Nicaragua Notes: Love Thy Bus

There is something so fascinating and fantastic about the Latin American bus. ANYONE who has ever spent ANY time in Latin America has surely, at one point or another, spent time on some type of bus. In my experience, the lower level the better they are. Not to say safer, or more comfortable, just more interesting. I’ve spent considerable time on these babies, but Nicaragua was another story, one that involved lack of time and great distances, so our required mode of transportation was the Land Cruiser.
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During a workshop shoot in El Cua I was loitering around a small recreation center where the kids were assigned to photograph group activities. From a great distance I heard the roar of a metallic beast, one that was ALL TOO familiar. My heart began to race in anticipation. Would it be a “normal” bus, standard yellow, maybe a roof rack, or would it be the heart and soul of a risk-taking nomad? What turned up was something in the middle. The overall look was standard yellow, but the owner had spent considerable funds on better suspension, heavyweight tires, and luckily for all us, chrome grill work. But people, there is so much more. So much. The sound. You HAVE to know the SOUND.

The one thing you can’t know is the smell. These babies are ALL diesel and pollution control isn’t a top priority. I grew up on a ranch, surrounded by a bevy of diesel things. Heck, I even drive a diesel now, but theses buses are an entirely new level. I also wanted to include another view of these buses, one that you will surely experience if you find yourself on the roads of Latin America. When you add the smell, dust and crawling speed it adds up to a memorable, extended moment. Trust me.
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Finally, I want you to notice, in the color photograph, the guy standing near the door with his head down, leaning against the great beast. This is a common look when surrounding these beasts because they do more with these machines than you can possible imagine. This photo doesn’t look particularly scary or risky but that bus is at a nice angle and the rear end is backup against the Earth itself. The bus is also twisted, and with each millimeter the beast groaned and strained. A serious “pop” would impact a significant number of people.

In the background the kids worked the scene like pros. Ducking and dodging in and out, working on their backlighting skills, panning skills and just the interaction and dialogue required by entering an unknown situation with the goal of emerging with top level imagery. Also remember that many of these kids hadn’t touched a camera until the day before they were standing here.

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And just to show you what “left of camera” was offering up. There was much going on.

Choke Hold

People peer from the top of LAPD Headquarters, during a protest at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.

I pressed the automatic start on the Transalp and the 600 V-twin came to life between my legs. Pulling back slowly on the throttle I watched the tachometer rise and fall. I sat on the bike reciting a prayer common to anyone dumb enough to ride a motorcycle in Los Angeles. “Just get me back in one piece.” I flicked my visor down, shifted into first and headed out on to Pico Blvd. I headed East, through neighborhood after neighborhood. Pico ran from Santa Monica and the stylish beach life right into the heart of downtown Los Angeles, a four lane tapestry of what the city was all about.
I was heading toward downtown for a specific reason. The Democratic National Convention was less than one week away, and I planned on covering the event, and not from the sterile confines of the inside, but from the outside, where the real pulse of the nation could be felt. I had covered conventions in 1992 and 1996 and found them rife with pictures, but also a great place to record the history of our society.
I wanted to scout the downtown area because people were reporting that the LAPD had near lock down on the entire downtown grid. I had a map, but I wanted to see it for myself, find the best ways in and out, and to make sure I wasn’t trying to get somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be.
Pulling up at the first police checkpoint I was greeted by what would be a snapshot of the entire event.
“Hey, I’m just trying to check out the area and see where I can and can’t go,” I said to the officer who came to greet me.
I heard laughter and talk amongst the other men at the checkpoint. “F&%$ off,” he said as he turned and walked away.
For a moment I thought the sound of the bike had garbled the response, but based on the body language and subsequent sneers and faces I knew I had heard correctly.
I turned the bike and headed to the next block, probing the route to see if anyone would let me in to the area.


Downtown Los Angeles under near complete lockdown during the 2000 Democratic National Convention.

The streets were nearly devoid of humanity. Downtown was like a ghost town. There were police, police cars and tactical vehicles all over the place. I circled around to the far east side of the downtown area and finally made my way into the inner circle. It felt like a post apocalyptic film where society has faltered and the survivors are living in the rubble. It was very odd.
I pulled back the throttle in long steady pulls as the bike raced up and down nearly empty streets. I made for Los Angeles Street(ironic I know), which at that time was THE spot for the homeless and the daylight drug deal.
The street was completely empty, and I mean completely. There was not a single homeless person to be found, and no drug dealers. Things were getting stranger by the minute.
Feeling suicidal I raced the bike toward the freeway and headed into the sun and back towards my apartment in West Los Angeles.


LAPD officers stationed in downtown Los Angeles during the 2000 Democratic National Convention.

