The entire left side of American political life turned up in Los Angeles last week for an overheated five days of political posturing, party-going, jockeying for media attention, getting beat up in the streets and nominating a presidential candidate.
The Democratic National Convention itself proved to be a panorama of excess, set against a swirling, clashing background of festive protests and street anger. There were massive amounts of corporate largesse, a media frenzy fed by 15,000 journalists and police power beyond what anyone has ever seen in this country.
Such epic displays of resources and firepower tend to create unpredictable ebbs and flows of momentum — Monday’s apparent success can become Wednesday’s failure. At first, it looked like the hoopla around the DNC might generate a lot of losers and no big winners. Until Thursday night, the only sure successes were the hundreds of corporations who reinforced their power by plowing millions of dollars into both the Democratic convention and the Republican convention. Perhaps the Democratic delegates also could be considered winners, since they walked away from LA with stuffed bellies and overflowing bags of corporate knickknacks, including Barbie dolls and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. But in the end, a pretty clear list of winners and losers emerged from the heat of LA.
Winner: Gore and working families
Thursday night radically changed the DNC’s dynamic with the surprise emergence of Al Gore, populist. Before then, the convention’s momentum had been creeping to the right, what with Joe Lieberman’s moral message, the embrace of big military spending and countless other conservative agenda items. But on Thursday night, Gore stepped forward with a speech that defied expectations.
For one thing, Gore’s address moved the party’s agenda back to the left. Maybe Gore was taking a cue from Ralph Nader’s successful-to-date candidacy — with his theme of protecting working families from corporate excesses, he reached out to the millions of Americans who have suffered at the hands of HMOs, drug companies, greedy monopolies and corporate polluters. At the same time, union members, minorities and progressives got a strong nod from the VP, instead of just being taken for granted. It’s finally OK again to talk about holding corporations accountable and caring about poor children.
Cynics and pragmatists, of course, will suggest that Gore won’t walk his populist talk, and that he’s still as beholden to corporations as any Republican. Even so, he has publicly defined himself in opposition to the GOP. He has pledged to get specific, fight for issues and avoid the platitudes and personality conflicts that George W. has relied on so far. Gore gave the Democrats something and someone to fight for and left Bush and the Republicans defensively crying class warfare.
So the biggest winners for the moment are middle- and working-class Americans — too often ignored in the prevailing political climate — and Al Gore, who gave himself a fighting chance to be elected our next president.
Loser: The City of LA and the LAPD
The biggest losers of the week were Los Angeles and the LAPD. Even though they will claim victory because the convention went on without serious interruption or actual deaths in the streets, this “success” squandered opportunities and came at great costs.
Los Angeles has lots of problems — especially with its huge pockets of poverty — but it is a beautiful, vibrant, multicultural city, a swirling, shifting political town where labor unions and Latinos are gaining serious political clout. But all that liveliness, all that makes LA admirable, vanished in the police state atmosphere. As LA Times columnist Robert Scheer writes, “You can’t buy this kind of lousy publicity for a billion bucks. You need inflexible and panicked city authorities who have turned this jewel of a world-class city into a lifeless monument to the petty tyrannies of power.”
Virtually no one saw the real LA. The Staples Center, where the Democratic Convention was held, became a giant gated community encircled by what seemed like a private army of riot gear-clad storm troopers, whose sole mission was to protect the properly credentialed insiders. Everyone else, no matter what their age or purpose, became the enemy, liable to be trampled on with little or no provocation. Even some reporters who ventured to describe the activities became casualties.
Delegates rode buses with armed guards back and forth to their heavily protected hotels. Before the convention, police authorities publicly asserted they were anticipating between 50,000 and 70,000 protesters, privately knowing those numbers were absurdly high. But their scare tactics leveraged budget outlays for enough high-tech weapons and personnel to leave downtown LA looking like a scene from Blade Runner. LA will long remain in the public consciousness as a violent, lifeless place instead of a city with an exhilarating downtown and a promising future.
Winner: The Shadow Convention and Arianna Huffington
Say what you will about Huffington (and many have their opinions), you have to admit that she pulled off the Shadow Convention in a most impressive way. This was the counter-convention, a place to hear important ideas discussed and listen to an eclectic stream of lefty advocates — including Gore Vidal, Maxine Waters, both Jesse Jacksons, Bill Maher, Christopher Hitchens, Jonathan Kozol, Jim Wallis, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins — speak about many ills that have beset our country. Top community organizers served on panels and added their concrete experience to the mix.
