"I was there..."
by Gary Roush, originally published in It's About Times, the Abalone Alliance newspaper, August-September 1984, titled "Convention crackdown greets San Francisco demonstrators"
|Response to activities and featured speakers at the 1984 Democratic Convention took the form of multiple protests before and during the gathering. Some groups were in support of the Democrats while others were protesting the Democrats’ complicity in what they saw as the government’s belligerent foreign policy. Police actions at the protests included violent tactics, use of undercover officers, many arrests, and denunciation of the dissenting groups.|
Police face El Salvador solidarity demonstrators outside of the Hilton where Henry Kissinger was speaking, April 1984.
Photo: It's About Times newspaper
San Francisco has returned. Gone are the arrays of funny hats, along with the holographic security passes dangling like dogtags from the necks of delegates. Gala parties are now relegated only to the gossip column and the society page. Tourists have reclaimed the City's hotels and chic restaurants, and the police are back on their beats. Meanwhile activists and protestors are taking a short breathing spell to lick their convention wounds, and begin analyzing just what did or did not happen during that hot week in July.
Two demonstrations in April presaged in many ways a basic conflict in styles of dissent during the convention week. The first of these was the action against and appearance by Henry Kissinger on April 16. Kissinger was in town to address a meeting of the Commonwealth Club at the Hilton Hotel, promoting the findings of his Special Bipartisan Commission on Central America – basically, support for Reagans's belligerent policies. At about this same time the newspapers had finally just begun to print the story of the CIA's involvement in the mining of Nicaraguan ports.
Given Kissinger's lead role in this and previous war crimes, it is perhaps not so surprising that a lunchtime crowd of over 1,500 Latinos, punks, secretaries, and assorted leftists came to the Hilton to vent their rage. Even the police were taken aback by the unexpected size and militance of the crowd, and brought out mounted police to try to bully people into remaining on the sidewalks. However, the crowd was not in a mood to be intimidated, particularly after being joined by some rowdier political punks, and soon they overflowed into the street.
The police then regrouped and attacked the crowd with horses, swinging their clubs and nearly starting a riot. Despite police efforts to scatter the crowd, many people regrouped on the adjoining street in front of the Hilton. However, by then the crowd had cooled down considerably, and its numbers were greatly reduced by the police action and lunchtime attrition. Numerous undercover cops among the demonstrators began to make individual arrests. Soon afterward the police read the riot act (out of the hearing range of most of the crowd), and then, in a preview of coming attractions, blocked off the street and proceeded to indiscriminately arrest the entire 190 people still present.
Mounted police bludgeon El Salvador solidarity demonstrators outside of Henry Kissinger appearance at the Hilton Hotel, April 1984.
Photo: It's About Times newspaper
In contrast to the Kissinger demo was a protest a week later against an appearance by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger at the St. Francis Hotel. Here the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) and Livermore Action Group (LAG) organizers had met with the police and had agreed to have a large force of monitors on hand to try to prevent any spontaneous action from happening in the crowd. The monitors did their assignment well, for the most part keeping the crowd of more than 1,000 aimlessly circling on a crowded sidewalk, and except for a few small incidents, away from spoiling the rich folks social affair. In return for such cooperation, the Police Department had nothing but lavish praise for how well the demonstrators behaved.
The stage thus set, enter Jerry Falwell and Phyllis Schlafly, who organized a pre-convention convention of the Moral Majority entitled “Family Forum” on Thursday, July 12. A welcoming committee of more than 1,000 activists of various stripes gathered on the sidewalk near the convention to once again pull out some exhausted slogans in hopes of disrupting the affair and perhaps getting a little media coverage.
The police were out in force with their horses and red dirtbikes in the expectation that this was going to be a large and rowdy affair. After two hours of chanting the crowd began to stroll down the two blocks to a planned rally in Union Square, and along the way, not only did they dare to cross against the light, but a small group even staged a short die-in at an intersection! The cops, who were instructed by Mayor Feinstein not to tolerate any nonsense, took these defiant acts as their cue to play out their months of “getting ready.” Mounted police led a charge into the crowd, swinging clubs and trampling several people, including a woman medic who received serious head injuries, and arresting eight people in the ensuing melee. Angry protestors then moved from corner to corner of Union Square, trying to inch out onto the streets, only to be quickly pushed back by the cops. Despite the tension, many protestors picked up on satirical chants such as “The whole world is laughing.”
