Justice for Janitors Day

by Harry on June 15, 2015

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.



Val 06.15.15 at 11:18 pm

Wow what a story and the video – what can I say! Congratulations to all involved.

There is something about the way the police are dressed, and their demeanour – as if their humanity has been taken away.


Claudia 06.15.15 at 11:29 pm

The UCLA Library’s Center for Oral History and Research is conducting a series of oral histories of organizers and rank-and-file members of Justice for Janitors. There are only 3 up now, but I think eventually there will be about a dozen in total.


floopmeister 06.16.15 at 12:06 am

There is something about the way the police are dressed, and their demeanour – as if their humanity has been taken away.

That’s the power, and the point, of a uniform.


harry b 06.16.15 at 1:22 am

I just noticed the comments on the youtube video. Are they serious or ironic?
Thanks Claudia! Nice to see you here (do you read regularly? You got here very quickly!)


bad Jim 06.16.15 at 4:42 am

The incident with the Beverly Hills Cops reminds me of my sister’s and my narrow escape from incarceration during the People’s Park festivities in Berkeley, 1969. The demonstration was surrounded downtown by the National Guard, but she & I blended in with the employees of a bank and the city police directed us down a side street. The rest of the crowd were trucked out to the county jail. Clearly I’m no hero, but I felt proud of taking care of my big sister.

Walking away from a later anti-war demonstration in San Francisco with my comely roommate, a passing cop gave me a poke in the stomach with his baton. Maybe he was jealous.


Val 06.16.15 at 6:08 am

@4 do you mean the comments on video here by myself and floopmeister, or some other comments?
my comments certainly aren’t ironic, though probably not well expressed. I mean that the video was really powerful, I didn’t quite know what to say, but congratulations to all involved in the protest for your courage and for achieving some decent outcomes (which you said they were in the post, I think?)


adam.smith 06.16.15 at 6:38 am

@Val — I assume Harry violated the iron rule to never, ever read the YouTube comments (i.e. if you watch the video embedded above on YouTube, the comments that people left there).


Val 06.16.15 at 9:27 am

Oh I didn’t see them either – I wondered if there might be some but didn’t look, which was probably a good move :)


harry b 06.16.15 at 11:23 am

Val — Oh, sorry, no, your comment was lovely and quite transparent. adam.smith is right, I meant the comments on the youtube site.

The gains were a 50% raise, and, more importantly in a backbreaking occupation, going from no health benefits at all to full family benefits, plus some paid vacation; not just for the 400 strikers but for all the company’s employees in So Cal. Also — the moment the contract was signed, I heard that the cleaning company gave the union lots of intelligence about its competitors which, of course, they wanted the union to organize forthwith.

An aside: Though — its worth violating adam.smith’s iron rule for videos of John Cage’s 4’33”. Hours of fun guaranteed for all.


Jono 06.16.15 at 6:27 pm

Harry – great post. This is Jono Shaffer, one of the organizers who worked with you and the great folks at Solidarity. Nice to see your name after all these years . Here’s a link to a piece that I wrote with Stephen Lerner about the lessons from the day. Hope all is well.



harry b 06.17.15 at 2:56 pm

Jono — thanks! Great to hear from you, too! Hope things are going well with you.


Kiwanda 06.18.15 at 3:07 pm

It’s great to hear that the work was successful, but what a cost. I’d like to understand where the cops’ brutality was coming from, and why cops in general so often attack lawful, peaceful demonstrations. I suppose part of it is the job attracts some number of people who just like to beat the shit out of others when they have the excuse (to say nothing of jabbing nightsticks in asses, which seemed popular with the cops in this video). And some part of it is probably a general culture of hippie punching. But it seems like there are departments where the more-or-less formal policy is to viciously attack whole categories of people. How can those cultures and policies be changed?


Ogden Wernstrom 06.18.15 at 6:07 pm

When I got to the part about BHPD, I was sure it was going to be a trap. Once in the 1970s and again during a WTO protest (1999?), I saw police surround and trap protestors…and then order them to disperse. Anyone who touched the wall-of-cops was arrested for assault. Everyone else for failure-to-disperse (or failure-to-follow-orders-of-police-officer might be more precise).

In these days of ubiquitous video recording, what can a stressed-out cop do? Hippie-punching just is not widely available any more.


Jono 06.18.15 at 6:33 pm

One of my favorite funny memories from that day was a comment by Gilda Haas, one of the allies who got arrested for “failure to disperse”, she said, “Failure to disperse?!? I was a dispersing fool, I was dispersing all over the place.”

All of the charges from that day got dropped in the end, including mine which was inciting a riot along with assault and failure to disperse.


MPAVictoria 06.18.15 at 7:05 pm

” I’m pretty sure that the Century City strike was the only political action I’ve been involved with that was substantially successful”

Left Wing politics has been damn depressing since the mid 70s….

/Good show Harry. You should be proud.


harry b 06.19.15 at 2:26 am

Thanks, MPAVictoria. I am proud, actually. But vividly aware that my contribution has been minor, and passing, and that it has come from a position of great privilege. But still, glad to have been lucky enough to have been doing the right thing in the right place at the right time. And delighted that Jono remembers me which he really does! (I know from a detail he gave to my student’s parents!)


js. 06.20.15 at 10:22 pm

A lovely post (and a horrifying video). Thanks.

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