Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix What I Saw At The Revolution

Protesters had plenty to say, but was anyone listening?

By Ben Geman

AUGUST 28, 2000:  Last Thursday, having covered the street protests outside the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles for four days straight, I ducked into the air-conditioned lobby of the Biltmore Hotel to cool off (and use the bathroom).

For the better part of the week, I'd been running around in LA's summer heat trying to keep up with the protesters -- who frequently held demonstrations in several places at once. They had come to LA to say that the Democrats have abandoned workers, immigrants, and the environment in their zeal to please corporations. Joining us, but not entirely welcome, was the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), which acquainted both the activists and the media covering the protests with their batons and rubber bullets.

So when I stumbled into the downtown hotel, the lobby was a startling contrast. A television was broadcasting a clip of vice-presidential candidate Joe Lieberman's speech. The Tennessee delegation was holding a luncheon in a banquet room. Delegates and other well-coifed conventiongoers milled about. Venders hawked official Gore buttons and other paraphernalia.

If I hadn't just come in from the noisy protest, I might not even have known it was taking place. No one seemed to be aware that there was a revolution brewing in the streets.

The week's demonstrations -- which included a well-organized march against presidential candidate Al Gore's investment in the Occidental Petroleum Corporation, whose Colombian operations threaten the indigenous U'wa people -- had little effect on the convention's politics, even if the thousands of marching activists and the LAPD army made sure the convention was not quite business as usual.

For example, although Gore mentioned a pet issue of the LA activists -- sweatshop labor -- he did so to appease the AFL-CIO, not the bunch of young activists who've been beating that drum since Seattle's World Trade Organization protests last year. And there's little doubt that Gore also mentioned sweatshop labor because the issue resonates with the American public, thanks in large part to Kathie Lee Gifford.

Beyond that, the protesters' issues didn't really make it into the public eye. Much of the media coverage consisted of taking easy potshots at the demonstrators -- Slate's David Plotz called them "sundry progressive rabble-rousers" -- and making fun of their myriad causes. For example, Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. wrote, "It's just your basic free - Mumia - Abu - Jamal - vote - for - Ralph - Nader - end - police - brutality - stop - the - scourge - of - globalism - save - the - rainforest - forgive - Third - World - debt - no - more - death - penalty - support - organized - labor - close - the - sweatshops - freedom - for - Tibet - end - racism - anarchy - in - the - streets - save - the - sea - turtles - peace - love - and - justice movement."

Other reports focused on the bullying tactics of the LAPD, which the protesters organized against. On Wednesday, they marched to the department's Rampart division, which is under investigation for widespread corruption and abuse against citizens, to draw attention to police abuse of protesters. A bigger march targeting criminal-justice issues took activists to police headquarters later that day. But these protests were not what got the media to cover the cops' actions. The media covered the police brutality during the convention because it was impossible to ignore the sight of officers, outfitted in riot gear, firing rubber bullets on protesters -- which is what they did Monday night after a Rage Against the Machine concert staged outside the Staples Center, where the convention was being held.

Some observers speculate that the media get caught up in the drama of covering clashes between activists and the police, and that this distracts them from what the protesters are actually saying. "It seems like the journalists dispatched to cover the street protests are going to cover the action and don't seem to be asking the questions about why people are assembled in the first place," says Linda Iannacone of New York City's progressive Paper Tiger Television series.

This could explain why most reports of this past spring's actions against the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, in Washington, DC, also focused on clashes that pitted demonstrators against police or delegates. But it doesn't explain why the media failed to cover the messages being put out by activists at the Republican convention in Philadelphia two weeks ago -- where there were no dramatic face-offs between police and protesters.

Part of the real reason the media haven't focused on the issues is that the protesters have no one message. They have about 20 -- everything, as the Miami Herald's Pitts notes, from releasing Mumia Abu-Jamal from prison to ending the excesses of global capitalism. This diversity does make such protests hard to cover. On the other hand, after attending about 10 protests over the course of the week, it was obvious to me what the activists' major message was: the Democrats have become too beholden to corporate interests and hostile to progressive issues.

"There has been some frustration and talk about how to hone the message better," says Matt Borus of the Boston Global Action Network, who attended the protests. Still, he adds, "a lot of media seem to forget that they are supposed to be investigating, and seem to want issues handed to them on a silver platter."

Acknowledges 26-year-old activist Josh Kamensky, of LA's Direct Action Network: "It's a challenge for us to get our message out there." Yet, he says, "It's also unfair to criticize us for wanting more than one thing. . . . They [the Democrats] have a long agenda, and so do we."

But if we don't hear about the activists' agenda in a meaningful way, does that mean the protests were a failure?

NOT FROM the vantage point of 1919 West 7th Street in LA. The four-story sand-colored building in LA's Pico Union neighborhood served as the "convergence space" for the activists who came to town for the convention protests. Here they could gather to meet each other, plan protests, receive first aid, or just chill out. There was even a meditation room.

Talking to people at the convergence space made it clear that the protests meant a lot to them. Take Erin Zion, a 22-year-old Bay Area resident who recently graduated from college and was inspired to come to LA after hearing stories about the DC demonstrations from a friend.

