John Edwards talks about “Two Americas” as a rhetorical device to cover his true political intention: Fanning the fames of class warfare. Whether or not you believe Edwards’ assertion, one thing has become clear in recent weeks: there are two Los Angeleses. There’s a Spanish-speaking Los Angeles and an English-speaking Los Angeles and, as recent events here demonstrated, the two rarely speak to each other.
On May 1st at an evening pro-immigrant rally in MacArthur Park, Los Angeles police officers were attacked by protestors throwing glass bottles and rocks. Several were injured and had to go to the hospital for treatment. In response, officers on the scene decided to shut down the rally. That’s when things got ugly.
LAPD officers in black SWAT-like uniforms formed a line pushing everyone in their way – protesters peaceful or otherwise – into contained areas and out of the park. Those who did not comply were made to do so by force – and that included members of the press who always believe they should get special treatment. The televised imagery was disturbing for anyone who knows of the LAPD’s past history of intimidation, retaliation and often brutal beatings. The media, outraged as its own unfair treatment, dubbed the incident the “May Day Melee.”
Traveling in El Salvador on what was to be an anti-gang mission, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa sent the message to remain calm by continuing his work, asking police chief Bill Bratton to stay behind in L.A. to respond to the situation and to figure out exactly what happened.
While the media went apoplectic over the attacks on members of their own, most of Los Angeles seemed to shrug and move on. The incident in MacArthur Park barely registered a blip in coffeshop or cocktail conversation on the English-speaking Westside. “Gringo” Los Angeles wanted to find out what happened before rushing to judgment or, after years of bad publicity and determined reform, they assumed that the LAPD would not be so stupid as to break up an immigrant march unprovoked.
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger summed up the sentiment of most of English-speaking Los Angeles when asked about the May Day Melee: “What incident?” he inquired. Indeed, within a week, May Day was a distant memory, if even that, for most of Gringo L.A. But in the Spanish-language media, the focus remained on May Day. When Mayor Villaraigosa arrived in Mexico City he quickly learned that the incident had been the talk of the town for almost three days. He decided to cut his trip short and return to Los Angeles, even if his return would provoke an escalation of the incident.
Meanwhile, the English-speaking city turned its energy towards saving historic Griffith Park from the flames of an early brush fire. Several landmarks – the Greek Theater and Griffith Park observatory were threatened when a wildfire swept across Griffith Park near downtown. Back in town, Mayor Villaraigosa was quick to respond, scheduling hourly press availabilities featuring himself, the Fire Chief and, oddly, Police Chief Bratton.
Bringing Bratton to the press conferences at the Griffith Park fire was a stroke of brilliant political theater on Villaraigosa’s part. While most of non-Spanish speaking Los Angeles had a vague idea that he was embattled, there was no city-wide resentment towards him as there was for former police chief Darryl Gates. The Griffith Park inferno was the May Melee for Gringo L.A. impacting the livelihood of its residents who had to flee the fire, Sierra Club environmentalists, equestrians and those who can afford to live in Los Feliz.
As Griffith Park burned, Bratton reassured Angelenos that the police were securing the neighborhoods from potential looters where fire fighters had evacuated homes, he announced. “OK, thanks,” most of us thought to ourselves wondering why the man was sharing the screen with the folks who were actually relevant to the situation. Of course, Villaraigosa was putting Bratton front and center to help him restore the department’s good name – with some city residents.
The Griffith Park fire is out, the flames of the May Day Melee have not calmed. The Spanish-language media continues to fan them, leading to what some outsiders may perceive as an over-reaction by Los Angeles’ leaders. But this points to an interesting political balancing act for Villaraigosa – who’s been talked about as a running mate for Democratic Presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton. As he plots strategy for his next office Villaraigosa’s greatest task will be walking this tightrope, bridging the gap between these two Los Angeleses.