The Drum Circle and the Criminalization of Free Speech

By Ronald Keith McKinley

The Drum Circle has been under siege since its inception twenty-five years ago. A loud vocal minority has always found it offensive.

Randy Banks, ex-marine and capoeira instructor, started this drum circle in response to suppression of drumming on Ocean Front Walk. Randy took us to the hill just east of the spot of the sand gathering. With just two drummers, me, Deon (whose last name I don’t remember) and Randy on agogo bell, the drum circle was created. Some people complained of the noise. This was hand-drumming only. Snares and floor toms, drums played with sticks were not allowed. We enforced this.

Rasta Randy’s idea was to have church on the beach: a church with drummers, a place where people could commune with nature. He did not allow alcohol. There was a time when there was no drinking in the drum circle. We simply stopped playing when someone brought alcohol into our church. This only works if everyone stops playing. When our church grew, so did the unenlightened drummers. Still no matter what you have heard, the majority of people don’t drink; the majority of people don’t use drugs; a sizeable amount doesn’t smoke.

Free speech means you will hear things you don’t want hear. It’s free speech. If it offends you move on. Don’t move to Venice. If you moved to Venice now for the vibe, free speech is part and parcel.

The weekend of March 15-16 the America Ninja Warrior tryouts dominated the beach. The lights stayed on all night. Powerful spot lights kept it daytime. In my apartment on Horizon there was constant light pollution.

The competitors were allowed to set up tents and sleep on the beach, some of the unhoused did the same.

There was police everywhere, making their presence known, criminalizing with a look. Folks on the receiving end of this know what I mean.

After the American Ninja Warrior tryouts people migrated to the drum circle, the only free place for people to gather.

The police have been trying to shut down the drum circle after sunset. This is done with force, after all this is a police force. This has been happening only recent, in the last 3-4 years. It works sometimes.

I have played there for all of the twenty-five it’s been alive. It is a living thing that changes like all living things. And like all living things, it will fight for its life.

The police came on like an occupying army, all bluster and contempt.

A group of four hundred young people were pressed together dancing. I mean dancing!! It was beautiful. No fighting: black, brown, yellow, white dancing. I can still see them – our future. The police said: “You have to stop.” The dancers ignored them. You don’t ignore the LAPD; they reacted, calling in more police, in riot gear. A helicopter arrived just before a scrimmage line was formed in the sand.

When people on the boardwalk saw all this they rushed to the drum circle, making it larger – the police had officially made it worse. I left after the “fuck the police” chant started.

I sat in a nearby pagoda, getting as much sand as possible out of my shoes and drum bag. I watched in awe the lack of good judgment the police displayed.

The American Ninja Warrior tryouts show who is allowed on the beach after sunset; of course there are no drugs or alcohol, or smoking – really?

Security and freedom don’t balance – as one increases, the other one decreases. People who say they are concerned about your safety will take away your freedom, and then you will have neither.

The weekend of March 22-23 there were no flare-ups, no “fuck the police,” no American Ninja Warrior tryouts. I can sleep. No light pollution, no loud amplified voice naming contestants. The unhoused no longer hide among the contestants and sleep on Ocean Front Walk, because of the illegal curfew; they didn’t keep me awake with spotlights on motorized lifts.

The police were still out in force, they stood around wasting limited resources on maintaining control. Pushed aside was the issue of safety, making the beach safe for corporate free speech, exploiting and suppressing the Venice vibe.

The drum is the second musical instrument – the human voice is the first. If they take away the second, how will the first fair. Use your first instrument, or you will have neither first nor second.

Drum Circle -  drawing by Audrey McNamara

Above: Artwork by Audrey McNamara

Below: Cops and Alex Thompson, convicted felon and wanna be cop settled for cop cheerleader

Drum Circle, March 22. Photo by David Busch

Drum Circle - Alex Thompson and police

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