Rage Against the Machine gave the Democrats an angry welcome on the first night of their national convention Monday with a forty-minute set in a specially designated demonstration area across the street from Los Angeles’ Staples Center, where President Clinton was preparing to speak.
A riot broke out long after the band had left the stage and most of the 8,000 concert-goers had peaceably dispersed. A handful of protesters who remained in the area taunted police, throwing rocks and bottles, and the police answered with pepper spray, rubber bullets and, finally, a charge on horseback. At least four people were hurt and ten were arrested.
The riot was an unsettling finale to a festive concert by RATM, hosted by the non-violent protest organization D2KLA. No arrests were made during the concert and at least one band member, guitarist Tom Morello, had been escorted out of the area by the band’s security guards long before any violence broke out. The band had done little to incite riot; in fact, the sharpest comment to come from singer Zack De La Rocha during the show was his sloganeering statement “Brothers and sisters, our democracy has been hijacked.”
Although RATM’s music was incendiary, the concert was marred by the organizers’ sound system. It placed the set at a low volume, which would be appreciated by any parent dreading the loud rap/metal RATM plays. The crowd, however, peeved by RATM’s surprisingly soft tones, chanted “Turn it up!” The sound never hit the loud pitch of a typical RATM concert, but fans soon ignored the less-than-stellar sonic quality and began dancing and singing along.
RATM began the concert with “Bulls on Parade,” which was followed by a straightforward cover of MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams,” a song MC5 played at the infamous 1968 Democratic convention, which was plagued by much larger riots. The band also treated the crowd to songs from their latest album Battle of Los Angeles, including “Testify,” “Guerrilla Radio” and “Battle of Los Angeles.”
Fear of violence was a point of contention in negotiations concert organizers had with the City of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Police Department. LAPD Commander David Kalish told the Los Angeles Times the police were “gravely concerned” the concert could attract a violent crowd. Dan Merkle, an organizer of the D2KLA protest, said Monday morning that the majority of the people participating in the protest would respect the call to non-violence posted on the D2KLA’s Web site, www.d2kla.org.
Bringing RATM to the protest was a tough process for D2KLA. Merkle said he spoke with Rage in April about playing the protest. Since then, it was not known if D2KLA would be granted an appropriate site for the concert or even an area which could accommodate large rallies.
The City of Los Angeles initially demanded D2KLA hold rallies at a small site blocks away from the Staples Center. However, on Aug. 1, a U.S. District Court judge called city plans overly restrictive and ordered the city representatives to change them.
The city designated Pershing Square and a couple of parking lots across from Staples Center as free speech areas where DKLA could hold rallies and mount public displays. RATM was ultimately allowed to play because the area across from Staples Center was designated as a “First Amendment zone.”
It’s a foreboding place to hold a concert or a rally. In the shadow of the brightly lit Staples Center, the demonstration area is surrounded on three sides by thirteen-feet-high chain link fences and a heavy police presence. Despite the menacing feel of the venue, the day of protest started innocently enough. A crowd, which included environmentalists, socialists and activists demanding a retrial of Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted of killing a Philadelphia policeman, listened to speeches and watched street theater at Pershing Square, less than a mile from the riot site.
Before Rage raged, Bonnie Raitt and former Doors drummer John Densmore were the headliners of the afternoon’s entertainment. Raitt played just one song, however, a cover of Jackson Browne’s “Soldier of Plenty.” Densmore accompanied Raitt on an African drum. Before the duet, the drummer recited protest poetry by African American writer Eldridge Knight.