Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Better Angels

Al Gore's Democrats, stalked by a shadow army of protestors, go marching as to war.

By Jackson Baker

AUGUST 28, 2000:  Innumerable analyses have been written concerning the supposed urge to perfection programmed into a youthful Al Gore by (pick one) his mother/his father/his dual upbringing in Washington, D.C., and Carthage, Tennessee.

So, as Gore wended his way toward the end of his lengthy, laundry-list acceptance speech at last week's Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, it was more interesting than usual to hear him approach his peroration this way: "Yes, we're all imperfect. But as Americans we all share in the privilege and challenge of building a more perfect union." (Unspoken subtext: Do I have problems? Sure, just like you. I can work on the country while I work on myself.)

"I know my own imperfections. For example, I know that sometimes people say I'm too serious, that I talk too much substance and policy. Maybe I've done that tonight. ("NooooOOOOO!!" came the solicitous refrain from the tens of thousands of yellow-dog Democrats packed into L.A'.s Staples Center.)

"But the presidency is more than a popularity contest," Gore continued (having just won one by acclamation). "It's a day-by-day fight for people. If you entrust me with the presidency, I know I won't always be the most exciting politician. But I pledge to you tonight: I will work for you every day and I will never let you down." (Ferocious cheering from the throngs, who sensed that this scion of St. Albans and Harvard had come as close as he plausibly could to the spirit of Give-'em-Hell-Harry Truman.)

And then the conclusion itself: "In this City of Angels, we can summon the better angels of our nature. Do not rest where we are, or retreat. Do all we can to make America all it can become. Thank you. God bless you. God bless America."

Whereupon followed the requisite pandemonium, balloon drops, and rushing of other party dignitaries to the stage for the ritual extended group grope. It had been a fetching performance, all things considered. For all of the programmatic by-the-numbers approach to governance which had preceded his homespun close, Gore's speech had struck enough emotional chords to keep the speech -- and this was always his handlers' worry -- from coming off as a purely intellectual calculation.

And yet, was it just coincidence that his six concluding words were the same as those which his Republican opponent, George W. Bush, had closed with in his own acceptance speech two weeks before?

Bush's written text had him ending "God bless you," but the Texas governor had ad-libbed "God bless America" on top of that. Gore's text, on the other hand, was scripted in, and in this case, as in most others, he had deviated from his advance transcript virtually not at all.

And think back from that pious, patriotic end to the beginning, a good hour earlier, when he had been introduced by his wife Tipper, who came out bopping and twirling and would later greet her husband with a long, borderline salacious kiss that we almost had to turn away from.

That kiss would linger -- in more senses than one. It seemed both contrived and real, in the same way that the emotional cores of Gore's two previous acceptance speeches had been.

In 1992 in New York, the 44-year-old vice-presidential nominee -- already having to disprove a reputation for being stiff -- bopped with Tipper after a speech in which he had spoken movingly of his toddler son's near-fatal collision with a moving car. And in 1996 in Chicago he had tugged at the convention audience's -- and the nation's -- heartstrings with a gripping description of his sister's death from lung cancer.

It was too strong to say that Gore was artificial. More to the point was another word derived from the same root: artificer. It was clear -- never more so than in Nicholas Lemann's in-depth article about the vice president in the previous week's New Yorker -- that Gore preferred intellectual distance to engagement, thought to feeling, but he could approach the human heart with some knowledge of its contents and manage emotional effects if he wanted to.

His eviscerations of Ross Perot, Jack Kemp, and Bill Bradley should have taught us that. There had been passion in those mano-a-mano debates. Ironically enough, the one time Gore had a close shave in combat was with Dan Quayle, a supposed lightweight, in the vice-presidential debate of 1992.

In his own acceptance speech, in Philadelphia, Bush had served notice (if his primary-season one-on-ones with John McCain had not already done it) that he, too, should not be taken lightly. Dismissed by his adversaries as a pampered president's son and frat boy, Bush had stood ramrod still and summoned up some passable gravitas, tut-tutting his predecessor, Bill Clinton, for having wasted his own promise -- and that of their common generation.

In the course of his remarks, Bush might have done a distinct favor for Gore, who has something of a tin ear and the habit of ritualizing phrases until they are squeezed dry of meaning. (The once evocative phrase "a woman's right to choose" had long since been converted by onetime abortion opponent Gore, as much as by anyone else, into a cant-phrase; one wonders how he would have answered if Quayle had had the audacity to ask, "Choose what, Al?")

