Day One: Nudeling Against Oppression
Day Two: Please Stop the Oppression Thank You
Day Three: Goats with Votes
Day Four: Goggles and Gas Masks for Mumia
Day Five: Politics and Hygiene 101
Photo Gallery of the protests
The night before I leave for Philadelphia, C-SPAN is airing a Training for Change training session in which fewer than a dozen prototypical protesters prepare to flail against the machine during the Republican National Convention. Training for Change is one of the more than 200 members of the R2K Network (as in Republican 2000) planning to air at least as many peeves and injustices this week. (The organizers for both conventions are the R2/D2K Network.) The topic at hand is what to do when you get arrested for civil disobedience.
Uber-earnest trainer Andrew Rose -- with the requisite long hair and Guatemalan shirt -- warns that while "jail solidarity" is important, protesters can expect that the police will treat minorities, women, and queers far worse than "people of privilege." Lest you missed who that would be, he points apologetically to his white male self. (The camera zooms in and holds on the one black man in the room.) And don't plan on getting arrested unless you can return to Philadelphia for a court date. Rose's co-trainer Jesse Cocks, a middle-aged hippie with a bleached crew cut, notes wryly "rank and privilege comes in again."
But if you're a person of quadruple privilege (a white, straight male with transportation money) or you decide to risk it, the trainers want you to be a first-class pain. Smear your fingerprints, make crazy faces for the mug shot, and in all other ways, refuse to comply. Rose notes that he learned some of his tactics from the "older movement guys." Then he grins sheepishly: "Not to get into ageism."
Rose apparently has no problem with "jailerism" or "lawyerism" however. He tells the future detainees to watch out that the lawyers who the jailers send in are really "movement lawyers." You'll know they're authentic because they will be "empowering." As opposed to the impostor lawyers -- whom Rose swears advised protesters in Seattle. The impostors will try to break solidarity by actually attempting to get their clients out of jail. (The trainers want the arrestees to insist on staying in jail until everyone is released together -- a common protest tactic.)
The final word of advice that Rose gives the revolutionaries is that if they want to make things really hard for the police, they should take their clothes off. This practice -- called "nudeling" -- stops the police from forcibly moving people. Rose notes approvingly that activists at the recent anti-globalism protests "nudeled" to their advantage.
At the end of the meeting, trainers encourage people to get in a circle and shake their limbs, roll their heads, and express themselves. "I like being at the roots of the grass that is going to overtake the injustice," says one mousy woman. At no point in the training have we heard what the injustice is.
I'm going to cover the protests at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia to nose around about the health of American activism -- a concept of which any good liberal is supportive. The image of Andrew Rose "nudeling" in a Philly jail is not very stirring. Needless to say, I'm slightly wary as I head off to ground zero.
The organizers of today's conglomoprotest, Unity 2000, have been billing the event as a mass uprising against the corporate takeover of American Politics. They say it will be the biggest protest during the week of the Republican National Convention, with at least 20,000 people. It certainly has the largest roster; activists run the gamut from Cape May residents fighting sprawl, to people demanding free abortion on demand, to socialist Naderites. The plan is to march several blocks and then stop at a Unity 2000 stage, where speakers and performers will address numerous issues.
After the dramatic anti-globalization protests of late, the buzz is that American activism is reviving. A groundswell of young and old will pressure politicians into answering their concerns about inequality, racism, and the environment. Though today is billed as a peaceful protest, many of the same organizations that are here have been warning about plenty of "direct action" (i.e. arrests) later in the week.
I set off in search of the bubbling movement. I find Jim McDonald, a sweet Penn student from Peace Voters Against Star Wars wearing an army fatigue T-shirt. He's cool with the march, but reasons that if you get arrested, it's easier for the public to write you off as crazy. Two young radicals from Philadelphia Freedom Summer admit they'd better not get arrested either. Puck says he wants to go visit his friend in Colorado -- something he'd have to give up if he were in jail -- and Sarah has to be back at work. One Temple University Lambda member bows out because, "My mom would kill me."
Web Designers for Economic Justice's Jeremy Bushnell doesn't plan to do direct action, but he recommends the "resistant novel" Bombing Starbucks, on the activist Website Invisible-city.com.
By now, two things are clear: It's a smallish -- if lively -- uprising (the people and their paper mache puppets fill about three city blocks). And these activists are following rules for radicals by Emily Post.
