"Whose Streets? Our Streets!!" A Gen-X Correspondent Reports from the National Conventions by Kerul Dyer
"First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win."-Gandhi
What Does It Take to Convince You to Become an Activist? Thousands of people armed with puppets, signs, camcorders and informed minds reclaimed the streets of Philadelphia and Los Angeles this summer, in a historic confrontation with police state tactics defending some strange status quo. Meanwhile, the Republican National Convention (RNC) and the Democratic National Convention (DNC) were busy making some history of their own. The summer conventions were giant parties where legalized corporate bribery danced incestuously with thinly veiled republicratic extortion. While the Parties raged inside the convention halls, I was reporting on the rage of thousands of people outside the walls of the halls. What I witnessed on the streets was a new mass movement.
The people of this movement stood together when Police, FBI, INS and Secret Service officers used intimidation, physical abuse, illegal search and seizure, fabrication of evidence, and prolonged detention with unprecedented bails set for civil disobedience to silence their voices of resistance. But mass movements don't silence easily and only autocratic fools try to do it. (We have a government of such fools these days it seems.)
This growing movement extends way beyond the thousands in the streets expressing their grievances. Parallel to the RNC and DNC, there were well attended "Shadow Conventions," convened to discuss issues glossed over or missed entirely by the politicians during their orgy of glitter and parties. The Shadow Conventions presented prominant speakers from both political parties, as well as many other dissenting voices, who called out for campaign finance reform, and against the War on Drugs ("a War on the American People"), among other themes. From that podium, Wisconson Democratic Senator Russ Feingold told the clearest truth of any Democrat in LA that week: "We have devolved from a representative democracy to a corporate democracy in this country. This is not a system of one person one vote, or one delegate one vote, but a system of one million dollars, one million votes. It is a system of legalized bribery and legalized extortion."
Of course, all of this was ignored to death by the "major media."
Beyond those who journeyed to the conventions to exercise their right to free speech, this movement includes an ever growing number of the usual suspects; workers, students and independent thinkers of all stripes. They're calling into question the big lie of so-called "Economic Development" and "globalization" and they correctly identify the flow of corporate capital as predatory, not service based. It's no secret that both major parties subsidize corporate welfare, giving "big business" free reign to pursue profits at the expense of worker safety, public health, the environment and the political integrity of the nation.
Issues raised by these activists (and conspicuously not by corporate journalists) include universal health insurance, strict environmental regulation, an end to logging of public forests, meaningful support for civil liberties, progressive taxation, fair global trade deals, campaign finance reform, mass public transportation, quality education and day-care, reduced military spending, opposition to the prison industrial complex and the death penalty, protection for workers to form trade unions, small-scale farming, corporate control over the media, and the world-wide AIDS crisis.
These issues energize even the most pathetic apathetic voters this year.
Ralph Nader is the one politician running for president who speaks to these issues. His Green Party campaign and the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of people who support it are an indication of the growing mass movement I saw in the streets this summer.
Republicans for the Republic?? Democrats for Democracy?? Gimme Some Truth I drove from Ashland to Philadelphia, then back to Los Angeles, following the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. I am a reporter for the Independent Media Center (IMC), as I have been since the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle last November. The IMC is a web-based, democratic media outlet, providing coverage of demonstrations and analysis of issues. I would describe the IMC as a "just in time" kind of organization... staffers like me stay in touch via the web, and convene based on the schedules of the self-appointed masters of the world (WTO, IMF, World Bank, et. al.). An autonomous Independent Media Center sprouts up for each of the large convergence protests. In this case, we converged on the conventions.
The Philly IMC rented a large space in the center of the action during the RNC. Within the Center were a daily newspaper, live-satellite fed television, and two radio stations, plus eyewitness videography and photography reporting activities on the street and inside the RNC.
I helped on the layout for the daily paper and monitored police activity by night. By day I ran through the streets following demonstrations and police with my camera, audio equipment and notepad. Not much time for sleep. Speaking of being tired, I became very tired of police and their tactics this summer. They often exercised extra-legal authority only granted in fascist societies. Many of them went out of their way to make the conflict personal, to suppress the message of the demonstrators through intimidation and instigation of violence. I'm sure it didn't help when their commanders demanded they work long hours and armed them with the latest in devices for "crowd control." By the way, you should read up about these new toys: pepper pellets, sticky stingers, and rubber bullets. You might meet one on the street someday. They're ugly.
In Philadelphia, city officials denied all permit requests to demonstrate during the Convention, a flagrant violation of Constitutionally guaranteed free speech. A large and multifaceted Unity 2000 March the Sunday prior to convention week was the last legal march. Monday morning, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union hosted a four and one half mile, single-file march. Led by homeless in wheelchairs, thousands of women and men, some pushing children in strollers, made a statement to the world about "Economic Human Rights."
Police, under pressure by an enormous media presence, grudgingly tolerated the "illegal" march, without mass arrests. No doubt, busting the heads of women and children and people in wheelchairs wouldn';t have played well on the 5:00 o'clock news. Not nearly as well as "anarchists" or "pierced & dreadlocked agitators" getting what they deserve.