For months, Gore had been attacking Bush's tax-cut proposal by calling it, often several times in the same speech, a "risky tax scheme." No natural speaker would have done so. The phrase was virtually unsayable, with enough hard k and s sounds to sound like chalk skating harshly on a blackboard. By repeatedly mocking Gore's use of the term, Bush may have caused the phrase's banishment, inoculated Gore against his own weaknesses.

But that was the bottom line of Gore's acceptance address; he was conceding Bush all the style points. Plodding though he may have sounded as he tacked one Democratic talking point -- prescription drug benefits, patients' rights legislation, working-class tax cuts, a crash program in education, anti-tobacco legislation -- on to another, he had cast himself as a General Grant of social policy, rousing his resolute hosts in a final war of attrition against the infidels who would take away the goodies.

Except that there was more than one WAY to see Gore's crusade. It was no great surprise that anti-abortion demonstrators showed up here and there with gory pictures of aborted fetuses, but this familiar haunting of Democrats from the right was only a sideshow this year compared to the separate but linked protests of the left that raged against the convention and its candidate by day and night -- on behalf of causes ranging from Vegan to Socialist to womens' and prisoners' rights to the advocacy of Free Coffee Trade.

These protests would typically start in Pershing Square, across the street from the shabby/genteel Regal Biltmore downtown. Site of the 1937 Academy Awards (as guests were informed via a souvenir photo), the hotel housed the Tennessee delegation and some of those from Connecticut, as well as the Gore brain trust and -- as it was first whispered and later confirmed -- the vice-presidential candidate, Joe Lieberman himself, whose secretive goings and comings were as well shielded by Secret Service and security as shipments from Fort Knox.

Through the airtight hotel windows of even the most inattentive guests would come the sounds of music, drums, chants (e.g., "Ain't no power/ Like the power of a woman/ 'Cause the power of a woman don't stop!"/ Clap Clap), and generalized group noise, followed in the afternoon by that of police sirens or helicopters, followed in turn by silence. The sequence generally meant that the protest had begun to move away from downtown toward the nearby Staples Center, where the convention started up in earnest every evening, and that the police had followed it.

You would see the police on the sidewalks outside in rows of two, their unisex dark-navy ranks loaded up with riot guns, masks, and ammunition belts (filled largely with rubber bullets, it would turn out). Certain entrances were closed, and to get through the few approved ones required, at most times, that guests flash their credit-card-like electronic room keys.

On Monday night, as Bill Clinton was reciting the accomplishments of New Democracy and saying his fond farewells inside the arena, the LAPD was using rubber bullets and pepper spray to disperse the 8,000 or so people who had attended a concert on an adjoining lot by the aptly named Rage Against the Machine, an out-and-out agitprop group who played their set in the shadow of giant murals of FDR, RFK, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King. Their intended audience (as their broadsides put it): "all the people who continuously are left out and excluded by the two major political parties."

Later that night, protestors followed the crowd to Santa Monica Pier and heckled a heavily policed amusement-park party being thrown by the conservative congressional "Blue Dogs." And on Tuesday, some 80 demonstrators on bicycles rode alongside the shuttle buses taking attendees to the arena and hooted at those inside.

Something like that was going on all week. But so tight was security or so intent on celebrations of various kinds were the delegates and other visiting Democrats that most of it was successfully screened out. Besides the hoopla inside the arena, there were some choice distractions away from it, especially for dutiful donors.

Attending their first political convention were Harold and Bob Byrd, co-proprietors of the Bank of Bartlett and associated enterprises, hard-shelled Democrats in an area of suburban Memphis that is dominated almost totally by Republicans.

Harold Byrd, who along with his large and determined band of siblings grew up "a Roosevelt Democrat" without much in the way of plenty, remembered his thoughts while attending a donors' party at a chic L.A. club called Asia de Cuba. The club, which featured a swimming pool and hammocks in lieu of chairs, overlooked a Los Angeles skyline that was no more glittering than the well-appointed men and women inside. "Some of the best-looking people I've ever seen," Byrd marveled.

A reflective man who had run for Congress twice as a Democrat, Byrd internalized his reactions thusly: "I thought it was great that we Democrats had been able to reach out to people like this. New-economy Internet professionals. Ambitious, on-the-move types. I thought it showed that the party still cares, even after success has come to people, and it effectively made the point that a rising tide lifts all boats."

The tides came in separate waves, of course. Longtime Gore loyalist Johnny Hayes, a Sumner Countian who left a secure post as a TVA director last year to come on board the Gore campaign as a fund-raiser, was the "Commissar of Perks," as one conventioneer put it -- especially for the big givers, a species Hayes continued to court in L.A., offering such bait as prime tickets for the final night's Barbra Streisand concert.

