If the protesters at the Republican Convention in Philadelphia were characterized by their flesh-pierced scragglyness, the ones at the Democratic Convention are glossed with Los Angeles glam. And Hollywood special effects. Plus a few stars. When I arrive at Pershing Square -- the designated safe protest spot -- the setting is chic. Skyscrapers shoot into the cloudless sky, ringing the colorful modern-art dotted park.
There's a rehearsal going on. One protester-slash-choreographer is directing: "We have to show them. This is what democracy looks like," and then each performer is to flash the audience a sign. The morning's scheduled protest is for the U'wa people of Colombia. Occidental Petroleum has an oil-drilling project on its native lands -- and Al Gore has close ties to Occidental. All the show's extras are decked out in matching anti-Gore, pro-U'wa shirts. The puppets and props are sensational -- a giant monster with two heads (one Bush and one Gore), a musclebound police officer puppet whose puppet-club brandishes over my head as I try to interview the person inside, and an enormous Ralph Nader that boogeys to the rally's music.
When the rally begins, a string of hip advocates each take their three minutes. Terri Swearingen could be trying out for the role of the next Erin Brockovich. This striking activist gets up -- her makeup and hair perfect even in the broiling heat -- to ream Al Gore for his failure to keep a promise to shut down a toxic waste incinerator next to an elementary school in Liverpool, Ohio.
John Sellers, the director of the Ruckus Society, has come almost straight from a Philadelphia jail to protest in Los Angeles. (When he was first arrested, Sellers' bail was set at $1 million. Just in time for LA, it was reduced to $100,000.) With his buzz cut and Ray Bans, he looks far more like a Malibu surfer dude than the dread-locked protesters in Philadelphia. Sellers tells me that he won't let his six days in jail scare him away from coming to the protests in Los Angeles. He won't be participating in any of the civil disobedience that his organization teaches either; he's on probation from the protests in Seattle and bail from Philadelphia.
California State Senator Tom Hayden -- sporting a goatee and a green button-down -- also takes the mike. But when I try to interview him afterwards, he's belligerent and uninspiring. The uber-protester doesn't want to compare today's marches to the anti-Vietnam War rallies he honchoed as a founder of Students for a Democratic Society. And though he is now a Democrat who has endorsed Al Gore, he won't give me one reason why any of the protesters who are voting for Ralph Nader -- or have given up on government altogether -- should change their minds. Then he cuts the interview short, blurting, "I attract people. There's a drunken lunatic following me. I have to keep moving."
The U'wa protest marches to the Staples Center, where the convention will be held tonight. Amidst the U'wa/Labor/Nader throngs trots an 11-year-old with a scribbled purple, red, and black "Rage Rules" sign. I ask what he's protesting, and he says nothing; he's here to see Rage Against the Machine. It's 12:30, and Rage isn't supposed to rage until 8pm. In the meantime, Bonnie Raitt performs (despite the dearth of "Raitt Rules" regalia).
It isn't until the way back to Pershing Square that the marchers have a run-in with some other well-known Angelenos: the LAPD. If the scene weren't so sinister, I'd think they looked just like police action figures. They have their riot helmets on, billy clubs, gas masks, and dozens of silver canisters strapped to their chests. A few carry what look like green plastic rifles. The only problem is that their appearance ratchets up the tension far more than would cops not menacing enough for Mattel.
A few protesters sit down in the street, and the police immediately seal them off. Vinegar must be the smell of fear, because suddenly the air is fragrant from the vinegar-soaked bandanas that serve as makeshift gas masks. One preppy Chicago Tribune reporter makes a nervous cell phone call with a giant gas mask strapped to his head. Quick movements nearly start stampedes.
A guy dressed in a pink furry pig suit carries a sign that says, "Go Vegetarian. Nobody gets hurt." But as a police officer announces over his megaphone, "You may be arrested or be subject to other police action," I start to think maybe vegetarianism won't be enough to protect us.
This time at least, neither side pushes too far. So I go into the convention thinking that today's events may live up to John Sellers' promise that this is not a protest; these people are trying to build a new society, not tear anything down.