Though the posters say threatening things about revolution, smashing capitalism, etc., the protesters under them are unflappably polite. Several activists for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) -- an organization that has been known to throw blood at people in fur coats -- stand by without comment as a vendor wanders by calling out, "Philly cheese steaks!"
School of the Americas protesters are wearing yellow pro-choice arm bands. Gay rights activists carry signs calling for "no more lynching" and the freeing of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Even within organizations, all are careful not to offend. Students from Philadelphia Freedom Summer boast that their organization has members who are communists, anarchists, Democrats, and even "left-wing Republicans." When I ask whether he supported the U.S. intervention in Kosovo, a fragile retiree from Veterans for Peace says his organization doesn't step on opposing views by pushing to take positions on some things. But he adds gamely, "I think I was opposed."
I talk to several socialists, and they are, to a person, devoted incrementalists. For example, Billy Wharton, a student wearing a Rage Against the Machine shirt accessorized with a Trotsky button, wants to build the organization Socialist Alternative through "community outreach." Only the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade obliges reporters desperate for ominous interviews. Comrade Frank Rochencko says he came here because, "Like a lot of young people, I don't think voting is the solution." When I ask if the Youth Brigade has begun to stockpile weapons for the revolution it's advocating, Rochencko says no. For today, they'll just march around yelling, "Left! Right!"
Some are nice but nutty. Bob Fow -- who says he has been working as a full-time Lyndon LaRouche supporter for 25 years -- informs me that as vice president, George Bush "directed the whole importation of crack" and distributed it in cities across America. Another person holds a banner that boldly proclaims, "King George Sr. = Red Ink. Prince George Jr. is a FROG." By two o'clock, the leftist singer -- grinding on the stage in a skimpy American flag bikini -- has ceased to captivate, and people have begun to wander off.
In the nick of time, the "Avenge Shaka/Free Mumia/Not one more lynching/Justice for Thomas Jones" crowd begins a loud march down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Their first encounter is with a large number of dowdy Christians quietly holding matching anti-abortion signs. Many of them have on white vests with blue trim proclaiming, "The Life of the Party."
The Mumiafyers turn on the Life vest folks and start yelling that if they want to save lives, free Mumia. The row of Lifers remains bovinely calm. Giving up, the marchers move on.
The police have been bored all day, clumping together and watching the costumed protesters. But inexplicably, as the march reaches 15th and Arch streets, there are more than 30 cops standing at attention with billy clubs. The photographers rush in. And the protesters -- who have been lecturing about police brutality all day -- whirl on them, chanting that they're murderers and brutalizers. But once again, they have an inability to rile. The cops look back blandly and within minutes, pivot and walk away, standing with their backs to the marchers.
Cheering that they've intimidated the police, the jubilant activists continue to march, proclaiming that they're going to police headquarters. The "vanquished" cops toodle along on their bicycles nearby. Reaching headquarters, speakers rail on about the death penalty, the Navy in Puerto Rico, lesbigay rights, etc.
I'm exhausted. Some of the protesters are wearing "No Sweat!" hats, but I have been completely unable to comply. The sun is baking, and I'm sunburned and dehydrated. So as the marchers turn to chant their way back where they came from, I head for home base in New Jersey.
When I arrive at City Hall, where the march for economic human rights is supposed to start, it's pandemonium. There are people jammed in all over the T where Broad Street dead ends into the building. The protest group, the Puppetistas, has made costumes with cardboard and paper mache, so there are Chagall-esque animals wandering everywhere.
One elaborately-decorated creature wobbles above us on stilts. And a huge crimson banner with a giant roach painted at the top proclaims, "Cockroaches are not dirty, but they exist to clear up after messes. The Government hates the cockroach because it reminds them how dirty they are." The last name of the brothers carrying it is Roach.
Perhaps the most surreal part, however, is the band of goats encircling and taunting an anti-abortion protester who has a huge and particularly grisly poster. (The past two days have confirmed that the anti-abortion crowd is dogged, obsessed, and like Visa: Everywhere you want to be.) One of the goats, carrying a sign that says "Goat with a Vote," tells me that their mission is to remind people not to eat everything the politicians feed them . . . like goats.
Since the crowd is large and there aren't sufficient microphones, it's impossible to tell what's going on. Stampedes of reporters and camera-people seem to spontaneously coalesce and rush from one side of the street to another. "Security" people from the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (the organization that organized the protest) wearing homemade orange vests bark orders to the crowd -- but no one can hear them. And legal observers from the ACLU and the left-wing National Lawyers Guild charge self-importantly through the crowd writing the phone number for legal aid on people's bodies with large felt tip pens -- necessary they tell me, because once people get arrested, they have to empty their pockets. No one seems to plan on getting arrested, but we all end up with the number on us anyway.