Tuesday, things shifted in Philadelphia. Small acts of civil disobedience disrupted business-as-usual in the City Center. Activists formed human chains, blocking major intersections and one major interstate on-ramp. Meanwhile, police with a sealed warrant raided a rented studio in West Philadelphia, arresting 67 "Puppetistas." Those arrested went to jail before their creations could be viewed on the streets of Philadelphia. The giant puppets were then crushed in a trash-compactor truck brought in by the police. During a press conference in the week following, Police Commissioner John Timoney publicly denied that personal property had been destroyed, saying, "The only puppets in that studio were the 67 arrested." That crack would have been funny if true, but in this case, the only puppet was the one speaking.
Just the Facts All told, around 400 people were arrested in Philadelphia. Many detainees came directly to the IMC at wee hours of the morning, to document their stories inside. Released prisoners reported that activists were held in groups of six to eleven per holding cell, in a space designed for one person. Many reported that water was unavailable in their cell for the first 24 hours. Some reported seeing inmates restrained from their left wrist to their right ankle for several days. Others said they requested medical services and were denied. Most of those arrested were held in excess of 72 hours before arraignment, violating a Federal law requiring arraignment in 48 hours.
Some activists chose solidarity and resisted this treatment by not offering their names and fingerprints. All of the activists I talked to reported incredible solidarity and high spirits behind the bars of the Roundhouse jail, despite outrageous treatment by the police.
Bails were set from $10,000 to $1,000,000. John Sellers, who was held for $1 million bail, was picked up by police while talking on his cell phone, and charged with being armed with an "instrument of crime." What was the crime, I wonder? "Communication in the First Degree?" Sellers, of the Ruckus Society, is an effective national trainer in non-violent civil disobedience. His arrest and bail were obviously retaliatory . . . and Constitutionally bogus.
The pre-emptive police destruction of colorful and playful tools of dissent deprived demonstrators of their ability to educate through street theater. It was a deliberate campaign by the police and the politicians who pull their strings and the corporations who pull the politicians'; strings to prevent demonstrators from getting their message out to the public at large. I guess they learned in Seattle that if they let the people in the streets clearly state their case about the issues, it could galvanize a worldwide response. They weren't about to let that happen again. As a result, the Philadelphia demonstrations appeared random and unorganized. All the networks, ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox, went along for the ride. Their 30 second sound-bite style coverage characterized the Philly demonstrations as chaotic.
Si Se Puede! In Los Angeles, two court rulings made the Democratic National Convention protests more legal and they appeared more organized. These rulings allowed for a "Protest Pit" near the Staples Center, and helped protect the IMC Convergence Center from unwarranted harassment by police.
However, court rulings didn't stop the Los Angeles Police Department from harassing and intimidating protesters, journalists and city occupants. The LAPD used brutal force to disperse crowds and punish unruly demonstrators. These actions were visible even to the corporate media; several journalists were hit with rubber bullets after Monday night's "Rage Against the Machine" concert. One journalist from Switzerland was featured on several corporate media stations speaking about her injuries from police during their "crowd dispersion" exercise after the concert.
The LAPD commonly used the word "FUCK" to help explain just how fast their orders were to be followed. This was not really offensive to me, but many were shocked and frustrated by the lack of respect they received from these public servants. A common sight was the troop-like formations of 12 officers in full riot gear marching and chanting, armed with loaded guns, tear gas canisters and wooden batons. We're talking military culture here.
I worked with the Los Angeles IMC in a room rented on the sixth floor of the Patriotic Hall, two blocks from the Staples Center. The Shadow Convention for Los Angeles was held on the first floor of that same building.
Although the Center contained similar outlets to the Philly IMC, more established small print media (LA Free Press, for example) also used the space. The dynamics weren't the familiar collective decision-making, but more like a traditional press room. The feeling in the LA IMC was hectic, bustled, and confusing.
The air was tense the afternoon of August 14, when police spotted a VW Minivan that they claimed "matched the description" of a van allegedly carrying a bomb. Police closed the parking lot and alley around our building, detaining two radio pirates from Austin, Texas. Police scanner monitors at Dispatch reported the bomb squad would not come to the scene without more evidence. "Crashing the Party," the live-feed satellite TV show, could not broadcast from the IMC studios as planned. The Shadow Convention was even evacuated for a few minutes. The bomb squad never showed.
Protesters during the DNC voiced concerns about Al Gore's involvement in Occidental Petroleum, where he has $1 million invested. Occidental is, of course, the company that plans to drill for oil in Colombia, on the ancestral lands of the U'wa people-but, hey, who cares about the U'wa, anyway? They don't contribute to Al's campaign. Colombia is also the country that will receive a cool $1.3 billion in foreign aid (read: attack helicopters, anti-insurgency military training, civilian massacres, and spin control about "narco- guerrillas. It's a new version of Viet Nam, only this time in our hemisphere). . . We need to keep an eye on Colombia . . .
But I digress.