Inside, it seems convention-goers could take a few lessons from the Pershing People. No one seems to be paying attention, for example. Even when Washington Governor Gary Locke tries to lead the crowd in "Who do we want for president of the United States," only a few bother to respond. The energy level is so low that I'm also wondering if someone has told the speakers that they mustn't out-charisma the nominee for president. In addition to two snores by Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and California Governor Gray Davis, several of the speakers conduct little Oprah-wannabe "American Dialogues," in which they interview "real Americans" about all the great things Democratic government has done for them. For example, when a disabled man explains how great it is that he can work and keep his Medicare, Locke empathizes, "David, you're working now, aren'tcha?"
Tonight is also girls' night out, so the Democrats show off a string of women politicians. Though the crowd seems genuinely enthused by some of the issues discussed (gun control, abortion rights, family medical leave) I'm peeved that like the Republicans, the Democrats have ghettoized their not-white-males.
If I thought everyone was sparkle-deferring to Gore, I was wrong. Hillary and Bill Clinton give their speeches. Both are smooth and larger than life. (As President Clinton enters the arena, the planners have created a little Saturday Night Live effect, filming him as he walks down a long hall, with his accomplishments -- lowest crime rate, strong economy, most diverse cabinet -- flashing on the screen.)
The convention runs late, which turns out to be a blessing for the delegates. As I exit the arena, someone says I can't turn right because, "they're rioting."
As Bill Clinton gave his address, protesters and concertgoers (at least 10,000 by police estimates) got out of control at the Rage Against the Machine performance right outside the arena. As the police tell it, "anarchists" began throwing rocks at the Staples Center, some of them actually bouncing off the glass. Some protesters started fires, and others began to scale the fence. The police gave warnings for the crowd to disperse, and when they didn't, they used pepper spray, plastic pellets, and "foam baton rounds" to force them to.
The concert area is covered in trash, and hundreds of police officers are still rushing around in formation. But the protesters seem to be gone. When I get outside of the complex, however, I meet a few who are showing off their injuries to reporters and yelling to get the delegates' attention. As the protesters tell it, they were trying to exit, when police came after them, shooting foam bullets at close range and beating them with billy clubs. Jeff Fountain brandishes a bloody elbow and back, charging that the police shot him eight times with foam bullets while he was fleeing.
At that moment, who should appear but Tom Hayden -- a veteran of many police conflicts. When I ask him what he thinks of the standoff, he barks, "This is not a time for reporters." I disagree. But as the dirty Ragers wander off and the delegates disperse to their after-parties, I decide that it is time for this reporter to call it a night.
The protests in Los Angeles reflect the city. They are disorganized, anonymous, sprawling, and not connected by public transportation. So I spend the morning trying to be everywhere at once -- frantically hailing cabs between the "Value Women's Work, Value Women's Lives: March Against No Pay, Low Pay and Overwork" rally at Pershing Square, the Ministers Against Global Injustice (MAGI) Public Education Summit at the Second Baptist Church, and the Bus Riders Union Anti-Racist Rally at MacArthur Park.
The bus riders are protesting the dearth of buses in the low-income areas of Los Angeles. Their bright yellow shirts and signs -- combined with the cheers accompanied by a musical beat -- make the march a boisterous one. One tiny old woman is dressed head-to-toe in yellow, with giant rhinestones adorning her "Billions for Buses" shirt. People join the march from off the street, and dozens of construction workers come out on the scaffolding to cheer the marchers on.
I try to restrain myself from joining in: "A thousand new buses -- so we can get to work and classes! Mass transportation -- belongs to the masses!" But in a city where public transportation is a traffic jam of SUVs, I can't help but be hooked on the bus crowd's cause. Martin Luther King, Jr. protested that African Americans had to ride at the back of the bus; many minorities in Los Angeles don't have a bus -- front or back. Quality public transportation is good for the environment, and it helps low-income people get to the jobs created by the booming economy.
The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) already has buses -- 60 of them filled with protesters from all over the county, according to their organizers. The next protest is made up of LA County employees who will soon vote whether to go on strike. I'm impressed with their organization. Leaders keep megaphoning for the protesters to grab a sign, a bottle of water, a little container of suntan lotion, and -- much to my chagrin -- a whistle. By now, I've sweated myself to dehydration, and have a raging headache. So the whistles, bright lime green and purple signs, and blaring Aretha ("R-E-S-P-E-C-T") are agonizing. Adding to my throbbing noggin are the three skinny girls in short shorts handing out fliers for the very un-Aretha Spearmint Rhino Gentlemen's Club, "featuring exotic female entertainment."
