December 20, 2007

City Hall Riot

Standing in line to get into the City Council chamber, you could feel that things were going to go wrong. I was in conversation from a cameraman from 2-cent when voices rose behind us. An older black woman and a younger black man shouted at a well-dressed, middle-aged white woman.

"Get off my back!"
"What are you doing here!"

The addressed feigned calm, saying that her adversaries had tried to cut in line. This didn't calm things. The cameraman and I passed through the metal detector, agreeing that today would be crazy.

I take a seat in the last row, and that well dressed woman and her three friends sit down in front of me, the friends offering congratulations on the woman's cool response. To my right and left are empty seats, with two black ladies on the left after that. This quickly becomes important as a group of self-proclaimed "residents" begins to shout that there are seats available, and "let them in!" When a cop asks one woman to sit down, she tells him, "I'm not a slave," and continues that line for a few minutes.

Things don't improve, the tension aided in large part by the cluster of cameras stuck in the face of these residents, who stand and begin to shout into the lenses as the media's face remains unimpressed, recording.

"What about the people?! What about the people!?" demands the young guy from the argument outside. He goes into a loud rant as the spotlights hit him, and another young man does the same, as do several others, each of them the focus of one or more cameras.
"This is a YouTube riot," I tell the woman next to me, and we both keep asking why the cops don't get those "media" people out of the aisles, as they're obviously the ones keeping this thing hot.

Here, I think, is how history gets played out today, how the record is made of anger--through the shouts of the dispossessed as captured by the ambivalent handheld camera. I remember in the 2000 RNC riots in Philadelphia, there was a protest crew that called itself "Camcorder Jihad." This afternoon's digital crew is more limp, but perhaps more malignant.

Some tall kid waves a red-black-green bandana, and the chant of "What About The People?" rises up again. The cops and some senior organizers get things to briefly calm down, though the young guy from outside warns everyone that things are "gonna go down" if more people aren't let in by 10:35. Again, I concur with the woman next to me that there should've been some kind of plan on the part of the council for this thing; everyone knew this would be hot. We note the time, and she tells me that the council had a reception upstairs for Jackie Clarkson's swearing in. Great timing, that.

Finally, Cynthia Hedge-Morrell emerges. The boos start, and one of the "residents" shouts, "Let the record show that the sell-out came out first." Cries of "house Negro" can be heard. Hedge-Morrell gets up and walks off. After another 5 minutes, she and the rest of the members begin to file onto the platform and the boos and slurs build. Stacey Head is called a "devil," and she does something extremely stupid in response.

Stacey Head turns to the loud section, smiles, and blows a kiss. Offensive when it happened, this becomes more disgusting in light of what follows.

As Fielkow tries to call for "security, security," the crowd gets louder. Cops amass in front of the audience in the middle section, and all of a sudden, pushing and screaming breaks out. People from the "residents" group in front of us on the left join the scrum, the spotlights spin and bob, and the video screen shows groups of hands on the backs of cops, that is until someone asks for the video to be cut. The four women in front of us get down on the ground like they're in a war zone, and the woman next to me and I laugh at their weird training. This goes on for at least 3 or 4 minutes, during which the entire council save for one disappears into the rear.

James Carter remains on the platform, calling over and over into the microphone, "Calm down, calm down." He looks alone, sad, stuck.

Protesters are escorted out by cops, but the woman who called out Hedge-Morell, the same one who wouldn't be treated like "a slave," won't settle down. The cops surround her as she yells from her seat. Finally, they make a move to arrest her. She begins to squeal and curse them, but they succeed in lifting her by her ankles and wrists. Still, she fights. Finally they lay her down and I can see the taser in the hand of one cop.

"Don't do me like that! Don't me do me like that!" the woman hisses. They don't, but get her upright and pull her out on her feet. She spits on the floor, calls them all cowards, and disappears out the door.

Things do calm down, and Fielkow calls order. We pray for the city's safety, do the pledge of allegiance, then listen to the National Anthem while a montage of American and New Orleans images plays on the video screen.

As the clerk reads the rules, I get up and leave. Outside in the lobby, an elderly woman in a wheel chair is attended to by EMS. A crowd on the other side of a fence cries, "Let Us In!" I walk out through a back gate manned by a cop. The rain is warm, falling on the reserved buildings of the CBD, where business goes on in silent earnest.

And now I have to go to a holiday lunch for work, where I plan on getting good and drunk.

That is what we Irish do after a funeral.

Because something died in there today, and something ugly came to pass.