with booing and insults from many of the demonstrators. It didn't fit with the reality. 

One other thought in a post-consent-decree world: 

Whatever else you may think about the LAPD, we ought to consider that its rightful function is to deal with individual acts of law breaking and individual acts of violence. We expect the police to go after robbers and drag-racers. The Department is not well suited to fighting political wars which involve hundreds or even thousands of hostile demonstrators. The police shouldn't be put in the position of enforcing one particular ideology over its competitor (should there be an Israel or a Palestine?) and they are not really trained as an army. It's actually quite the opposite, in that they are trained to preserve life when possible rather than to take life. 

It will be appropriate and possibly even useful to hold some sort of post-mortem on the response to the university demonstrations, and to include both university administrations and police forces in the accounting. This is one topic where your neighborhood councils are among the most appropriate organizations for holding such events. Perhaps the upcoming citywide congress of neighborhood councils (in September) would be an appropriate place for this kind of hearing. 

One afterthought that jumps out: A couple of nights ago, the pro-Palestinian encampment had accomplished separating itself from the rest of the community (and, we might argue, society as a whole) because it took over an area of public land and wouldn't allow anybody but its ideological adherents to enter. Later that night, a group of counter-protesters attacked the Palestinian encampment. The situation was described as "chaos" by some observers. The next day, members of the encampment complained because the police had not arrived to protect them quickly enough. The irony and hypocrisy are remarkable. Had the encampment allowed for free passage of police, then the situation would not have gotten out of hand. But of course the encampment was set up to challenge the established authority of the United States and of the State of California. 

You cannot play at the January 6, 2021 game without accepting the rules of that game.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])