To her, the new protest movement that surfaced in Seattle is about waking up to reality. There's an expectation, Zion believes, that people like her will want to live happily ever after in the new economy after graduation. "Wait. We are not that dumb," she said as she ate lunch on the space's second floor, where other activists were resting between events. "We don't want anything to do with a system in this country right now. We see what it does to other people."

For her, Zion said, the demonstrations have been "a total turning point." And 24-year-old Liz, an LA resident who wouldn't tell me her last name, made a similar observation as we walked back from the "protest pen" outside the Staples Center following a rally against Gore's investment in Occidental Petroleum.

"How I am politically is radically changing," she said. "I'm still young, so I'm trying to figure it out, and I don't know how that change will manifest itself. But I'm drawn to this. It's very empowering."

Liz was raised in a Democratic family, but the new activism is making her consider some difficult choices. On the one hand, the abortion issue pushes her toward Gore. "I still don't know what I'm going to do when I enter the voting booth," she told me. "As a woman, I don't want to be told, 'Here's a coat hanger. Have a good time.' " On the other hand, events like the Occidental protests have alerted her to lots of reasons for concern about Democratic positions on global issues.

The protests in Los Angeles and Philadelphia were viewed as the latest events in the evolving anti-corporate grassroots movement that made its debut in Seattle last year. But the convention protests were fundamentally different from the demonstrations against the World Trade Organization.

For one thing, Big Labor was on board in Seattle, supplying about 40,000 of the 50,000 protesters. That wasn't the case at the conventions -- particularly in LA. Though the Clinton-Gore administration broke with labor on free trade, union leadership still saw a big enough difference between Democrats and Republicans to avoid participating in the protests. "Trade is [just] one issue as far as we are concerned," AFL-CIO head John Sweeney told me after a union rally in Santa Monica.

When I asked James Johnson of Service Employees International Union Local 535 about the role of labor in the grassroots protests, he echoed Sweeney's comments. "The reality is that Gore is opposed to the privatization of Social Security and supports increasing the minimum wage," he said. "We feel that Gore is better than Bush on labor issues any day."

Re-forming the "Seattle Coalition" -- as the union of labor, environmentalists, and other activist groups has been called -- is one challenge facing activists in the wake of the convention. Another challenge? Catching their breath. "The mobilization fatigue is real," said Han Shan, program coordinator for the Ruckus Society, when I interviewed him at the Los Angeles Independent Media Center, where protest organizers carved out a space to publicize their efforts. "There are folks who have been working for a year in crisis mode. There's burnout. We don't have the resources that our opponents do." This new movement has been busy since it started getting ready for Seattle. Organizers of Seattle's WTO protests had more than a year in which to plan. The protests against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Washington, DC, came together in less than half that time. The window of organizing for the convention protests was shorter still.

But Shan thinks that even if the protesters weren't fatigued, the movement would need to take some time to self-assess. "Everyone has known for months that it will be necessary to step back," he told me. "We will be slowing down this fall and thinking about long-term strategy so we are not just showing up every time big capital shows up."

In the meantime, expect to see smaller-scale mobilization. For example, activists will probably protest Ralph Nader's near-certain exclusion from the presidential debates when George W. Bush and Al Gore square off in Boston on October 3. The next big anti-globalization protest will take place overseas, in Prague, in September. But it's hard to say how many Americans will make the expensive trip. With activists experiencing mobilization fatigue, moving into Nader-campaign mode, and taking time out to gain perspective, it will probably be some time before the United States sees another large-scale mobilization on the order of Seattle, or even Los Angeles.

Leo Ribuffo, a George Washington University historian who specializes in 20th-century American history, says he's not convinced that a broad new social movement is afoot in any case.

"The analogies to the '60s are all wrong -- I think it is much closer to the low-level activism of the late 1950s against ROTC, capital punishment, and HUAC [the House Un-American Activities Committee]," he says. "I think the only thing 1960s about it is a kind of flamboyance. I don't think that we are on the verge of a new wave of social activism on the scale of the 1930s or 1960s. We are not fighting an unpopular war with a half-million troops abroad."

True, it's not the movement against the war in Vietnam. But it's something new for disparate interests to come together and challenge the status quo at a time when prosperity is considered to be widespread for all. This type of activism didn't exist even a year ago. And LA's broader failures notwithstanding, the new activism showed signs of vitality at the Democratic convention. There was plenty of innovation and action at the Los Angeles Independent Media Center, which broadcast radio and television programming on the activism in LA and published reports about the protests on its Web site (www.la.indymedia.org). And the other Independent Media Centers popping up all over the world -- there are now about 20 of them -- aren't closing down when the events they're set up to cover are over. You can still visit the centers set up for Seattle and Washington, DC (at http://seattle.indymedia.org and http://dc2.indymedia.org, respectively). Also, many activists told me that they thought events such as the LA demonstrations might spur people on to organize in their hometowns.

For the last big action of the week in LA, protesters marched to the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, where some of the protesters arrested throughout the week were being held. Amid the cheers -- loudest when the protesters walked through underpasses -- activists at the front tried to keep the tired group together. "Nice and slow," said one leader. "Baby steps."

Media coverage of the protests was indifferent at best, and the impact of the protests on the convention was minimal. But now that the protests have been over for a few days, I think that people's expressing themselves on the streets with baby steps is a lot better than their taking no steps at all.

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