On the following Sunday there were two large but largely dull demonstrations, both essentially pep rallies for the Democrats. One was a gay/lesbian march and rally estimated at 100,000 people, and was described by one of its organizers as “not a protest, but [rather] a show of support for the Democrats.”
Likewise, a march and rally of some 150,000 union members remained well within the expected constraints of union politics. However, on moment of tension developed when about 75 Teamsters chanting “Scabs go home!” attempted to go into the locked-out Emporium store, but were restrained by a wedge of monitors. (The Emporium store locked out its union workers in sympathy with Macy's, whose employees went on strike in the days before the convention.)
The "Protest Playpen" on 3rd near Mission during the 1984 Democratic National Convention.
Photo: H.K. Yuen
On Monday, July 16, the main attraction began, as the Democratic Convention opened inside the Moscone Bomb Shelter. Meanwhile, in the officially designated protest “playpen,” a parking lot adjacent to the Convention site, the first and by far largest demonstration occurred, the Vote Peace in '84 rally. Sponsored by a huge coalition of peace and environmental groups, it attracted some 20,000 people and issued three demands: Freeze now and continue reductions in nuclear weapons; No intervention in Central America; Fund human needs, not military ones. However, as most of the speakers were from the Democratic Party (albeit its left wing), one heard little mention of the contradiction of a Democratic-controlled House voting for both the Nuclear Freeze and for funding the MX within a few weeks of each other. Of course there was no mention from the podium of the root causes of war contained within a system whose raison d'être is the need to make profits.
A growing sentiment in San Francisco in the lead-up to the 1984 Democratic National Convention.
Photo: It's About Times newspaper
This nice, loyal opposition was even more apparent in the Visions of (white, middle-class) America at Peace exhibition and direct lobbyist efforts, sponsored by the Peace and Environmental Coalition, whose member groups had a significant crossover with the Vote Peace in 84 people. These events seemed to confirm a distinct shift to the center for the official peace movement, now acting as a special interest group seeking favor with the powers-that-be. In contrast was an impromptu appearance at the Vote Peace rally by a guerrilla theater group called Shock Troupe, who distributed a leaflet entitled “Beware Geeks Bearing Gifts” that listed wars and interventions led by the Democratic Party. They were accompanied by a 12 foot tall Trojan Donkey that was fed ballots, money, and a globe and then excreted missiles, tanks, and skeletons.
On Tuesday morning about 500 people had gathered across from the protest pen to oppose an anticipated rally by the KKK, about which the police had refused to divulge any information. However, as the Klan was a no-show, the anti-Klan rally was somewhat of a non-event. The crowd nonetheless hoped that it was because of their presence that the Klan had backed out.
Later that afternoon, LAG held a rally that billed itself as “the only real protest against the Democrats.” LAG had been given some hassles by the playpen permit police, who, after LAG had already advertised a six o'clock rally, gave them a permit for the four to six shift. (They instead gave the six o'clock slot to the Jesus freaks, the only group to be given two different time permits for the area.) Although the LAG rally itself remained well within the standard boring mode, the politics that were advertised were decidedly more radical than that of the Vote Peace affair – the Democrats at least were criticized for their complicity in the war machine. The rally was disrupted at one point by a sideshow staged across the street by members of the Jewish Defense League who dangled a racist effigy of Jesse Jackson from a rope. As the angered crowd surrounded them, the mounted police moved to the rescue, threatening the crowd with the ever familiar charge of the Light Brigade. After the tension subsided, the rally continued on.
On Thursday morning the usual bustle of downtown shoppers and ofice workers was briefly interrupted by a moving mass theatre piece organized by Casa El Salvador-Farabundo Martí. Some 750 mourners dressed in black staged a funeral, complete with coffins and flowers, for the victims of repression in Central America. The emotional intensity generated seemed to overwhelm even the participants, as well as many of the bystanders witnessing the march as it slowly made its way from Union Square to the Powell BART plaza. At various points a slow motion victim-executioner scene was mimed by a line of singing mourners.
The most interesting development of the week was the appearance of the War Chest Tours, billed as guided tours of war-related corporations in the Financial District that have significant ties to the Democrats. The tours were organized by people from LAG, Abalone Alliance, and assorted independents, who did not bother to get the official “good Demonstrator” seal of approval from the police ahead of time.