Then we begin the three-mile trek towards the convention center. On the way, I finally find some people who will tell me that this week's protests are evidence of a revitalized progressive movement energized by the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle and the World Bank melee in Washington D.C. Rowan Stanland -- a 28-year-old white jeweler carrying a sign with an elephant and a donkey walking with bloody footprints -- went to the Seattle and Washington D.C. protests. She calls them an "incredible inspiration." Others must have been inspired too, she says, because she recognizes a lot of young people from both protests.
Theresa El-Amin was also in Washington D.C., and agrees that the protest sparked what seems to be snowballing into a movement. El-Amin, a 52-year-old African American woman from North Carolina, says she's here to convince unions to organize in the South -- a place that has shamefully low union membership. But she is active on many of the issues aired this week. El-Amin notes that the new activists seem to be primarily young white people -- and that it really "renews my hope" that white youth are willing to stand up against racism.
Next, I run across one of these white youth, Shaun Richman, with a T-shirt from the Washington D.C. protest. He's 21, but looks far younger. He informs me that he is the campaign manager for the Socialist Party's presidential candidate. Shaun doesn't plan to participate in the mayhem that everyone is buzzing will take place tomorrow -- he can't go to jail because, "I've got to, like, schmooze." Nevertheless, he says he feels a lot of solidarity with the other protesters; there's "really a sense of unity" between activists since Seattle, he concludes.
Some marchers are not feeling much solidarity, however. When I approach one gaggle of men, no one seems to feel like talking (though one suggests I ask him out to dinner). Finally, Harry Charles explains that they're all from Minute by Minute, a residential drug recovery program; the directors of the program told them to come out and march. Does he support the goals of the march? "Somewhat."
When we get near the convention center (I have yet to see an actual Republican), no one knows what to do. Philadelphia refused to grant the march's organizers a permit, so they did not expect to make it this close to the convention site. It seems that the only effect that not having a permit has had on the march is (1) no hot dog vendors, and (2) no porta-potties. So in their moment of victory, marchers are confused. They're not close enough for the delegates to hear them, so after a brief powwow, they head down the street towards Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park.
I'm interviewing David McReynolds, the Socialist Party presidential candidate, when people depart. So I hang around to see if the few remaining protesters are going to goad the police into arresting them. No one does. When I finally give up and go to the park, it appears that the protest for economic justice has broken out into multiple picnics for economic justice. The large park is dotted with small bands of people sprawled out on the grass, all dazedly asking whether there's any action left. One sweltering woman has jumped in the water.
It seems the heat has baked the protest right out of the protesters. For today, at least.
Today is planned as the "criminal injustice system"/Free Mumia protest day, but organizers have yet to free the details. All I know is that nothing is scheduled for the morning, so I go to see the Liberty Bell. Joining me, is the Wisconsin delegation to the Republican National Convention. You can tell right away because it looks like Safari-land: elephant earrings, elephant-shaped handbags, elephant sweaters. Not to mention star-spangled jumpsuits, "Life of the Party" vests, and one dessert plate sized George Bush '88 button.
Having managed to avoid contracting elephantitis, I make it to the first Mumia-related event of the day at noon. It is a press conference, where multiple speakers rail against the execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Savage Inequalities author Jonathan Kozol gives a moving lecture about educational inequity and the death penalty.
Then Jesse Jackson arrives. He gives an excellent speech, and, thankfully, focuses on the death penalty in general, rather than Mumia in particular. Matthew Rees of the conservative Weekly Standard is there. Imagining what he must be writing in his little notebook throws into sharp relief how much all this foaming at the mouth about freeing Mumia -- who almost certainly did kill a police officer -- takes away from the otherwise-powerful anti-death penalty message.
Finally, it's time for Operation Top-Secret Plan We Can't Tell You About. Organizers have instructed reporters to meet at one of two parks at three o'clock, where they will finally reveal the protest locations. When I get there, nothing's happening. Then, a representative from the Training for Change (the nudeler folks) shows up to give a little speech about the criminal injustice system. Having heard this message endlessly repeated over the past several days, the reporters start getting irritated. Are they going to lead us to the action, or not?