This protest is the first I've seen that isn't intended to be a headache for Al Gore, however. In Philadelphia, all the protesters agreed that the Republicans were lowlifes. But they also agreed that they couldn't do anything about it. So the protests barely addressed the party holding its convention the week of their protests.
Not so, here in Los Angeles. Many protests -- such as the U'wa rally yesterday -- attack Gore directly. But they also make demands on him. Though the chance is remote, they say, they hope that they will be able to persuade him to rally to their side. (Meanwhile, they sport green Nader stickers.) One activist admits that if the LA protests have seemed disorganized (they have), it's because the diverse groups planning the protests bickered over how much to stick it to the Democrats.
The Bus Riders Union chanted, "Hey Gore. Take a side. Racism or civil rights!" They want the federal government to withhold funds for LA transportation until the city has purchased more buses. But the SEIU is solidly behind Gore; its members agree with the union's endorsement of him. Members even carry signs saying, "Gore. Fighting for Working Families."
The hard-core "Save the Iraqi Children" anti-sanctions activists, who show up next at the Staples Center, are equally unanimous in their conviction that Bill Clinton and Al Gore are genocidal maniacs, however. And they're even louder than the SEIU. With their speakers turned up to an ear-drum-ripping volume, their speeches go on for more than two hours. And each speaker reiterates that the sanctions against Iraq have killed a million children. Only one makes the wild claim that "the idea that Iraq threatens any country in the world is a complete joke," however.
To save my hearing, I flee to Pershing Square, where the few dozen straggling protesters are completely flummoxed. Dozens of people have been arrested during the day, some at an animal rights protest, some at a "critical mass" bike ride, and some who are members of the Black Bloc, the black-clad anarchist crowd. The police have taken some protesters to a nearby jail -- though no one seems to know how many, or why. So the activists are making a plan to go visit them.
"If we march, we will definitely, definitely, definitely, be risking arrest," says one woman in black boots and army fatigue shorts. "Come sit in a circle so we can dialogue." One guy, who is smoking a joint, keeps heckling and giggling. He's the only one who doesn't seem scared of the LAPD (who proved last night that they're not afraid of using force). Arguing that even walking down the sidewalk might be too dangerous if they cheer, someone suggests a silent walk. Someone else argues they should all go to the jail separately. Then they can go and ask to visit their jailed comrades. Except that they can't use detainees' names because, they're "using jail solidarity"; the arrestees may not have given their real names.
Tomorrow is the march against police brutality. It remains to be seen whether protesters will be enraged or emboldened by the police response so far.
Tom Hayden and I are in a fight. When I enter MacArthur Park for the rally to protest corruption and brutality in the Rampart Division of the LAPD, he and Arianna Huffington are discussing how violent those naughty policemen were in breaking up the Rage Against the Machine concert Monday night. But when I approach him, he's complaining to a friend, "Everywhere I go, it's reporters." Hayden, in a "Jobs not Jails. Homeboy Industries" T shirt, tries to interview-dodge, despite my softball question. I tell him that reporters will always interview people who choose to be politicians (not to mention leading anti-war movements and marrying Jane Fonda), to which he grouches, "I don't want publicity that bad." Hayden huffs off and does a TV interview before his speech.
Homeboy is the state senator from the district in which I grew up -- not to mention an alum of my alma mater and the college paper for which I wrote. I'd like to like him. But now it's official. I'm the anti-Hayden-biased media.
Press temptress Arianna Huffington is much nicer. I still can't get used to her transformation from ice-queen wife of an arch-conservative Senate candidate to outraged liberal. She says she's here to express her support for the march. Huffington further castigates the police for taking three hours to respond to a bomb threat near the Shadow Convention she organized -- and for temporarily closing down the convention once they showed up late.
The plan is to march from MacArthur Park to the Rampart Division. Organizers are calling this the most dangerous protest of the week. When we arrive at Rampart, a giant blue sign hangs above the station proclaiming, "The Community Loves The Men & Women of Rampart Station." Perhaps it is the lack of truth to the sign that puts the police on debutante behavior.
