Monday, August 04, 2008

Protest as a Political Convention Tradition

Both the Republican and Democratic parties are preparing for protesters at their respective political conventions this year. The Democrats meet first, from August 25 through August 28 in Denver, and they have made provisions for limited demonstrations outside the Pepsi Center, the main convention hall, and near Invesco Field, where Barack Obama will deliver his acceptance speech in the style of the Beatles at Shea Stadium.

According to Sara Burnett in the Rocky Mountain News:

Protesters will have ample opportunity to be heard during the Democratic National Convention, from a city-provided stage to a first-of-its-kind system to have information distributed inside the Pepsi Center, attorneys for Denver and the U.S. Secret Service said.

The city will provide two loudspeakers outside the protest zone near the Pepsi Center, according to court documents. Protesters inside the fenced zone may use the amplification system, or bring their own bullhorns.

The Democratic National Convention Committee also will set up a table of leaflets and other information from protest groups "along the main thoroughfare" used by delegates and the media, the documents state.

The DNCC believes this will mark the first time in the history of any political party's convention that such an arrangement will be in place.
With regard to the convention's final night, Denver Business Journal reports:
The city of Denver on Monday said the public viewing and demonstration area on the last day of the Democratic National Convention will be next to Invesco Field at Mile High.

The city will make available 53,000 square feet in Lot J for a public viewing area, “within sight and sound” of the delegates arriving. Protesters will be allowed to use bullhorns, and a microphone will be set up with at least two speakers pointed toward the arriving delegates.
Similarly, for the September 1-4 Republican National Convention, local authorities will be making accommodations for protests and demonstrations. Chris Havens of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported on July 30:
The city of St. Paul will provide a stage and amplified sound system for people to use near the Xcel Energy Center during the four days of the Republican National Convention.

The stage will be within the public viewing area, a triangle between Fifth St. and the Dorothy Day Center bounded by the westbound lanes of W. 7th St. That area is where people can gather to express their opinions within earshot and sight of the Xcel, news media outlets and delegates.

"It's in the Xcel's field of view," said police spokesman Tom Walsh.
The setting aside of a "free speech" area near a political convention site is not new. Twelve years ago, when I covered the Democratic National Convention in Chicago for the Metro Herald, the protesters outside the United Center provided just about the only colorful story to report, since inside the convention hall the re-nomination of Bill Clinton and Al Gore was never in question, and there were not even any disputes about the platform, credentials, or rules.

Here is the story I filed about the "dissenters" at the Democratic Convention, which appeared in the Metro Herald in September 1996. (This is another in the series of "history lessons" that I promised on May 23.)
Protest and Dissent: The People Speak
Richard Sincere

(CHICAGO) --- Dissent is a noble American tradition. As John Gabriel Hunt explained in the introduction to The Dissenters: America's Voices of Opposition (Gramercy Books, 1993):

"The American patriot wears many hats and changes clothes often. The extraordinary leaders and great thinkers who helped mold the Republic are not only the figures traditionally highlighted in history textbooks. Equally patriotic were those Americans who fought against the status quo, who agitated for economic and social reform, who championed the rights of those whose rights had not yet been acknowledged, and whose ideas were new and revolutionary in their own times."

Hunt himself chooses a wide variety of dissenters to display in his volume -- from the well-known revolutionary pamphleteers Samuel Adams and Thomas Paine to the quiet thinkers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau to the social activists Dorothea Dix and Jane Addams to African-American leaders W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. This wide variety provides a clue as to the sources and expansiveness of American dissent. It includes the college educated and the street smart, the socialites and the social outcasts, the religious believers and the agnostics. It is, in short, America.

So, too, at both the Republican and Democratic conventions this year, were dissenting voices represented. Alas, this dissent was seldom heard within the convention halls themselves, because party leaders carefully orchestrated their 4-day, made-for-TV rallies to project the illusion (if not the reality) of unity, solidarity, and strength. No, to find true dissent one had to go outside the convention halls -- but not far away at all. And what one found was at once instructive and amusing.

In both San Diego and Chicago, under pressure from political groups and court orders, the political parties set aside outdoor areas near their meeting space in which organized demonstrators, marching protestors, and lonely citizens with an axe to grind could have their say. Few convention delegates, public officials, or party operatives saw or heard what was going on, but the media gathered there every day to see what was going on -- largely because little of consequence was happening inside.

