- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 17, 2000


It's not easy living and working in downtown L.A., an area that one book dismissed in "A Note on Downtown" because, the author said, "that is all it is worth." There is too much crime, too much urban blight and, these days, too many people trying to help.

First came the Democratic Party. When party officials sold the idea of holding their convention in Los Angeles, they promised to set aside a share of the lucrative convention contracts to small and minority local businesses. The idea seemed fitting. The party's own platform argues Democrats "have [to] secure prosperity that is broadly shared and progress that reaches all families in this new American century … We must not leave any community behind." President Clinton closed out his own remarks Monday night by telling convention delegates to "keep putting people first. Keep building those bridges."

It turns out the bridges never quite reached the lengths of those lofty sentiments. What locals didn't know was that Democrats had already handed out the prime, plum contracts to others. All that remained were smaller subcontracting jobs that weren't quite so rewarding. Drexel Muhammad, founder of the Young Black Contractors Association of South Central, told the Los Angeles Times that hopes of winning construction jobs for his members have yielded one potential contract for portable toilets. Another entrepreneur, producer Elziroy "Sonny" Porter declined the opportunity to make $2,500 planning a small party after the local host committee chose another vendor to coordinate its $1.5-million media gala.

Not to worry, say convention organizers. They have distributed a print version of their minority- and women-owned business directory to the state delegations and highlighted the online version on their web site. Handing out the equivalent of a phone book apparently is the party's idea of sharing prosperity and progress.

But the missing contracts turned out to be the least of the problems. Along with the convention came demonstrators who were no less determined to stand up for the interests of the poor and working classes but whose agenda also extended to freeing convicted cop killers to blocking sanctions against Iraq to "decriminalizing" the homeless. To that end they marched daily through downtown areas to the convention site, but blocked by police barricades and other tools of social injustice, the protestors were reduced to making their case to largely uncomprehending shopkeepers and customers in nearby ethnic neighborhoods as well as to the occasional journalist seeking relief from the convention itself.

The result was both comical and, for local residents, disastrous, an unhappy reminder of the vast gulf between working-class citizens and those who presume to advocate in their name. The first glimmers of trouble for Los Angeles resident actually began last year in Seattle, where high-minded demonstrations against the World Trade Organization, World Bank and just about anything else with the word "world" in it turned into an excuse for looting and pillaging local stores.

Ugly, occasionally violent protests followed in Washington and Philadelphia this year, although police managed to keep them from escalating to Seattle's level. Los Angeles officials were also aware of the damage that followed celebrations of the L.A. Lakers national basketball championship this year. So when protest groups settled on march routes that, while convenient to the Democratic Convention at the Staples Center, also went through the heart of predominantly minority districts recovering from decades of urban blight, many of the merchants there, fearful of the unrest to come, simply closed their stores to customers and boarded over windows for the entire week of the convention. Between violent convention-related demonstrations that forced customers out of some of the city's older and poorer neighborhoods and lengthy marches that discouraged customers from coming in the first place, estimates of financial losses to local businesses run as high as $40 million dollars.

"We thought the convention would be like Christmas in the summer," a jewelry store owner and officer in the downtown business improvement district named Peklar Pilavjian told the Los Angeles Downtown News. "Instead, it's like taxes in the summer." Near the staging area for many of the protests a dozen or so blocks from the convention site, vast stretches of shop fronts hid behind corrugated metal fronts, as though on holiday. Those merchants who did remain open or who peered through barred doors at the marches were treated to a bewildering spectacle.

One march celebrated the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former radio broadcaster and Black Panther member now facing the death penalty in Pennsylvania for murdering a police officer in 1981. Even if they recognized the name Abu-Jamal does have his own web page now the merchants may not have been terribly supportive of a convicted cop killer given that they were counting on Los Angeles law enforcement to protect them from the protestors. Some of the marchers' aims, however, would affect the area more directly. One of the industries that has helped revitalize downtown involves the importation of toys from Asia to Los Angeles and their subsequent distribution elsewhere in the United States as well as in Mexico and Latin America.

The protesters were sharply critical of free-trade policies that make such industries possible. They, of course, have the luxury of living without the toys or the jobs associated with them. The disaster wasn't entirely financial. Local health care officials were scheduled to visit homes near the convention center to find children in need of immunizations. But most of the houses were empty; families too had left for the week to escape the expected unrest. One hopes Democrats and demonstrators alike will forgive L.A. if it seems unappreciative of their efforts. More help like this could devastate it.


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