Calm Before the Storm

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

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.

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