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A Response to Chief Butts -- "Why so nervous?"

By Rita Lowenthal

I am a long-time political activist. On reaching seventy I decided that I would rethink my activities and would eliminate the ones that gave me the least pleasure -- having nothing to do with their worthiness.

Goodbye to phone banks, signature gathering, sit-ins, civil disobedience and demonstrations. There are other ways to save the world -- or when I am less grandiose, Santa Monica, that would continue to keep me involved with the causes and people I hold most dear.

Then came the Living Wage scandal in Santa Monica. How could I ignore what was happening at the luxury hotels that are ten minutes (when the streets aren't under repair) away from our home? The management of hotels and restaurants that have an annual revenue of over $5 million are refusing to respect the rights of their workers to meet and talk about a living wage, let alone unions. Since many of these hotels are part of national chains, that have unions and prosper in other cities, it is difficult for me to hear their arguments.

I am unforgiving -not only of their greed and lawbreaking (it is illegal to prevent workers from meeting to discuss employment issues) -- they are spoiling my retirement. I wanted more time to stare into space or enjoy their beachfront out-door cafes, and they have forced me right back to where I was in the 20th Century because they are still in the 19th. These businesses get "A" from the Health Department, the also deserve "A" in Chutzpah.

Through SMART (Santa Monicans Allied for Responsible Tourism) I have participated in half of the nineteen actions that Police Chief Butts referred to in his letter ("Chief Butts Speaks Out on Policing Demonstrations," Letters, April 25). It was my experience that the demonstrators were respectful of each other and the police.

The police cordially did their job (albeit the disquieting riot gear), so I was surprised by the tensions expressed in surfsantamonica by Councilman Holbrook ("Holbrook Speaks Out and Trusting Police," Letters, April 30), Teresa Rochester ("Rallying Controversy," April 24) and Chief Butts over the last demonstration involving SAMOHI students. Their responses were triggered in part by what some thought was an over abundance of police and riot gear.

I appreciate and share Chief Butt's concerns for safety and crowd control. I would like to suggest an additional safety formula for him to think about. It has to do with knowing with whom he is having the pleasure and taking a less conventional big city approach to demonstrations -- depending on the history and the goals of the organizers. In the case of the Living Wage efforts, I recommend trust. We have proved over years that we are on the same side -- in that no one is looking to injure, be injured or destroy property.

After three years of pre-demonstration meetings between SMART leadership and the police there have been no surprises. The police department is advised of the plans. SMART leadership knows the rules and supplies volunteers to help the police keep the demonstrators legal. So why so nervous?

About Riot Gear and Outside Agitators--These are the subjects that I take issue with in the Chiefs discussion of "Policing Demonstrations."

My personal experience with the Santa Monica police has been one of mutual respect and courtesy. But then I am a non-threatening gray-haired lady, whose heart skips a beat when I see riot gear but is mature enough to quiet my fears knowing the difference between history and present time and place. I can only imagine what teenagers or immigrants might feel surrounded by police in riot gear. (It could drive a non- violent person to riot.)

It is self-defeating for the Police Department to try to establish respectful relationship between kids and cops in after school programs on one hand, and then show up in riot gear when they interact in legal political activity.

It is hard to break stereotypes and it has been a couple of generations since neighborhood cops were sensed as everyone's buddies. It's a lot easier to respect our police in their blues (especially their powder blues) -- then black helmets. We are hardly a community known for conventional dress, so why must the police conform to other cities' dress codes? So, "if you are what you wear," and espouse community relations -- why not lessen the riot gear?

Chief Butts also referred to outside agitators. Yes, there are non Santa Monica residents who join the demonstrations. They are workers who can't afford to live in Santa Monica, and there are sympathizers who volunteer to support the cause. Many of them are recruited to lead songs and chants, and help the police keep the demonstrators in line. Agitators is a harsh word-try volunteers.

I suggest that in view of the history of the Living Wage Movement the Police Department be instructed to have a benign but cautionary presence. Santa Monica is known to be a cutting edge example of a creative community. Why shouldn't the Police Department be a part of it?

Rita Lowenthal is a Santa Monica resident and member of SMART.

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