On May 1, 1980, 200 members of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) assembled in Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park to celebrate International Workers Day and honor the memory of a fallen comrade. Party member Damien Garcia had been murdered just days before while promoting the May Day gathering.
Garcia’s death was likely the result of gang violence, however the RCP claimed that he had been targeted because of a recent act of civil disobedience. Earlier in the year, Garcia and other members of the RCP scaled the outer wall of the Alamo in San Antonio. They climbed to the top of the structure, tore down the Texas flag and raised the red flag of communism. From their perch on the roof, members distributed leaflets which charged that the descendants of the “Texans killed by Mexicans in the Alamo… sucked the blood of the Chicano people.”[i] Garcia was arrested but released pending a trial. He was killed just days after returning to Los Angeles.
In MacArthur Park, when the eulogy for Garcia ended, members of the RCP began to march towards downtown. The group had been denied a permit by the Los Angeles Police Commission, but were told that if they kept to the sidewalks and obeyed the traffic lights, they would not be disturbed. As they left the park, party members were met by 300 police officers in full riot gear. Violence was inevitable.
If, as Colonel Griffith J. Griffith says, "public parks are the safety valve of great cities," then MacArthur Park has enabled Los Angeles to release more than its fair share of steam.
If, as Colonel Griffith J. Griffith says, "public parks are the safety valve of great cities," then MacArthur Park has enabled Los Angeles to release more than its fair share of steam. From the World War II-era rallies for housing, to marches for women’s rights, civil rights, and immigrant rights, the resistance has a long history in the park.
The site, originally called Westlake Park, was developed during the real estate boom of the 1880's. Described as “waste pueblo land,” the area contained a “rough, irregular depression with a body of impure water in it.” It was apparently a “place to be avoided, as ugly to the eye and poisoning to the lungs”. [ii] A new public space was proposed to replace the swamp and strongly supported by the city’s elite. The park’s open design and meandering pathways were inspired by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted’s restful ideal, with all its concomitant romanticism and middle-class aspirations.
While the park may have been envisioned as a respite from every day cares, the political world proved to be especially intrusive. In 1918, shortly after World War I, Mayor Frederick T. Woodman proposed a “victory span” that would run through the park, connecting Wilshire Boulevard from downtown to the ocean. Amid considerable controversy and legal challenges that went all the way to the State Supreme Court, the structure was defended as a monument to American armed forces.[iii] The bridge was finally completed in 1934 and according to later critics, this roadway “marred the beauty of the park as a whole, and violated that sacredness of parks against traffic highways, commercial use or anything, in short, but recreation, rest and beauty.”[iv]
Because of the divide, the park today is more easily conceived as two separate spaces. One half, with the lake, remains pastoral and generally quiet. The other is significantly more active. It includes a children’s play area, indoor sports facilities, a band stand, and a large open patch of dirt that supports several games of soccer daily.
Westlake park was renamed for General Douglas MacArthur in June 1942.[v] Thirteen years later, a statue of the general was placed beside the lake. The monument, designed by Roger Noble Burnham, includes the figure of MacArthur, flanked by two large semi-circle walls. The shapes at the base of the monument, in what used to be a fountain, represent the Philippine Islands and refer to the general’s campaigns in the Pacific.
Despite its military namesake, Angelenos have consistently used the park’s rolling lawns and open spaces to argue against the establishment. Starting in the 1940s, as the population of the city shifted west, so too did its political space. MacArthur Park replaced the once centrally located Plaza as the place to protest. At the end of WWII, returning GIs used the park to make the case for new housing. In the 1950s, according to an FBI informant, rallies at MacArthur Park were used to collect funds to defend communist leaders charged with advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government. The informant testified to the local Subversive Activities Control Board that song sheets had been passed out at the park and that attendees were encouraged to sing protest songs. He also claimed that speakers shockingly addressed the crowd as “fellow citizens,” rather than “fellow Americans.”[vi]
In the 1960s, when the cold war went nuclear, the park became the focal point for rallies and demonstrations for peace.[vii] A decade later, it hosted events in support of Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers and the Equal Rights Amendment.[viii] During the 1980s, more than 3,000 protesters marched to MacArthur Park to condemn the U.S.’s involvement in El Salvador and 8,000 protested President Reagan’s cuts in federal spending for social programs.[ix]
It is perhaps one of life’s most wonderful ironies that a park named for a general as conservative as Douglas MacArthur should serve as the favorite gathering spot for Los Angeles’ left-leaning political groups.
While most events were peaceful, clashes between groups and the police were not uncommon. The RCP was involved in several May Day protests and, although considered a fringe group, they received consistent press coverage due to their flamboyant and militant activities.[x] Violence broke out at their rallies in 1980, 1982 and again in 1988.[xi] Despite these occasional eruptions, it is perhaps one of life’s most wonderful ironies that a park named for a general as conservative as Douglas MacArthur should serve as the favorite gathering spot for Los Angeles’ left-leaning political groups.
[i] “3 Activists Lower Flag at Alamo, Are Seized”. Los Angeles Times. Mar 21, 1980: B4, pg. 1
[ii] “Westlake Park, Some of the Improvements - A Visitor's Impression”. Los Angeles Times. September 8, 1890, pg. 4; Turner, T. G. “Beautiful Westlake Park Once "White Elephant". Los Angeles Times. March 28, 1937, pg. A3
[iii] “Great Memorial Bridge, Mayor Woodman to Urge Victory Span Over Westlake Park”. Los Angeles Times, December 4, 1918, pg. II2.
[iv] Turner, T. G. (1937). “Beautiful Westlake Park Once "White Elephant". Los Angeles Times. March 28, 1937, pg. A3
[v] “It's Gen. MacArthur and Not Westlake Park From Now On”. Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles: May 8, 1942, pg.1.
[vi] “Red Rally at MacArthur Park Told, School Principal Who Aided FBI Describes Meeting” Los Angeles Times, April 30, 1957, pg. 8.
[vii] “150 Carry Placards on 13 Mile Peace March” Los Angeles Times. May 8, 1960, pg. EA; “800 Complete Bomb Protest March Here. Los Angeles Times, April 22, 1962, pg. A8.
[viii] “2,500 Attend Rally of Chavez Supporters at MacArthur Park”. Los Angeles Times. August 25, 1975, pg. B17; Roderick, K. “Rally Backs Equal Rights Amendment”. Los Angeles Times: May 16, 1976, pg. B4.
[ix] Billiter, B. “3,000 Protest U.S. Role in El Salvador: News Media Accused of Misleading Public on Reports of Massacre”. Los Angeles Times. April 19, 1981, pg. B1; LaGanga, M. L. “Reagan Blasted, Air Controllers Backed: 8,000 in L.A. Decry Cutbacks”. Los Angeles Times: September 20, 1981, pg. A3.
[x] Smith, Roger; Mendoza, Henry “Reds Honor Slain Man as Martyr” Los Angeles Times; Apr 24, 1980, pg. E1
[xi] Martinez, Al; John Kendall “15 Arrested in May Day Disturbance” Los Angeles Times May 2, 1990; pg. VYB7