A few days later the festivities began, and I found the best way to get around was by parking on the outside of the police grid and then walking in. Like any event of this nature, being on your feet for long hours and many miles is par for the course, but there is so much going on you don’t think about it much, too much to take in, frame and digest.
The first thing I noticed was teams of LAPD, in formation, jogging through the downtown area. I knew there were going to be crowds, but I had personally never seen this type of military style maneuver, at least not by a domestic police force. These squads were in what appeared to be full riot gear. Helmets, batons, sidearms, and then at the rear was an officer with what looked like a gun used to fire tear gas cannisters, a gun with a huge spinning cylinder. And to top it off, next to him was another officer saddled with nothing but rounds for the tear gas gun. I felt like I had landed on the Iwo Jima of concrete.
These groups seemed to be heading in a specific direction, so I made my first mistake of the day and decided to follow.
In the middle of a bottleneck between two buildings, one of the officers at the back of the group turned and noticed me walking behind them. Suddenly there was something said I was facing a line of guys who did not look like they were happy with me. Making sure I didn’t make any quick movements I explained who I was, what I was doing, and for a moment I really felt like I was going to get the living crap kicked out of me. Maybe that was the point, to put a little bit of the fear in the civilian population, but for me it was more of a feeling of being puzzled by the demeanor, and wondering how that could help when it came to a large crowd.
I would soon find out.


A typical street scene created by the whirlwind of the 2000 Democratic National Convention.

The crowds grew larger and people by the thousand began to filter into downtown. the event attracted a wide range of humanity, a wide range of causes and a wide range of emotion. You had people displaying their love of the party, their hate of the party, save the whales, nuke the whales, save the Earth, nuke the Earth, save the children, nuke the children, pro-abortion, anti-abortion and even the “Anarchists” who are really just kids, but the media seems to love them so they get far more credit than they really deserve.
There were massive marches, but mostly in terrible midday light, and with too many other photographers for my taste. I headed off to the fringes of the chaos and tried to find pictures more to my liking. At one point, out of boredom, I ended up following a gaggle of Anarchists, who also seemed bored. This crew, dressed in all black, with faces covered by bandannas of assorted colors, perhaps to quell any gang allegiance, headed out into the city. I had noticed that some of the Anarchists had parked near where I did, and that they were driving VW cars assembled in factories in Mexico, and I wondered how that could fit with their creed. I also noticed they stopped at the crosswalk when the blinking hand flashed red. But I gave them the benefit of the doubt, hoping to make a photo and followed them with mild interest.
The crew shouted and marched around downtown, but again, the light was harsh, shadowy, and I didn’t find anything interesting to shoot.
Suddenly, with a screech of tires and the sound of a bullhorn, a tactical vehicle came swerving at us from the middle of the street. Standing on platforms running the length of the vehicle were police officers in riot gear who jumped from the vehicle and raced toward us. My first thought was to turn and see who they were chasing, but I quickly realized it was us they were coming for. Another photographer and I were the first to “greet” them but with the greeting came a swinging baton. I quickly began backpedaling(I’m a total wuss) as I tried to untangle the credential around my neck which had become really tangled with my camera strap. The other photographer was ducking and weaving like Larry Holmes and yelling, “We are photographers!!!” The police formed a line and began backing us up against the Anarchists who were backed against the front of a bank building.
“Get on the other side of us,” the police yelled, and very slowly, with hands raised, the other photographer and I moved to the other side then turned and began photographing as the police moved in and began arresting the Anarchists.
At first I thought, “Wow, these dudes must have done something pretty bad to be getting locked up.” A bus with steel over the windows pulled up and the loading of the boys in black began. I made a few pictures, but mostly I watched and listened as a police spokesperson, or someone who appeared to be doing those duties showed up and gave information to the media. It was explained that the Anarchist group had had a busy morning, breaking into stores, vandalizing buildings, etc, The other photographer and I looked at each other and began to realize something was amiss.
Maybe some other group of kids in black had done those things, but not this group. But regardless, they were being taken away, and from what I had heard, could be kept for three days without charging them, which was the same amount of time left for the convention.
Reporter after reporter began showing up and broadcasting live, broadcasting the EXACT information, or misinformation they had been given by the police. In the race to get out the news, to be the first to air, the idea of researching the facts were trampled in a cloud of satellite truck exhaust.
I felt lucky to have avoided the baton and moved on.


Protestors are sprayed with water in the designated protest area in downtown Los Angeles during the 2000 Democratic National Convention.

Over the next few days I returned to the area, searching for the unknown, the important or the unexpected. An area had been created, a designated protest area, close to the main building where the convention being held, the idea being those wanting their voice to be heard could assemble and voice their opinion within earshot of the power players inside the building. But it didn’t work that way. The protest area was basically a cage with three walls, surrounded by high chain link fence and concrete barriers. And between the high fence and the convention building were rows of police in riot gear. There was no way anyone could hear your message no matter how loud your voice.


Police officer buying a snack during the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.

I moved in and out of the protest area, but never felt comfortable there, and in fact felt truly boxed in, like if something bad went down, there was no way out. Again, I think this was by design and to keep the protest crowds to a minimum. I had seen this before, in Houston in 1992, and had had my first experience with police batons, violence and being nearly trampled by police on horseback as they invaded the crowd wildly swinging and clubbing. It was exciting, but I had also, at one point, found myself running for my life through an empty field, trying to get away from the mayhem. I didn’t figure it would be as easy to get out of downtown LA, and the protest area was also drawing huge numbers of photographers, so I moved on.