With impeccable timing, the Communist Youth Brigade appears, shouting: "Die for the people. Fight for the people." The reporters ditch the Training for Change guy and rush over to see what the ruckus is about. Frank Rochencko, my friend from the Unity 2000 rally, is wearing a bandanna over his face, which he explains is to protect his identity. But with little prompting, he spells his name for the microphones. At this point, the reporters are so bored that some actually start debating with the historically-challenged youth over their professed support for Chairman Mao. I can't believe I'm actually writing down what they're saying.
At this point, it occurs to me that most of these protesters include in their litany of tirades an angry indictment of the "corporate-controlled media." Maybe they're playing a trick on us, and they've lured us to the park and sicked the commie-tots on us only to laugh at how gullible we are. I consider whispering to one of the organizers that I'm a dot-org and beg for the real dope.
Just before I start dot-groveling, however, the cell phone call comes through. We should head up Broad Street, and we'll see "something." Sure enough, when we arrive at the corner of Broad and Spruce, a row of protesters has linked arms -- and in some cases chained themselves together -- forming a blockade that is stopping traffic. They announce that there are similar blockades throughout the city, and that they plan to impede the delegates from getting to the convention.
I begin making the rounds to find out what this protest is about. I get as many answers as interviews: the prison industrial complex, the corporate-controlled media, "human need, not corporate greed," the end of capitalism, etc. Many have had civil disobedience training, so they have goggles and bandannas soaked in vinegar to protect themselves from tear gas.
I spot an actual delegate. I can tell, because he has no tattoos, no face-pierces, no dread locks, and he's wearing a suit. William Dowd, from the great state of New Jersey, says this scene is "mildly interesting," and expects he'll have no trouble getting to the convention tonight. Soon, he's mobbed by reporters.
The goats arrive! They begin dancing and cheering a rhythmic chant about inequality. ("Who likes the boom, the e-con-o-mic boom. For the ma-jor-it-y of people, there is no boom. . .") Protesters join in, drumming on buckets, and the goats accompany themselves on the kazoo. One of the goats starts breakdancing.
The scene is utterly surreal. A row of friends in "anarchist soccer" shirts have plunked down in front of the chained people, feeding them water and food because they can't use their hands. One guy asks me to tie his shoe real tight so it doesn't come off when the cops drag him off. I tie a shoe for the revolution. A kid wearing a gas mask keeps yelling, "This is what democracy looks like." And a huge screen above us -- artist Jenny Holzer's contribution to convention week -- flashes messages including, "Your actions are pointless if no one notices." Slowly, the police have begun to surround the intersection. The goat-cheering provides a festive soundtrack for it all.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I'll admit this up front: I have begun to wish that I were a goat.)
I do not wish I were one of those vinegar-reeking protesters, however. Because soon, the cops start arresting them. No one nudels, but the arrestees do go limp so that the cops have to carry them to the waiting sheriff's vans. As the cops struggle to hoist them, the crowd starts screaming, "The whole world is watching!"
It takes a long time, but by six o'clock, the cops arrest everyone who came to get arrested. The convention is scheduled to begin at seven-thirty.
But that's not the end of it. Rumors have been buzzing through the reporter-mill that there is something going on by City Hall, the site of an authorized Mumia protest. The Mumia crowd has been the biggest and loudest all week, and it seems it's erupted.
As I arrive at City Hall, a string of police cars zoom in, their sirens blaring. A group of protesters has just rushed onto John F. Kennedy Boulevard and sat down. Unlike the last sit-down, this one occurs at a huge rally, so there are swarms of people everywhere, screaming. ("Brick by brick. Wall by wall. We're gonna free Mu-mia A-bu-Ja-mal.")
The police begin to push the crowd back so they can arrest the blockaders. One fat man with a streaming gray beard pushes back and the police immediately throw him to the ground and arrest him. This standoff is much more hostile than the last one. To the protesters, the police represent brutality, and the police -- I imagine -- have taken note that the activists want to free a man convicted of killing one of their colleagues.
Just as the cops get the JFK situation under control, the goats appear. They lead a crowd of dancing activists into the middle of 15th Street. This time, the police bring in the Rough Riders. Police on horseback form a line across 15th, and begin to push the crowd away from City Hall. Now there are more police there than I've ever seen in one place -- a sea of blue uniforms. They arrest more resisters. A bunch of clowns join the yelling mob.
The police don't seem to know quite what to do. It takes them until eight o'clock to divide the protesters and push them onto three different streets. The standoff is finally over. As I wander past Banana Republic to hail a cab, I see clusters of crisply-suited conventioneers schmoozing.