As The Nation’s David Corn says, “The Shadow is not an organizing vehicle yet, and Huffington is not an organizer. She’s more a networker willing to reach out a little to the other side. But she’s an exceptional talent: she’s imaginative, has no fear, combines heart and head and believes in the power of ideas. God bless her.”
Loser: The Direct Action Protest Scenario
Despite brave efforts and many inspirational moments, it is, unfortunately, hard to see the myriad LA protests as adding up to anything but a loss. Even their sympathizers had few kindly words for the protesters’ overall efforts. As Naomi Klein, radical author of No Logo — a book about anti-corporate activism — told AlterNet’s Tamara Straus, “A weird psychology has set in where protesters are so afraid of losing momentum from Seattle that they have to keep organizing the next Seattle, or they fear the whole thing will dissipate. But the follow up protests have been pulled together too quickly.”
Demonstrators stepped into an impossible situation, missing the big clues they might have taken from their experience at the Republican convention in Philadelphia. They were up against the corporate media, which ignored virtually all their issues, focusing instead on arrests, small moments of violence, and the Black Bloc anarchists. In addition, with their firepower and sheer numbers — cops outnumbered protesters at many events — the police blocked protesters’ best efforts at every turn (the LAPD has since boasted about how thoroughly their spies infiltrated activist meetings and groups to get the inside scoop on protesters’ plans). The police also started beating protesters early in the week, and beating them pretty bad. As one protester commented, “The cops are smarter, the media sucks, we have to rethink and change our tactics.”
Let’s face it, the admirable leaderless movement strategy leaves the protesters with no visible, media-savvy heroes to articulate and interpret their ideas. Street protests alone can be easily stymied. In LA, there were few attempts to engage delegates or put forth coherent ideas, and thus the important issues of the protests never got meaningful attention or debate.
Winners: Billionaires for Bush (or Gore); Global Exchange; Youth of the Third Eye Movement; Human Needs, Not Corporate Greed
Despite the overall failure, movement politics had its bright moments. Probably the best protest of the week was the raucous and colorful Monday afternoon rally and march that culminated with the Rage Against the Machine concert and police riot. Incredibly diverse, with large youth contingents like the Third Eye Movement from San Francisco, this was the best picture of what this new movement is and can be. The message of “Human Needs, Not Corporate Greed,” the march organized by San Francisco-based Global Exchange, came through loud and clear on that day. (Unfortunately, that message, which could have permeated every step of protest, got lost in the murk created by 20 other important causes and demonstrations — see above.)
The satire of the Billionaires for Bush (or Gore), who pranced along in the march dressed as corporate fat cats, was refreshing. “We’re bipartisan,” the Billionaires proudly announced, “we buy Republicans and Democrats. When we buy both candidates, we can’t lose on Election Day.” Their critique couldn’t come at a more appropriate time: 66 major corporations donated gobs of cash to put on both conventions. The Billionaires, sponsored by United for a Fair Economy, are key organizers in the fight against the wealth gap, sweatshops and corporate abuses.
Loser: Ralph Nader
Where was Ralph? The Green Party presidential candidate blew a prime opportunity to push for his inclusion in the upcoming presidential debates, rally his troops, overshadow the Shadow and get heaps of media attention. The demonstrators needed him to give voice to the protests in the streets.
Instead, liberal Democrats at the Shadow attacked him for claiming there is no difference between Gore and Bush. Only columnist and pundit Barbara Ehrenreich — and many of the protesters in the streets — were left to argue back.
Winner: The battle against the failed war on drugs
Within the Shadow, the biggest accomplishment was the giant step toward mainstreaming the campaign to end the incredibly destructive war on drugs. Some elite black leaders, who have mostly stayed on the sidelines as the drug war became one of the most racist instruments of government policy since segregation, took the opportunity of the Shadow to come out full blast against the drug war and the prison-industrial complex. Congress members Charlie Rangel, John Conyers, Maxine Waters and Jesse Jackson Jr. all threw down the gauntlet, demanding that we rethink our drug policies. From the other side of the aisle, Republican drug war critics like California Senate candidate Tom Campbell and New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson added their voices. Add to that the growing political consciousness of the huge rave community reacting to the DEA’s bizarre campaign against ecstasy, and you have a new level of momentum.