Two demonstrations focusing on the "criminal injustice system" and police brutality filled streets August 16. On the march to Ramparts Police Station, I accompanied Tom Hayden, of the Chicago Seven, and Homees Unidos, a reforming gang asking for other gang members in L.A. to put down their guns. The marches were heavily controlled by LAPD, but organizers negotiated with police to keep confrontation to a minimum. On the Ramparts March, seemingly undocumented immigrants hid their identities with scarves covering their faces. People came onto their porches and cheered as passers-by sang out solidarity chants in Spanish and English. A disciplined signal of the left arm rising helped to silence the crowd when things became tense between activists and police.
Ramparts Police officers arrested 26 non-violent protesters who sat on the steps of the station to shed light on the legacy of corruption and brutality from this station, and the INS's illegal detainment of Homees Unidos Founder, Alex Sanchez.
Intimidation and Grace The DNC was boring. In the few areas I could access inside the convention, I'd see journalists, delegates, and "dot com" advertisers socializing under poor lighting in freshly ironed suits. The big boys, CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox, had their little sub station outside. They weren't slumming with the print, radio or public broadcasting outfits.
One afternoon, I was having a good time, riding a bicycle around taking pictures of the Staples Center. Suddenly, I was surrounded by 12 male police officers, two wearing riot helmets. One officer closed my bicycle tire between his legs while another asked to see my "Official DNC Press Pass." The pass was clearly visible around my neck, so I pointed to it. An officer forcefully pulled on the passes around my neck. I crossed my arms on my chest and told the officer I felt violated. A third officer yanked the passes off of my neck, and inspected the IMC press passes closely. A fourth officer demanded to see my driver's license. After telling them that their intimidating manner made me uncomfortable, I told them I did not have to show them my identification. I suggested that they contact a DNC organizer. The first officer then began to yank at my bag. Overwhelmed, I pulled out my Che Gueverra wallet and showed him my Oregon Driver's License. Suddenly they were all satisfied and became sickeningly friendly. But no amount of "nice" from these guys could undo the tension of physical threat and intimidation they had put on me. The drama felt real.
Less than an hour later, I witnessed a legally permitted Critical Mass bicycle ride where police blockades forced riders to turn wrong way onto a one way street. This was used as a pretext for arresting some 70 riders, and impounding their bicycles. I returned to the IMC with a heavy heart, defeated in my spirit by the authoritarian force I'd witnessed. Then, while standing with the crowd in front of Patriotic Hall, someone said that Ram Dass was in the basement signing books.
I went to find him there, showered in his light-filled aura. I stood in line, numb. When it was my turn, I started to say, "thank you for coming," but tears escaped my eyes and my heart was too open to speak. He could see me. Without any words, he placed my hand on his heart and then his forehead. What a great friend he is. He helped me to let go.
Lovers in a Dangerous Time On the final day of the Democratic National convention in Los Angeles, I put my press passes, camera, and notepad away and marched shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with immigrants through the Garment District in L.A., after a lengthy tour through the city's sweatshops. Workers hung garments from windows in the towering buildings above the street, chanting and raising their fists in defiance. The day's marches converged to a gathering in the Protest Pit near the Staples Center. There, two women danced as though soaring on a huge stage, while two more recited names of people killed by the INS at the militarized Mexican border.
Finally, a man led the people in a conscious prayer. The crowd clasped hands and a chilling silence filled the air. We were empowered, even if the paramilitary police lineups numbered 1:1 with activists. The intention of the people held the space. Later, with the chattering staccato of seven police helicopters monitoring us from 75 feet above the crowd, the band Spearhead played and people danced together. Joy and the tension of armed intimidation co-mingled in that surreal moment.
Then the crowd moved with non-violent unity into the streets. Organizers asked people to march to the jail where activists were being held. The police blocked all the exits off and used profane language to funnel the entire group into the march. Fear pounded through my heart as I observed the circumference of control.
The strength of that group marching to the jail came from an awakened mass consciousness. Our unity was expressed through song, chant and dance. The volume passing through tunnels rose to excruciating levels. When left fists rose, silence hummed for fear of police attacks.
What Does It Take? This summer, in the streets of the convention cities, I met activists who have taken a stand for social and economic justice. They have made a commitment to the earth and to other living beings we share the earth with. By stepping up in active compassion, they offer each other strength, clarity, love, empathy and empowerment. I have been moved by their vision and commitment.
Their message is "Pay Attention." If you look beyond the honeyed words of the politicians, the corporations, and the institutions of globalization (WTO, IMF, World Bank & others), you see policies and actions that bring tremendous harm. The way things are now, people all over the world suffer so that a few enjoy the luxuries that come with class privilege. We can do it differently. We can stand with people from diverse paths, leading to a oneness, right here, right now, in the flesh.
Kerul Dyer is finishing an undergraduate degree in Journalism at Southern Oregon University. She and other students from SOU have organized a "Media Collective" with the intention to inform students and community members through accurate and fair investigation. Contact Kerul with suggestions or comments by eMail.