The first of the tours was held on Monday afternoon, with a plan to give a short rap on crimes committed by the specific corporations visited and then doing symbolic civil disobedience, i.e. die-ins. However, as the crowd was gathering on the sidewalk in front of the Diamond Shamrock Corp., the police appeared, surrounded the “tourists,” and arrested 89 for “conspiracy to trespass,” a felony charge.
During the arrests several people were injured. For the most part the press did not question the police account of what happened and blanketly labelled the crowd as “punk rockers.” These conspiracy charges, which carried a stiff $2,500 bail, were an attempt by the police/D.A./Mayor's Office to sweep the more radical elements off the streets in hopes that they would not be able to make bail and have to stay in jail for the duration of the convention. However, Judge Herbert Donaldson agreed with the Public Defender that the conspiracy charge was a bad joke, waived the bail and released people on their own recognizance.
Many reporters, in search of a scoop with a little “action,” accompanied the several hundred people who attended the next tour on Wednesday. The larger numbers and the press presence kept the police watching their manners and obeying the law. However, during the smaller tour Thursday afternoon, the press, assuming that nothing hot was going to happen, sought out other stories. About 200 people left a “Rock Against Reagan” rally at the Moscone demo pit, and visited the Stock Exchange, Standard Oil, Control Data, and had just left the B of A plaza, where a handful of people had knocked on the windows. As they walked up Kearny Street, a line of police on motorcycles surrounded the demonstrators, ordering them to stay where they were. Some people managed to escape through the incompletely formed police lines, but 87 (of the, until then, moving crowd), were arrested on charges of “obstructing sidewalks.”
Three people were injured in these arrests, including one 16 year old who was severely kicked by a police horse. Once again, the police, press, and politicians labelled the arrestees as “a bunch of punk rockers,” in an attempt to marginalize those who dared to show that the emperor-to-be's new wardrobe included military designs.
Stage diver at "Rock Against Reagan" concert in then-empty lot between Mission and Howard, 3rd and 4th Streets, during Democratic Convention in July 1984.
Photo: Keith Holmes
Skinheads slamdancing in protest pen during 1984 Democratic National Convention protests in block bounded by Howard, Mission, 3rd, and 4th.
Photo: Keith Holmes
Meanwhile, back at the “Rock Against Reagan” rally, as news of the arrests spread, various comedians, speakers, and new wave/punk bands urged the crowd to go to the Hall of Justice after the rally to protest the arrests. (The Hall of Justice also houses the main San Francisco jail and Police Department.) About 1,000 people, escorted by the Trojan Donkey, marched to the hall to show their disgust with the police tactics. The crowd rallied in the street out in front of the building, under the watchful eyes of a division of cops guarding the entrance. Many of the demonstrators sat down in the streets, while others urged people not to. Everyone remained non-confrontational yet very spirited in chanting “Let them go!”
The police charges quickly split up the remaining crowd into small groups, who were completely intimidated by the fear that the person next to them was really a cop. Altogether, 282 people were arrested that night, and many received serious injuries from clubs.
However, a contingent of cops was sent from the side of the building, trapping those who had remained sitting, arresting them and piling them into buses. Those who managed to get away chanted “Dan White was a cop” and “sex party cops” to the ever-growing police presence.
The most insidious police element was the large number of undercover cops who were used at all the demonstrations that week, and who were present in large numbers at this one. Dressing as demonstrators and wearing political buttons (with the added chic touch of aquarium tube communication devices on the backs of their ears!), these wolves would stalk their targets and then nab their prey as people ran to avoid the repeated charges of the mounted police horses and motorcycles. Police continued to chase, harass, and arrest people in tiny groups, blocks away from the Hall of Justice. Police Chief Murphy, proudly bragging to the press, claimed the police action was totally justified as he “had reports that demonstrators were going to rip apart the Hall of Justice and free the prisoners.” Later that night, police also arrested the Trojan Donkey, and he is still languishing in solitary confinement in the Police Property Room.
The Trojan Donkey in front of the Hall of Justice, July 19, 1984.
Photo: Keith Holmes
Over 500 people from the week's activities are now facing trial on various charges, some of them felonies. The defendants hope to garner enough public support to demand that all these charges be dropped, and to expose the conspiracy arrests for the legal sham they are.