Bill Clinton’s penis has cast a long shadow. We have entered what writer Steve Erickson calls the New Sanctimony, as both parties trip over themselves to be more pious and morally upright. This is not a time, they seem to say, to experiment and have fun.
The New Sanctimony appeared in the Democrats’ relentless attack on U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez’s planned party for Hispanic officials at the Playboy mansion. The very possibility of being associated with another aging, jovial lover of young women sent the Democrats into a prude tizzy.
But with much of Congress slurping from the trough of tobacco, liquor, oil, and other corporate monies, the morality display was pretty pathetic. On the other hand, does anyone think they would have treated a white congressman, or even Jesse Jackson Jr., the same way? It seemed the party heavies were trying to make Sanchez the Sister Souljah of 2000.
The choice of Lieberman, with his minicrusades against sex and violence in the media, was another part of the Democratic morality play. How many times did Lieberman mention God in his first press conference? The message to voters was clear — Senator Joe never got himself into any morally shady positions, unlike some Texas governors we all know.
And, as Professor Harry Levine points out, even though Gore may have turned populist on certain issues, he’s still a dedicated drug warrior, supporting prison expansion, drug testing and mandatory sentencing. Someone quipped that during the convention it looked like every one of the 100,000 new cops the Clinton administration had promised America showed up in LA to protect the Democrats’ party. Hopefully, some black leaders have gotten fed up with the racist drug war enough to hold Gore’s feet to the fire on this one.
Winner: Pacifica station KPFK Los Angeles, the Indy Media Center and the LA Weekly
Few things help activists more than to see, hear and read their messages in the media. The strong signal of radio station KPFK provided multilayered, essential coverage of those messages. Included on air were many hours of live coverage of the Shadow Convention, progressive perspective from the inside the Staples Center courtesy of The Nation magazine’s “Radio Nation,” and the excellent daily radical show “Democracy Now” with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez. Free Speech TV also aired “Democracy Now” for satellite TV viewers and public access stations across the country.
The events in LA underscored the importance for activist, in-the-street press coverage to fight police brutality during major protests. The ad hoc media beehive known as the Independent Media Center (IMC), quickly pulled together press conferences throughout the week to combat mainstream misreporting.
To top it all off, the alternative LA Weekly published a daily edition, providing some needed coverage of many stories and angles the corporate media left out — although, to be fair, the LA Times had pretty extraordinary coverage of the entire convention week, and gave plenty of space to covering the protests. Nonetheless, the Weekly Daily reinforced protesters’ messages and maybe even taught some delegates looking for good restaurant review a thing or two about the strength of the alternative press.
Loser: Corporate Media
Popular distrust of the corporate media system is incredibly high. Journalists rate up there with lawyers in terms of public contempt. The corporate media in LA fell back to all the tricks that make them unworthy of their task, including blathering pundits, little discussion of the issues and focus on fluff and excitement.
CNN showed footage of demonstrators in handcuffs and black-clad, bandana-masked anarchists, and then quickly returned to “the business” of covering the convention. Mainstream journalists dismissed the protests, pleading that they
didn’t get what the protesters were talking about. At the Shadow Convention, Newsweek’s Jonathon Alter showed the corporate media’s true colors when he attacked the demonstrators for not having made their message clear to the media. Apparently, media-worthy events now need good enough PR to absolve journalists of any responsibility for research, interviewing, or developing understanding on their own.
Winners: Some individual faces, both old and new
Jesse Jackson Jr., who called for Nader’s participation in the debates, and who advocated constitutional amendments for health care and equal education for all. A political powerhouse in the making.
Senator Russ Feingold, who spoke the conscience of the Democratic Party. Feingold told the Shadow that the Democratic Convention was a “corporate trade show,” and is at the forefront of limiting that corporate influence.
Maxine Waters, who is way out ahead of her colleagues in communicating the nefarious consequences of the drug war.
State Senator Tom Hayden and LA Times columnist Bob Scheer, who showed that old farts from the ‘60s still have fire in their bellies. Both combined their wisdom from past struggles and their respect for the young organizers into powerful, inspiring messages.
Ethan Nadleman, who is the single most forceful and articulate foe of the drug war. With his crack staff, Nadleman and his Lindesmith Center have become the vanguard in fighting for drug reform.Don Hazen is the executive director of the Independent Media Institute. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org