'Woman, life, freedom': L.A. protest over Iran draws thousands

Iranian protests in Pershing Square in downtown L.A. housands of demonstrators turned out in downtown Los Angeles on Saturday to protest the death of the of Mahsa Amini, whose death in police custody in Iran triggered worldwide protests.
Thousands of Iranian Americans turn out in downtown Los Angeles on Saturday to protest the death of Mahsa Amini. (Laura J. Nelson / Los Angeles Times)

Thousands of Iranian Americans marched through the streets of downtown Los Angeles on Saturday in solidarity with the protests that have rocked Iran since the death of a young woman in police custody three weeks ago.

At Pershing Square on Saturday morning, protest leaders with megaphones led chants of "zan, zendegi, azadi," or "woman, life, freedom," the rallying cry of the demonstrations that began in Iran and have spread to cities across the world.

The protests that followed the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in detention after being arrested by the country's morality police for not wearing her hijab correctly, have become Iran's biggest anti-government demonstrations in years.

"If they can be in the streets in Iran, we can be in the streets here — it's the least we can do," said Leila Amadi, 22, of West Los Angeles, who carried a sign that read, "Be her voice." In a nod to the tricolor Iranian flag, Amadi wore a white top, green shorts and bright red lipstick.

Maz Jobrani, the Iranian American comedian and actor, livestreamed part of the demonstration on Instagram, chanting along with the crowd, "Say her name: Mahsa Amini."

"Everyone in America should know about this," Jobrani said. "This is a fight for freedom across the world. It's for democracy. It's to get away from authoritarianism. The people in Iran are fighting for democracy."

Southern California has the largest number of Iranian residents outside Iran. Protests were also planned in Orange County and San Diego, and more than a dozen other U.S. cities, including Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Miami, Denver and Washington D.C.

Iranian protests in Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles.
Thousands of Iranian Americans march in downtown Los Angeles on Saturday in solidarity with protests in Iran. (Laura J. Nelson / Los Angeles Times)

As the crowd inched up Hill Street and across 1st Street toward City Hall, flanked by drummers and motorcyclists, people chanted, "Democracy for Iran, regime change for Iran!"

Many demonstrators wore masks, sunglasses and hats to avoid being identified in photos and drone footage. Others declined to give their full names, saying they were afraid to endanger loved ones who lived in Iran.

"This is not the first time we've had to protest like this, and unfortunately, it won't be the last," said Fereshteh, a Los Angeles resident in her 40s who asked to only use her first name for fear that the government would arrest her when she returned to Iran to visit her parents.

She held a sign that read, "How many protesters has the Iranian government killed today?" with red handprints in the background. The reverse side of the sign showed photos of 20 people who have been killed during the demonstrations.

Amnesty International has said that a crackdown on demonstrations by Iran's clerical government has led to the deaths of at least 52 people since Sept. 17.

"We want world leaders to do something," she said. "We need help. Iran needs help. We can't do this without the help of other governments, especially the United States."

Visible in the crowd were dozens of pre-revolutionary Iranian flags, which feature a lion and sun at the center instead of the stylized red symbol of the Islamic Republic. Flown during the government of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and banned after the 1979 revolution, the flag is frequently seen at anti-government protests.

A woman named Shohleh, who left Iran 44 years ago, wrapped the flag around her shoulders as she marched toward City Hall. She said she felt compelled to attend the protests to support the struggle of Iranian women, but worried that social media posts and protests would not be enough.

"I hope things will change," she said. "But in my head and in my heart, I'm afraid they won't."

The march ended at Los Angeles City Hall, where the Iranian singer Googoosh addressed the crowd.

Other protesters gathered around a black pickup loaded with portable speakers that blasted "Baraye," the ballad by Iranian singer Shervin Hajipour that has become the anthem of the protests.

The crowd sang along with the song's final lyrics: "For women, life, freedom; for freedom, for freedom."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.