All right, y'all," yelled a voluble young coordinator from the podium, "we gonna be disciplined and organized, so we can send our message!"
Alas, it would not be that easy for the hundred or so protestors gathered at L.A.'s Pershing Square that day. The free-Mumia crowd, along with the anti-prison-industrial-complex protestors, spent most of its time screaming at the several dozen police in riot gear who lined the march route. But the Nader folks didn't have much enthusiasm for accusing the LAPD of "daily genocide," while the socialist organizers seemed primarily interested in "building a workers-student alliance"--which, in turn, didn't seem to be a priority of the libertarians. The pig-suited PETA protestors wanted to tax meat-eating. Two teenagers with Leonard Nimoy haircuts and red Star Trek uniforms had come, they said, "to Vulcanize the revolution." The black-clad anarchists seemed happiest burning American flags, though--let's be clear--they, too, had issues with the fascist police state. A half-dozen publicity gofers were trying to drum up enthusiasm for a screening of Steal This Movie, the upcoming Abbie Hoffman biopic. And then there were the clowns. "We are here for a picnic," one of them solemnly informed me. "And it has been a very poor picnic. No pies. No cake."
All in all, the protests would seem to embody the caricature first promulgated during the Battle of Seattle last December, reified the following spring in Washington, D.C., and reborn during the Republican convention in Philadelphia: that the burgeoning protest movement is silly, comically self-contradictory, and fundamentally unserious. But there's one major difference. In Seattle, D.C., and Philadelphia, the caricature was just that--a distortion. But in Los Angeles, it was accurate.
To understand why--and to understand why the change is significant--you have to understand how thoroughly the political complexion of the "protestors" has changed since Seattle. The groups primarily responsible for launching the Seattle protests were not the few dozen anarchists who broke windows at Starbucks. Rather, these protests were carefully planned over a period of months and executed by a robust, serious, well-organized coalition of unions, antisweatshop organizations, direct action outfits, and environmentalists. And this coalition--derided by New York Times globalization cheerleader Thomas Friedman as "a Noah's ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions, and yuppies looking for their 1960s fix"--offered a surprisingly coherent message to anyone who was bothering to listen: that economic growth should not always come ahead of workers' rights and environmental protection, and that citizens deserve a place among the decision makers of the global economy. That's why even Bill Clinton felt pressed to respond, backpedaling midway through the talks to warn delegates, "If the WTO expects to have public support grow for our endeavors, the public must see and hear and, in a very real sense, actually join in the deliberations."
The protests in Washington, D.C., were similar. As in Seattle, the protests had a target, or rather two: the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). As in Seattle, a vanguard of established organizations--primarily corporate watchdogs like Public Citizen, but also mainline environmental groups and liberal economic think tanks--provided both message discipline and operational support. And whereas in Seattle elite opinion was almost universally against the protests, the D.C. demonstrators could count on two sources of affirmation. The first was the growing chorus of economists, most notably former World Bank economist Joseph Stiglitz, who were criticizing the IMF on precisely the same grounds: arrogance, unaccountability, and poor performance. The second was Congress, where liberal Democrats (and some Republicans) were gearing up for the China/WTO fight coming up a few weeks later.
All this had begun to change when the Republicans met in Philadelphia. The message, for one thing, was no longer strictly about free trade or even globalization. The Seattle coalition was superseded by groups like R2K and the Ruckus Society. The union presence was minimal, except for the Teamsters' Jimmy Hoffa, who yucked it up with Dick Armey and RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson inside the Republican convention. And the most interesting alternatives to the platitudes on display in Philadelphia were to be found at Arianna Huffington's Shadow Conventions, where (to take one example) John McCain gave the campaign finance speech he wasn't allowed to give to his Republican brethren.
Which brings us to Los Angeles. There was plenty of raucous protest there, and per the script, the TV crews spent most of their time staking out the "protest zoo," a three-sided cul-de-sac a few hundred feet from the Staples Center. Naturally, they saw what they came for: anarchists, dreadlocked kids in bandannas, near-riots, and scuffles with overzealous police. But for the most part, that was pretty much all there was to see.
Cries for "fair trade"--a nuanced, serious proposition in Seattle--were replaced with mindless, anticorporate sloganeering. Rallies to build environmental protections into trade agreements were replaced with rallies attacking Al Gore for owning stock in Occidental Petroleum (which, FYI, is forcing the U'wa tribe off its oil-rich ancestral land in Colombia). When unions--invariably L.A. locals--did demonstrate, it was usually in parallel to the poetry slams, Mumia rallies, anti-water-floridation teach-ins, and other sideshows that constituted the bulk of the "protests." On Sunday evening, a Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees local demonstrated outside Santa Monica's Loews Hotel (owned by Jonathan Tisch, a major Democratic donor and, as it happens, deep-pocketed union opponent). Meanwhile, over at the Santa Monica Pier, the other protestors read poetry, listened to two bands, and harassed convention delegates on their way to a party.
The point is not that such causes are too radical or too naïve. It's just that the protestors who marched out of Pershing Square that day were dilettantes, people for whom protest is a lifestyle, not a politics. To put it another way, they were the activist equivalent of Phish fans: itinerant, stoned, and deeply immersed in a very small, very peculiar subculture.
So where did all the liberals go? "Only at the Democratic convention," mused one attendee, "can you be both a delegate and a protestor." This was sometimes literally true--some demonstrators had convention passes fluttering from their necks, though more often they were just sympathetic demonstration-watchers. More importantly, the statement was philosophically true. When Service Employees International Union members protested with L.A. county employees on Tuesday, they carried Gore signs. Three congressman, one senator, and a half-dozen left-leaning Democratic delegates showed up at the L.A. Shadow Conventions to denounce the current campaign system. But when they were done, they headed back to the Staples Center to watch Joe Lieberman do his best to sound like William Jennings Bryan. And when Jesse Jackson, Paul Wellstone, and union chief John Sweeney gathered at the downtown Hyatt for a panel entitled "The Progressive Call," they spent as much time making the case for Gore as they did articulating a left-of-Gore agenda. "The differences are different," insisted Jackson. "There have been many times," argued Sweeney, "when Bill Clinton has been our only line of defense."
This was not, of course, the most effusive possible endorsement of the Gore-Lieberman ticket. But it was revealing that Jackson gave much the same speech to the full convention on Tuesday as he did to the panel on Monday, and that John Sweeney could be found both at the Loews protest on Monday and on the speaker's podium on Tuesday. Real protest, after all, requires a real politics--and in real politics, convention time is necessarily a watershed for true believers, liberal or conservative. Getting behind Gore may not be the left's first choice. But it beats marching with clowns. ¤