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Calm Before the Storm 

Before last week's megaprotests, cops and marchers made nice in the Mission

Wednesday, Mar 26 2003
History books will no doubt characterize last week's mayhem in San Francisco in much the same way used to describe anti-war demonstrations during the Vietnam War: Protesters clashed with police in the streets in San Francisco ....

And, of course, they did. But it didn't start that way. The war actually began during a peaceful -- darned near friendly, even -- demonstration downtown.

After President Bush issued his 48-hour ultimatum for Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq, the International ANSWER coalition, along with the Global Exchange and United for Peace and Justice groups, scrambled to put together an "emergency" anti-war rally to coincide with the deadline.

Word spread for protesters to gather at Powell and Market streets at 5 p.m. Wednesday, the end of Bush's timeline for Hussein. By Wednesday morning, the San Francisco Police Department also had that information, and began scheduling cops to respond. Troops from the day shift were held over in what would begin the Police Department's move to 12-hour shifts after war broke out. Some were on the streets, others waited in the wings next to the Old Mint on Fifth Street.

Among the dispatched were Bob Mammone, a 19-year veteran, and his partner, Andrew "Drew" Cohen, a pair of officers who turned themselves into a public relations team when they started making minidocumentaries about cop life now used in police training. Mammone was tapped to handle media relations during the Wednesday protest, while Cohen videotaped the cops in action against the demonstrators, including mass arrests.

As Hussein's time ran out, Mammone, Cohen, and a gaggle of ranking cops -- including Deputy Chief Rick Bruce, who heads the department's Special Operations Unit -- leaned against the wall of the Muni station in front of San Francisco Centre on Market Street, watching a small protest across the street gather steam.

No one knew what was going to happen here. In fact, at first it seemed as though there were more police and newshounds than protesters, particularly given the ever-present media helicopters hovering overhead. But the crowd was growing, and by 5:20 p.m. people were spilling off the sidewalk into Market Street.

Muni officials were out in force, trying to usher buses and streetcars through the crowd without them hitting anyone. UPS and FedEx trucks lined up behind the Muni buses trying to ease through. This marked the first potential for a clash: Police would have to move the crowd back onto the sidewalk. And the cops happened to be in riot gear, which was not going to make for a good scene.

The riot uniform, helmet and all, was entirely unnecessary for this task. But should conditions change abruptly, the cops can't stop and go change clothes. So there they were, dressed for mayhem.

At about the same time, word came from somewhere that the crowd -- now rapidly gaining in numbers -- was going to march down Market Street in an unplanned parade during the evening commute. This would create even more potential for conflict.

Police brass weighed the risk-benefit analysis and decided it would be easier, cheaper, and safer to facilitate the march -- blocking intersections as the demonstrators progressed -- than to halt it and block off the entire street.

By 5:45 p.m., demonstrators were heading west on Market, although no one other than the folks in the lead seemed to know where they were going. One police commander mentioned 24th and Mission streets. Another said something about a plan to turn on Grove Street. The blue troops formed a line and marched quasi-military-style into place on either side of Market, standing between demonstrators and the sidewalk.

During protests earlier in the month, breakaway groups had smashed windows and wrought other havoc on businesses, and the cops were clearly worried about a repeat. Drivers stopped at intersections honked as the crowd passed, either in anger at the inconvenience or in support of the message. A loud whoop passed through the crowd like a wave, for no apparent reason.

Meanwhile, it was raining and getting dark. The former was inconvenient, the latter another concern for police. Mostly, Mammone explained, because it's harder to see people starting a disturbance in the dark. And, in fact, somewhere around Market and Seventh streets, a throng of young men began passionately waving the finger toward the street. It was unclear whether this was directed at protesters, cops, television cameras, or all of the above. A police commander walked by, yelling at the cops to stay 10 feet apart.

Mammone produced a hunk of bread from a baggie in his pocket -- dinner -- and offered to share with a couple of reporters walking alongside. He has been a beat cop in both the Tenderloin and the Mission, so this part of town was familiar territory. A running debate over crowd estimates seemed to confirm only that no one -- police, activists, or reporters -- knew how to figure such things with any accuracy. In the end, it was decided, or negotiated really, that there were about 2,000 people involved at the peak of the protest. But the crowd was waning as it turned on Valencia Street, the rain still coming down.

An angry man who was not attached to the march upended a garbage can on Valencia and then ran away when Mammone yelled at him. Three protesters stopped to help right the can. It was that kind of crowd.

The march snaked in a narrow formation onto 20th Street and spread out again as it hit Mission, where protesters chanted for people to come out of their homes. Reporters with cell phones had, by this time, learned that the United States had dropped the first bombs on Baghdad. A while later, a handful of protesters wearing scarves across their faces formed a knot around a man standing in front of a store with a television inside.

Police had hoped the crowd wouldn't find out about the bombing. From the very beginning, there'd been concern that the march would turn ugly if war broke out while protesters were on the streets.

But that didn't happen.

In front of the BART station at 24th and Mission, speakers took to a makeshift stage and addressed the crowd. The convergence of anti-war demonstrators and a small army of cops in the heart of gang territory on a wet Wednesday night was surreal.

At one point, a heated altercation broke out in front of a McDonald's outlet when one of the numerous photographers following the demonstration snapped a picture of a man who had nothing to do with the protest. Mammone, a former bartender, calmed the guy down. Cohen took sticks away from a group of neighborhood kids. He used to run a video production business and recorded a CD of anti-violence rap songs under the name "MC Powder." Go figure cops.

By 7:15 p.m., the rally was winding up, but a small contingent of mostly young people carrying a flag started up Mission, yelling about marching back downtown. The cops were not pleased.

Squad cars and police motorcycles cut them off at about 20th Street. The blue uniforms formed a barrier across the road. A woman standing in front of a building on Mission yelled, "Merchants here are struggling to exist." It was clearly a plea to spare some anticipated violence.

Another woman yelled, "Protect the Constitution, you coppers. Leave those kids alone."

The checkers game between the small remaining group of demonstrators and the police finally stopped around 20th Street and Valencia. Police formed a line in front of the Shell station on Valencia, while motorcycle cops blocked the street to the north, and then took over the intersection. Cohen filmed the event, while monitors from the Office of Civilian Complaints watched, describing the scene into tape recorders.

Someone serenaded the police with bad trumpet playing. Another man yelled at the cops to get real jobs. Mammone jokingly pondered the suggestion for a minute. Everyone shivered in the damp night air.

Finally, most of the police were called away and the remaining protesters and hangers-on drifted off. Cohen gave an interview to a television reporter. The rest of the media packed up and left. The war had started in Iraq, but the biggest battles in San Francisco were yet to come.

Less than 12 hours later, of course, protesters and police fought an ugly battle for control of the same stretch of Market Street where they'd shared a walk that was, for the most part, a peaceful demonstration.

About The Author

Lisa Davis


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