Marchers scrambling to get a view of the protests during the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.

I would shoot all day, head home, process my film, begin the edit, make scans, etc, and then watch the news to see what I had missed. At one point the protest area boiled over and the police had moved in with significant force, perhaps more than what was required. The LAPD had a reputation and there were many who were not happy with how things were going down.
I felt like I was slowly making a body of work, perhaps one that had no home in the photography industry, but one that I could look back on, years down the road, and feel good about.
The convention went through the ebb and flow that always occurs. The right speeches were made, the right people did their things, decision were made, promises were made and the country was sucked in.


A masked protester takes to the street during the 2000 Democratic National Convention in downtown Los Angeles.

As the convention neared the end I made one last trip down. I felt like I was walking a well worn path I’d followed many times before, but waiting for the unexpected was enough to keep me going. There were minor skirmishes here and there, and the police were seemingly testing out new tactics on the civilian population. There were places where you could NOT be on the sidewalk, and the way you found out was a verbal warning and swinging baton. And then there were OTHER places where you HAD to be on the sidewalk, and if you weren’t you were greeted by a verbal warning and swinging baton. I found myself shooting with one eye forward and the other scanning my backside.
At one point I watched as a businessman, holding a briefcase in one hand and his cell phone pressed to his ear in the other, walked across a main downtown street and make the mistake of walking up on the curb in an attempt to enter a building where he worked and was greeted by a group of swinging batons. The man quickly jumped back yelling that he worked in the building. He was so angry he could barely speak. He was incredulous. He shook with anger. The police who clubbed him laughed, prompting another officer from another division of law enforcement to say, “That’s real mature.”


LAPD officers massing under the portraits of Cesar Chavez and Robert Kennedy minutes before total chaos in the designated protest area during the 2000 Democratic National Convention in downtown Los Angeles.

The streets began to take on a sour feel. I photographed anti-abortion and pro-life people screaming at each other, faces inches apart, hate filling the air. I photographed capitalist vendors selling anything and everything they could, trampling copyright and trademarks in the process. I photographed people who lived in low income areas of downtown just trying to get on with their lives. And I photographed the police and their overwhelming presence.
Maybe I stayed too long.
I entered the protest area one final time and that was clearly a mistake.
Something happened. I don’t know what, but it did, and I looked up to see a wall of LAPD coming in with guns up. I heard someone scream. I think these were the rubber bullet guns or salt pellets or whatever they are, but when you’re staring down the wrong end, it sucks regardless. Now a real photographer would have begun shooting, but me, I ducked behind the barrier and hauled ass, or tried to. Mayhem, people screaming, the air filled with debris, water spraying into the crowd. I heard a guy behind me got shot in the head.
I don’t think I shot a single worthwhile frame. I saw OTHER people that had great work. A kid jumping from the fence, frozen in mid air, a black figure with the blazing sun behind him. Moments with debris frozen in the air. Police pointing guns. Arrests being made.
I just remember feeling like we had all let each other down.
I think this is perhaps why I don’t cover this stuff any longer. I don’t get excited by it. I get depressed.
And this is precisely how I felt when I heard screams, saw people in pain and knew the system was broken.


The view from the designated protest area toward the Staples Center where the convention was being held.

I fired up the bike, had a quick dinner with another photographer, then turned towards home.

I plopped on the couch, turned on the TV and watched the final coverage. At one point one of the local anchors interviewed the chief of police who said all the disturbances were caused by the protesters and that his officers were just trying to maintain the peace. I rubbed my head and laughed, then got my changing bag and started rolling film.

AUTHOR’S NOTE:
Being a police officer is NOT an easy job. And being a police officer in Los Angeles is REALLY not an easy job. I think these folks are underpaid, probably undertrained, and are living, perhaps unfairly, under the veil of a long-standing reputation of the department, a reputation of violence. They are routinely in dangerous places and are quick to take the blame in many situations where they are not the ones at fault. With having said that, I saw many things during this convention that I found hard to understand, and I thought that there was far too much force applied, and applied in a random manor that didn’t seem to be of any benefit to anyone. In the years since this event we have seen other evidence of this tendency to apply excessive force. But this not my point with all this. What I found most interesting was the response to this force by those who were NOT in attendance, those who never witnessed this type event. In short, they just didn’t believe it. Most people I told this story to would reply with a distant, “Oh ya, really, wow, that’s incredible,” as they quickly changed the subject. Perhaps people don’t want to believe that this stuff goes down, but it does and it’s not always in the downtown areas. Due to my past as a newspaper photographer, documentary photographer, I’ve been around a lot of great law enforcement people. But I’ve also had some extremely questionable treatment from a range of authority figures. It happens folks. I think the more we acknowledge it, the more we can learn from it, and the better we will be at avoiding it.