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A Taste Of Denver: Thank God It’s Over (2)

September 2, 2008

Although some of the activities and demonstrations in Denver during the Democratic Convention last week did draw people from around the country, the numbers at such events were generally small, and the social base of the activists narrow. Taken in its entirety, the overall organized opposition to the Democratic Convention was modest in size and scope. With few exceptions (see below) it didn’t amount to much. Its impact on the convention itself was rather light. Although the opposition might not like to admit it – most of the political energy in Denver last week was not on the streets but at the Pepsi Center itself.

Groups like the recently formed `Alliance for Real Democracy’, a loose coalition of groups and individuals, did a lot of good work in a short time, but overall the both the numbers of people on the streets were smaller than predicted and the political message they hoped to convey was muffled and often lacked clarity. This was especially the case of the group `Recreate 68’ which had predicted on several occasions that more than 20,000 people would attend their march and rally. According to several people in attendance, strip away the sizeable number of press and barely 500 came to hear political has-beens like Ward Churchill, Kathleen Cleaver and Cynthia McKinney deliver shrill and unfocused messages.

Exceptions To the Rule

There were four exceptions to this picture:

1. The march led by anti-Iraq War vets (in uniform) after a `Rage Against The Machine’ concert which took to the streets, 8000-to-10,000 strong, without a permit and marched peacefully and in a disciplined fashion the five miles from Denver’s coliseum on the north of town to the so-called Pepsi Center where the convention was taking place. The concert, organized by a group of youth calling themselves Tent City worked the concert to build the march in a creative way and then with the vets leading the long line which stretched for a mile, marched the entire distance, surrounded by police and other security forces. The vets delivered a letter to a representative of Barak Obama calling for an end to the Iraq War and for better treatment of vets. In marching this way, the `Tent City’ people effective challenged the constitutionality of a whole slew of laws passed to limit the rights of demonstrators and free speech. It was impressive. Efforts to co-opt the march – and there were some – went nowhere.

2. The same day, Wednesday, August 27, Ralph Nader, left presidential candidate for president, spoke to an audience of about 4500 enthusiastic supporters at the University of Denver’s Magnuss Arena. Although there were a number of stoned hippies from the 1960s (for whom I feel a certain affection), most of the audience was the non-bleached hair set, young activists in the main, disaffected not just by Bush Administration policies but also eight years of weak, spineless Democratic Party responses. Nancy Pelosi came under fire for taking the impeachment issue off the table, Hillary Clinton for her consistent and unapologetic support for the war in Iraq and the Patriot Act which undermines domestic civil rights. Besides Nader, actor Sean Penn, peace activist and Congressional candidate Cindy Sheehan (she’s challenging Pelosi’s seat in SF), and local musician Jello Biafra (among others) gave fine speeches. Penn’s was a bit long – but insightful, hitting again and again on the erosion of civil rights in the Bush years. He came short of endorsing Ralph Nader but did call for Nader’s inclusion in the debates – a demand I wholeheartedly support. Although the audience seemed quite familiar with Jello Biafra I had never heard of him. Walking to the podium, he looked (and sounded) like he could have grown up in Wheatridge (a largely white middle class suburb west of Denver). Jello Biafra? Where did that name come fome? Anyhow – whatever reservations I had about his name, he gave a coherent speech, a searing attack against Bush Administration policies. In some ways it was more direct and less self-serving than Nader’s remarks

3. On Thursday several thousand more people – in large measure Chicanos, many from the city’s Westside, with its long and deep radical history – marched for immigrant rights. They ended their march at Lincoln Park where speeches and music followed. Although it was a shadow of a similar march in Denver two years ago which brought out 80,000 – many of whom were mobilized by listening to Spanish-language radio – still, it was a show of force from one of the most – if not the most – oppressed constituencies in the country. Along with the Iraq-vets led demonstration the day before, this was the most politically significant `reminder’ to the delegates at the convention center – and the world at large – of the key issues that the next president will have to face. Although the numbers were respectable enough, the speeches at Lincoln Park were disappointing, lacking a clear focus. It appears that some of the biggest immigration rights groups in the country, who had come by bus from Los Angeles to participate, were denied access to the podium due to the `microphone hogging’ of some of the locally based organizers. Once again, Recreate 68 found itself isolated. Although its members were welcome to participate in the march, the organization was explicitly told by the march organizers they could not carry a banner or be among the sponsoring organizations.

4. Another group which held a series of information lectures that lasted the entire time of the convention was Progressive Democrats of America. In conjunction with The Nation magazine, the Progressive Dems brought an impressive array of activists and experts on many of the key issues of the day – healthcare, civil rights, Bush’s foreign policy. Although a formation within the Democratic Party trying to influence the party platform and candidates to the left, the weight of the Progressive Dems in the overall scheme of things seems rather light. As an indication, their events took place outside, not within the convention’s framework. Still I’m glad they were there and have heard that most of their events were well attended and interesting. On Thursday, the day that along with my father-in-law, Lowell Fey, I attended, I arrived just as Jesse Jackson was walking in the door. Jackson gave a powerful speech (he still can do that), reminding people of the struggles and sacrifices that preceded Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous `I Have A Dream’ speech.

Wexler Throws A Few Crumbs to The Left

Congressman Robert Wexler, who is introducing impeachment proceedings against Bush and Cheney, was less impressive. The night prior on national tv he had mentioned Israel in a speech 20-30 times. I guess that was his predetermined role. Groveling to AIPAC aside, had Wexler called for impeachment a year ago, it might have made a difference’. To do so now, with just a few months of the Bush Presidency left, seems somewhat cynical, little more than throwing a few crumbs of nothing to the left. Banners calling for impeachment, demanding the US not attack Iran hung among others in the room. Later I read that someone had stolen the banner of the US Campaign Against The Occupation – the national organization opposed to the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza (otherwise known as Palestine). Who took it down I wonder? It was consistent with the fact that for nearly a week in Denver the word `Palestine’ appears to have disappeared from the English language. (More on this in a later entry). I also couldn’t help noticing that while the discussions and presentations were interesting enough at the Central Presbyterian Church where the Progressive Dem’s held their meetings that, like in the convention itself, there was no place in their programs for questions from the audience and that while trying to appear flexible and moderate, that moderator John Nichols of the Nation acted a bit too much as a public censor.

Although there were a few confrontations between demonstrators and the police – including several where it appeared the security forces seriously over-reacted, although flexing their muscles every day, the security response was somehow contained. Whether this was the case because Barack Obama purposefully put the breaks on police over-reaction (as I suspect he did) to avoid what could have been negative publicity or whether the city of Denver itself was restrained, is not clear. But already, what didn’t happen in the streets of Denver is sharply contrasted with is happening in Minnesota where there have been `pre-emptive’ police-FBI raids against demonstrators, arrests with charges of conspiracy (conspiracy to do WHAT?) and the arrest of many including Democracy Now announcer Amy Goodman.

Still, what went on inside the Denver convention was in many ways more interesting and in many ways more decisive for the fate of the nation than what went on in the streets. The first Black American had been nominated for the presidency by one of the two major political parties. And this is, by any measure, historic and with potentially profound consequences for the nation and in some ways the fate of the earth. But more on that in the next installment.

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