In Chicago, the "official protest area" was designated as Lot E of the United Center parking lot. It really was not far from the entrances to the United Center used by delegates, observers, and journalists, but to find it required some effort. Convention organizers kindly set up a platform for speakers at one end of the lot and another platform for TV cameras a few yards away. There wasn't much need for either one, as few of the demonstrations had as many as 50 participants, and even the large ones were covered (if at all) by only one or two roving TV cameras and a handful of news photographers.

On Monday, the first day of the convention, I arrived at the United Center by shuttle bus and walked directly to the protest area, simply to get my bearings and see what might be on the menu. To my surprise and delight, about two dozen protesters were gathered, carrying banners and placards objecting to the War on Drugs. Several of the protesters were wearing -- or so they said -- clothing made from hemp, and others made the perfectly logical point that ratcheting up the War on Drugs also ratchets up the price of drugs, making it more lucrative and more inviting for new entrants into the drug economy -- and more rewarding to engage in violent, even homicidal, activity to secure sales territory. Speakers compared the current prohibition of marijuana and other "illicit" drugs to the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s and '30s -- the "noble experiment" that was also a dismal failure.

Each day I followed this ritual -- get off the bus, trek to the protest area, and see what's happening. Each day I saw something different, and something the same.

The "something the same" included David Benson, who led his one-man crusade to repeal women's suffrage. I asked Mr. Benson what motivated his campaign, which he began about a year ago: "After a marriage of thirty years which ended suddenly ... I became angry when my wife found a feminist girlfriend who said she could have a whole loaf instead of half a loaf," he explained circuitously in a thick Midwestern accent. I asked him directly: "Do you attribute your divorce to the right of women to vote?" After a pause, Mr. Benson answered, "A by-product, yes." Curious, I continued with my line of questions.

Metro Herald: "Do you also oppose the right of women to own property?"
Benson: "I think women should own property, yes."
Metro Herald: "Would you be in favor of repealing the amendment that allows for the direct election of U.S. Senators?"
Benson:"[long pause] No."
Metro Herald: "Do you think there should be a property qualification for people to vote?"
Benson: "You're going back about 200 years or so. No, in America nowadays, no, you don't have to own property to vote."
Metro Herald: "What about other groups? Are there any other groups that you think should be denied the right to vote?"
Benson:"No, only American women."
Metro Herald: "Foreign women should be allowed to vote?"
Benson:"I just say all females in America should be denied the right to vote."
Metro Herald: "Do you also think that women should not be allowed to hold public office?"
Benson:"I believe they can, and a lot of them prove themselves to be able to do a good job at it."
Metro Herald: "So you would approve of Elizabeth Dole, for instance, serving as a cabinet member, but not allowing her to vote for her husband for President."
Benson: "Yes."

Such was the flavor of the many "eccentrics" who populated the protest area day by day. Others complained about lawyers, meat-eaters, homosexuals, and the media. Still others hawked their own books and newspapers -- such as the Socialist Workers' Party. Among the organized groups -- the "something different" -- were a multiracial collection of teenagers calling for more funding for education and a nurses' march demanding passage of several pieces of health-care legislation.

The most anticipated and best-organized protests were those in favor and against abortion.

The anti-abortion demonstrators came first, on Wednesday afternoon, just before sunset. This group attracted the largest crowd of the convention and was about evenly divided between men and women. There were clergymen, laborers, mothers and children, and representatives of many racial and ethnic groups. Altogether there were about 200 to 250 protesters.

The next day, about one-third as many pro-choice demonstrators gathered at approximately the same time. Largely a female crowd, their message was far more in tune with the Democratic platform and the delegates inside the United Center. Perhaps that is why they were unable to muster a crowd as large as their opponents. The comparisons are interesting, however -- both groups were well-behaved, civil, as quiet in their passionate intensity as one would expect them to be loud. Both groups were genuinely devoted to their cause, and there is little reason to believe that common ground can be found for them to stand upon. It is clear -- particularly in the divergent stances of the two major political parties -- that the abortion debate will be with us, unsettled, for many years to come.

It is too bad that those who made use of the protest area were viewed by reporters and TV crews more as curiosities and amusements than they were as activists dedicated to a substantial cause. Despite lapses in logic, tortured syntax, signs drawn in child-like scrawls, and sometimes vacant expressions on their faces, these people obviously felt that their message was as much worth hearing as it was worth giving. As the late Senator J. William Fulbright once said, "In a democracy dissent is an act of faith." It is clear that these protesters were faithful people treading on sacred soil -- as near to the center of the political process as they could bring themselves.

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