Today, for the first time this week, there is an actual plan for protesters to encounter actual Republicans. The really sinister kind, in fact. There is a large luncheon at which Phyllis Schlafly will honor former Republican presidential candidates Alan Keyes and Senator Bob Smith for their commitment to the pro-life cause.
The crowd that has shown up to protest is smaller than in previous days, but much more targeted. A few dozen pro-choice activists are lining the street in front of the shmancy Union League of Philadelphia. Most are dressed in their best imitation of a cheerleader costume and are holding pompoms. They're the "Pro-Choice Cheerleaders." Their ringleader is dressed as a cowgirl with a sign that says, "Even cowgirls get to choose." As the flag-festooned luncheoneers walk up the steps of the building, the "cheerleaders" scream, "Pro-life, your name's a lie. You don't care if women die!"
Only one luncheon guest attempts to engage the protesters; Frank Pavone, National Director of Priests for Life, starts arguing with a member of the South Jersey Clinic Defense Coalition. Pavone keeps asking, If you're going to knock down a condemned house, do you have to check to see if there are any children playing in it before you bulldoze? Instead of asking since when could one compare a live woman to a condemned house (or explaining that a fetus is not a child, etc.), South Jersey's own Bob Rovell keeps yelling that there are thousands of priest pedophiles. I cringe.
Late in the protest, the Traditional Values Coalition's Lou Sheldon emerges from the club and walks, unnoticed, down the street. Sheldon is anti-choice, and virulently anti-gay -- one of my very favorite people to hate. I have to talk to him. I chase him, and he asks me to walk with him to his hotel.
Once inside the lobby, I realize how just a few days in radicalville have changed me. The hotel is air-conditioned -- I've gotten used to sweating on the sidewalk. And everyone's wearing suits -- I've become accustomed to people in bright yellow "no more lynching" shirts worn three days running. Back home, I'm a pretty mainstream gal. But here, the hotel is a culture shock. I feel simultaneously raggedy and angry at the "power and privilege" mulling about the lobby.
Sheldon says he feels sorry for the protesters. "I don't think those young people have real jobs or real careers," he says. He can tell by the way they're dressed. Unlike me. "You have a clean blouse and a clean face," he explains; that's how he can tell I'm a real journalist. In fact, almost all the protesters I've talked to today have very real careers in the reproductive rights field. But I'm glad that at least I have made Sheldon's cut.
Flush with the affirmation that I'm a real journalist, I head off to the detention center where most of the people arrested yesterday are being held (350 or 435 people depending on whether you believe the police or protesters). Protesters fill a large corner of the park across the street; today they are calling for the release of all "political prisoners." What do they mean? Yesterday, the police surrounded the place where activists had spent weeks making puppets and costumes for the protests, and they arrested 70 to 75 people. The only puppeteers who weren't arrested were the goats, who were out in the city at the time of the puppet-bust.
According to a police information officer, the cops had received reports that the space "contained tools that anarchists were going to use to further their cause." According to protesters, the only "tools" inside were puppets, and the fact that the police arrested everyone and threw away their puppets means they illegally quashed peaceful political protest, plain and simple.
According to one of the goats at today's protest, puppets that the police confiscated included -- among many others -- 137 eight or nine-foot skeletons, each with the name of one of the people George W. has executed in Texas. I'm sorry to have missed seeing them, and sorry that the goats' friends couldn't come out to play.
Soon, the goats begin a puppet show about a goat-with-a-vote and his political education. I'm sorry that in the end, the GWAV eats his ballot rather than voting (he hates both candidates). But nevertheless, I can't help thinking how dedicated these goat-folks are to the political process despite their anger at its present state.
When the show is over, who should appear, but Andrew Rose -- Mr. Nudel from C-SPAN! He leads a discussion of what to do to get the protesters out of jail. The ideas that the crew comes up with include calling city council members, taking an ad out in the Philadelphia Inquirer, bringing suit against the city (one person suggests that they get Johnnie Cochran to represent them), and soliciting media coverage. In other words, Rose conducts an (admittedly touchy-feely) civics lesson right there in the park.
It's a scraggly crowd. Many of their goals (anarchy, Maoist Communism) are ridiculous, and they haven't found the most persuasive way to express themselves yet (one holds a sign that says "F--k Bush"). But there's no doubt they're having fun, that they're practicing using political and legal pressure, and that many will be back next time. Like the goat-with-a-vote, these young folks are getting engaged. And the way I see it, that can't be a bad thing.