On Saturday, I attended a protest outside Los Angeles City Hall, followed by a march through downtown Los Angeles. Maybe 2,000 people were there. I was struck by the diverse character of the protests: highly multiracial, mostly millennials and younger, but still multigenerational, and appearing to draw participants from all across the wealth and income spectrum of the working class, broadly defined.
In the last week, looting and property destruction appear to have largely subsided. But the protests are still going strong — in fact they’re going stronger, as they appear safer and therefore more inviting to a wider range of people. In Los Angeles on Saturday, the protest had at times a street-festival feeling to it. There were people on roller skates and people carrying boomboxes amid the marchers. Many homemade protest signs were funny or highly decorative, and there was even a mobile Black Lives Matter basketball hoop affixed to a repurposed school bus, which people were dunking on outside of City Hall.
Contributing to the broader and more exuberant character of the protests is the fact that after a week of full-frontal assault, during which the police met the protesters with brutal force in nearly every city in the United States, they seem to have backed off a bit. While they still attack protesters at night, they’re less aggressive during the day. I believe the police have backed off for two reasons. First, police officers themselves are fatigued — we’ve seen reports from former cops of mass resignations in large urban police departments, particularly New York City, and there have been lots of posts from police officers on online forums expressing exhaustion and demoralization.
Second, police officials realize that their initial show of force backfired and fueled the protesters’ anger and endurance, as well as popular support for the protests. (Attacking journalists was a particularly boneheaded move.) In my opinion, the police weren’t really acting out of strategy initially so much as wounded pride and vindictiveness, but in any case it was bad strategy and they are forced to realize that now.
Therefore, the police appear less inclined than they were a week ago, or even a few days ago, to attack protesters during the day. They still shoot tear gas and rubber bullets at night and arrest not just protesters but passersby for violating curfew. But the daytime protests are largely understood to be somewhat safe and are therefore drawing large crowds. On our march, we didn’t see many police until the sun began to set.
The other observation that stuck with me from the protest in Los Angeles on Saturday was the near-ubiquity of signs saying “Defund the Police.” I saw dozens upon dozens of these signs. They were the second most popular slogan after “Black Lives Matter,” up there with “Justice for George Floyd” and “Justice for Breonna Taylor.”
In other arenas, the slogan “Defund the Police” is currently competing with the technocratic “8 Can’t Wait,” which refers to eight policing reforms put forward by nonprofits and celebrity activists and already given the seal of approval by Barack Obama. But I didn’t see a single “8 Can’t Wait” sign on Saturday. This question may be controversial online, but it has been resolved in the streets.
The protests are evolving rapidly, and this consensus has emerged unexpectedly in just the last few days. Judging by the volume of the signage — as well as chants: “No justice, no peace, defund the police!” — people don’t want to reform law enforcement but instead to reduce it. While not common, I did see a few signs pairing the demand to defund the police with demands to fund other social services, creating space to connect the issue of racist police brutality to other social and political issues affecting the working class.
The best part of the protest on Saturday was when our march entered the 2nd Street Tunnel, an iconic urban landmark that appears in lots of movies and which the city’s teachers also marched through in 2018 during the United Teachers Los Angeles strike. Inside the tunnel, people began to make noise, then got louder, then louder still. It was like a spontaneous experiment to see how much volume we could produce together. The structure of the tunnel produced an echo that made it hard to chant or to distinguish one sound from another. People were simply raising their voices together and feeling their collective power.