The "direct action" and ensuing arrests are like an under-water tennis match. While other arrests involve a flurry of action and a tinge of fear, this one is in slo-mo. After a few speeches, an organizer says, "Those willing to risk arrest, please come forward." Anyone who is not should clear the way. The willing-riskers have tied white rags over their mouths, and they form a circle holding hands. They proceed slowly towards the entrance to the Rampart Division. . . The police on the stairs observe. . . One officer announces that the protesters will be arrested if they do not leave. . . Approximately 30 riskers stay kneeling with their heads bowed. Someone is quietly beating a drum. It takes about an hour for the police to arrest everyone, cautiously, one by one. One reporter cracks that he expects the police to bring us ice cream. When the arrests are over, the remaining protesters form a circle and sing a song; then they proceed to the anti-police brutality rally at Pershing Square.
The rally rubs me wrong. It's scheduled as a march from the Square to the Police Station to Staples Center. Protesters certainly have a point -- some members of the LAPD are brutal. But their way of responding is the cheer, "Whose f--kin' streets? Our f--kin' streets! Whose f--kin' world? Our f--kin' world!" One speaker at the police station screams, "Instead of running from the police, we need to f--kin' chase their asses." And a guy brandishes a sign that says, "More Police Executions." This rally -- and to some extent many of the others of the week -- is edgy and tense. Rallies work best when people are having righteous fun.
The march to Staples Center is no fun at all. A thin line of police hustle down the right side of the street that is filled with protesters. Periodically, people turn on them and start yelling. Each time, the tension breaks within moments of an ugly outbreak.
When we get to Staples, some protesters enter the parking lot and others remain in the street. The police seal the lot, splitting the protesters. Though there is no plan for what will happen inside, marchers take this as an attempt to divide and conquer. They hold intense negotiations with the police, demanding that the rest of the protesters be let in.
At one point, someone tries to climb over the cement barrier between the lot and the street, and the police lash out. I hear shots -- of either the rubber bullets or beanbags the police have used -- and we all start running. It's frightening, but the shots stop quickly.
Then we wait some more. I meet a KCBS cameraman named Don Menzel, who is a gory sight. He had been standing at the front a few minutes ago when the police ordered everyone back. He didn't get back fast enough, so an officer rammed him in the chest with his nightstick. Menzel has napkins stuffed between his buttons to catch it, but the blood runs down his shirt from neck to navel.
After an hour, the police allow the protesters to reunite -- something the activists consider a victory over the pigs. But once their demands are met, no one knows what to do. So they begin to straggle towards MacArthur Park. My feet are killing me; I come to the wise conclusion that if I've been out since 9am, and they've been out since 9am, then they -- like me -- are too tired to do anything newsworthy. On the way home, I hear my first bit of optimism all day -- Joe Lieberman's convention speech on the radio. He cheers, Isn't America great?
By day four, the bumper sticker slogan, "Practice Random Acts of Violence and Senseless Cruelty" could pretty much sum up most of the protesters' impressions of LAPD philosophy. The force's ubiquitous riot gear is menacing. And considering the fact that police seem to have doled out their rubber-bullet-shooting and nightstick clubbing to rowdy protesters, ACLU lawyers, and reporters alike, people are pretty scared. In the short term, it seems the police may be getting what they want.
When I arrive at Pershing Square Thursday morning, the crowd is small, but spirited. Organizers have planned a mock award ceremony to grant Citigroup the First Place Democracy Buyout award. Charging Citibank with ruining the environment, exploiting workers, supporting genetic engineering, and making money off of prisons and inner cities, the protesters march to the Citigroup Building. There, I've heard, people plan to "lock down" -- lock themselves together in front of Citibank and get arrested. But they decide not to.
Instead, activists from Billionaires for Bush (or Gore) conduct another awards ceremony, congratulating Citigroup for its ability to bribe politicians with campaign contributions. Then a few of them representing the Republicans, Democrats, and special interests, put on a skit showing all of them in bed together. The "billionaires" have been having a blast all week, dressing in top hats and ball gowns, with fake money dripping from their pockets. When I try to interview them, they say things like, "We don't care who wins the election -- we've already bought Bush and Gore," and solemnly give me names like "Mike Rosoft." They scream riffs on the standard cheers, such as:
"Big money, united, will never be defeated!"
