Justice for Janitors Day

Today is Justice for Janitors Day. Its the 25th anniversary of the police brutality in Century City that resulted in one miscarriage, numerous broken bones and serious injuries and, according the article linked, only 38 arrests: a a remarkable organizing victory. Congratulations to SIEU, and all involved for 25 years of sterling work!

I was one of the supporters of the striking janitors at the June 15 1990 demonstration. We’d held a demonstration a week or so earlier, just before the strike began, which was pretty rowdy but extremely good-humoured. To be honest, I’m not sure anyone anticipated the strike succeeding—if they did, I certainly wasn’t among them. The unprovoked, and quite extreme, police attack on the demonstration was probably key to victory: everything was televised, to the extent that when I went into my bank on the Monday, two of the tellers recognized me from the TV coverage, and commiserated (having demanded to see my injuries—half stripping in a bank is a little weird) and congratulated me on being involved in a cause they clearly supported. I believe the full story is that, having seen coverage on CNN Europe, a Danish union threatened secondary action against the company unless it settled, which it did, promptly, the following week. (The City of Los Angeles settled its lawsuit less quickly, because the Rodney King beating took place shortly afterward, and as I understand it all LAPD brutality suits were put on hold till that was settled). I know first hand that the attack was entirely unprovoked because shortly before the police went nuts one of the organizers had requested that I come to the front line, on the flimsy grounds that I was the only person they knew to have had prior experience of this sort of situation. Here’s a video about the event (I’m the overweight English-looking guy being dragged around at some point), with some reminiscences below the fold.

Most of my memories of that day are vivid. I remember being beaten repeatedly with a night stick on the arm, while holding my bag above the head of a union organizer (who seemed to me to be more vital to the effort than I was, not least because, unlike me, she spoke Spanish) and simultaneously, and rather ridiculously, trying to reason with the officers in front of me that they were risking their careers and even their own liberty by being so brutal within 3 yards of a TV camera which was capturing every detail. In a subsequent wave of attack, the demonstrators were all standing, and the front line of demonstrators, with linked arms, started retreating at a run, while facing the police: maybe the most Pythonesque moment, for me, was my (successful) attempt to slow the retreat (for fear of trampling and tripping over the people behind us) by directing orders to the few people in the line who were, unlike me and most of the janitors, bi-lingual, and could, therefore, translate. I also remember, vividly, being arrested in an elevator in an underground parking lot while trying to escape, and standing for 2 hours in the beating sun with plastic zip-tie handcuffs cutting into my wrists, then trying to get cameras to focus on the wrists of the man behind me, whose wrist was broken, and rapidly swelling around the plastic; and finally, being in a holding tank in Van Nuys with a whole bunch of guys who spoke no English and most of whom seemed (quite reasonably) suspicious of me until one of them, who had seen my part in the action, lifted my shirt to display to his mates that my back was a weird combination of yellow, red, black and blue, at which point I was accepted as part of the group. But being arrested meant I missed the highlight – which was other demonstrators running away from the LAPD only to find themselves surrounded by motor-cycle mounted cops who, when they started to run away from them, called through a loud-hailer something to the effect of “Please come back: you’re in no danger, we’re Beverly Hills Cops, not LAPD”: and the BHPD officers doing basic first aid and arranging for ambulances. I’m surprised the article says there were only 38 arrests; I seem to remember being crammed into one of two full buses being taken to Van Nuys. Maybe the buses were small! And I have no memory at all of how I ended up wearing the baseball cap that I can see myself wearing in one of the video clips, or what happened to it subsequently.

The event recently came up in conversation with a student from LA, who prompted me to explain an off-hand comment I’d made about being arrested. She said her parents know an SEIU organizer, so I told her that the person I remembered best was Jono Schaffer (the Adrien Brody character in Bread and Roses is modeled on him) and after talking to her mum and dad she told me he is, indeed, their friend.

In England I once voted for a winning MP, but as a lesser evil. I’m pretty sure that the Century City strike was the only political action I’ve been involved with that was substantially successful—I hope some readers will join me in celebrating 25 years of Justice for Janitors today.

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