"This is what plutocracy looks like!" and,
"Whose banks? Our banks! Whose yachts? Our yachts!"
When I ask some of the activists why they didn't do CD (that's the in-the-know way to refer to "civil disobedience," a.k.a. getting yourself tossed in jail), they say they decided it wasn't worth it.
An organizer of the anti-sweatshop/immigrants' rights rally later in the day also attributes a smaller crowd than expected to fear of the police. The march starts in the garment district and proceeds to the Staples Center. On the way, people lean out of their tall apartment buildings to cheer the march on, waving Mexican flags or pieces of clothing.
The marches, cheers, and signs have all begun to run together. But Jose Vera, a middle-aged man with floppy gray and black hair and a No on Proposition 187 T-shirt, helps distinguish this one. He tells me that after emigrating from Mexico City, he worked in a sweatshop. There, the hours were long, the breaks were short, and workers were paid minimum wage. The work "speed-ups" made the job stressful and dangerous (he worked in the fabric-cutting room, where lifting heavy reams of cloth hurt your back). Unlike many of his colleagues, however, he left the factory and went to law school.
Leaving the march and waiting in the first of two lines to get into the convention center, I encounter a very small -- but extremely noxious -- group of protesters. They are screaming at delegates about abortion, brandishing grotesque signs. I've never seen such unhappy activists; their bitterness, if not their message, is catching.
Standing in the second line, I can't believe my eyes: A Republican walking out of the hall. I catch up with Washington Representative Jennifer Dunn (the GOP's designated female) and ask -- trying not to sound too incredulous -- what she is doing in the Democratic Convention. She says she's doing "contrast" for the media. Later, I think I can see Dunn's back in the Fox News studio.
Inside the convention hall people are, like, way revved. They dance, cheer, and wave signs. Much to my amusement, one person front and center -- in the California delegation -- has a "Save Mumia" sign, a teaspoon of the world in which I've spent my week.
Being the wonk that I am, I love Gore's speech. I'm also very impressed with his line that perhaps he's dished a little too much policy, but this election isn't a popularity contest. I've heard of a French beauty trick that says if you have an imperfection, flaunt it, don't try to hide it. I surmise that's what the Gore team has decided to do. Make Gore's seriousness a strength. Likewise with Lieberman's Judaism (no imperfection, of course). Though many worried that Lieberman's religion could be a liability; Gore rejoices about it regularly.
During Gore's speech, I begin to conduct a highly scientific survey of the crowds' opinion on the issues. My method: Based on my impression from the nosebleed seats, I rate the cheers for each policy mentioned on a scale of one to 10.
Here's a sample of my results:
|Prescription Drug Benefit||9|
|Rebuild crumbling schools and reduce class size||10 and a "Go Al Go!" cheer|
|Patients Bill of Rights||9|
|Stop global warming||2|
|Campaign finance reform||9|
|Make college tuition tax deductible||10 plus "Go Al Go!"|
|Eliminate the marriage tax penalty the right way||3|
|GOP tax bill||Boos, 3|
|Hands off Social Security and Medicare||4|
|Stick it to the tobacco companies||2|
|Right to choose||10 plus foot stomping|
|(The guy behind me is asleep.)|
|50,000 new police||2 plus someone shouts, "Big Brother!"|
|Victim's Bill of Rights||1|
|Hate crimes legislation||6|
|Any mention of a state||10 (These folks love their states. If you went around the room and said each state's name, you could start a wave.)|
Why the ranking system? Because I know that Gore himself is doing the same thing. Who doesn't want to do the things that get a big cheer?
The cheerometer reminds me of a story I've heard: A president is talking to an activist. The activist is making his case, and the president says, "Okay. You've persuaded me. Now make me." The point is, politicians can't act without public support. It is not enough to sway the politician -- one must move the public too. As I watch the speech, and the delegates' response to it, I am convinced that the party wants to do the progressive thing (especially the delegates; they really want to). The candidates just need bigger cheers. And that's what effective protests could drum up. For the most part, these activists hate the Democratic Party. But it occurs to me that if they've done their job, they may just be doing it a favor.