Then there were creative enlisted-men types like John Freeman and Jerry Fanion, both of whom learned the art of constructive foraging while in the service, successively, of former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Sr. and his son and successor, current congressman Harold Ford Jr. "What I learned from Senior was that there's always a way. You never settle for no," said Freeman, the roundup man who solicited merchant donations for many a Christmas-basket giveaway. Freeman and Fanion were specialists in the art of locating the extra passes that could admit an uncredentialed person to the Staples Center or even to the floor in prime time.

And people did want to go to the floor, even in this age of pre-canned conventions and uncontested outcomes. There's not much suspense these days for the newlyweds who go to Niagara Falls, either. It's a matter of the enduring symbolic attraction. (For nostalgically inclined reporters, the nearby city of Long Beach had been the site the week before of one of the old-style fractious conventions, one result of which was that the Reform Party had become the Reform Parties.)

Boilerplate was usually all that was going on up there on the dais. Or, in a generally unsuccessful innovation, out there on the floor, whence, on opening night a series of female Democratic senators spoke from amongst their delegations. That might have looked and sounded fine on TV, but in the arena itself the speakers could be neither seen nor heard and the show tended to lose its focus and pacing.

Thus it was that main acts like Hillary and Bill Clinton on Monday night came later than planned, with a corresponding loss in Nielsen numbers out there in the country. But the experience of Being There, especially if, like the Tennessee delegation, you were front and center under the dais for one of the big numbers, could still be giddy.

Delegate Jim Strickland of Memphis, a former Shelby County Democratic chairman who has heard Rep. Ford Jr. speak many a time, was on the third row looking right into Ford's eyes on Tuesday night during his keynote address. When he heard Ford at one point mention Tennessee Education Association president Velma Lois Jones, he recalled the congressman's habit of making reference to audience members in the course of a speech and, for a fleeting irrational moment, halfway expected that he might hear his own name.

No such luck. Ford, who can be incandescent when improvising, had been presented with a preordained text largely ladled up by the Gore campaign, and new talking points had been stirred into it right up to speech time. Under the circumstances, the 30-year-old Memphis congressman did just fine, but he lost much of the home-viewing audience when the three old-line networks cut away, never to return, during a preceding long, droning speech by defeated presidential wannabe Bill Bradley.

Even so, the national Democrats were clearly holding a place in line for this centrist-minded young African American, and virtually all the talk about Ford afterward concerned whether he could or would go All the Way.

Centrism and diversity were, after ALL, for the Democrats of Los Angeles as for the Republicans of Philadelphia earlier, the watchwords of the day, the twin peaks of this prosperous time in the history of the world's surviving superpower.

And maybe that sense of things would hold up as Al Gore and George W. Bush -- two scions of the national Establishment -- summoned their troops, as in the Kennedy-Nixon showdown in that equally optimistic year of 1960, to another contest for control of the national mainstream. And maybe those cacophonous sounds at the edge, those calls of "corporate whore" and worse, were mere sound effects, the backdrop for this ritual jousting of our better angels.

It remained to be seen.



Behind the Barricades

Outside the Staples Center, a motley collection of protestors, anarchists -- and the just plain ticked off -- held their own convention.

By Ashley Fantz

Woody Allen couldn't have directed it better.

The absurdist drama of the Democratic National Convention and, for that matter, all of current American politics, has become a pay-per-view production. Was it a coincidence or convenience that all the space monkeys who run our great nation looked so comfortable near Hollywood? On the eve of their arrival in the City of Angels, Barbra Streisand hosted a fundraiser with special schmoozer of honor President Slick Willy. Drama coach Stella Adler should have been there, giving a theatrical workshop on the technique of finding one's motivation.

C'mon, play along. You are a presidential candidate. Concentrate. Think labor union endorsements and corporate special interests. Follow that soft money. Keep yourself centered -- well okay, a little more to the right. Remember family values but be inclusive. We are the world. Give the people what they want to hear. Promise health-care reform, promise not to raise the retirement age, promise to hike the minimum wage. Keep mum about anything specific regarding tax cuts, but promise them anyway. Put a smile on, make a fist, pound the podium, repeat a catch phrase. Hold for applause. Repeat. Bow. Accept your gold statuette -- that fancy Oval Office swivel chair.

L.A.'s scenery had undergone a major overhaul in honor of the big show coming to town. Trees were cut down near the Staples Center so they would not be "uprooted, burned, or used as weapons," said LAPD Sergeant John Pasquariello. The homeless were swept off the street near the convention site. In their place cops stood costumed in riot gear, rehearsing their baton swings. They were everywhere, leaning against the looming patriotic red, white, and blue glass poles that the city commissioned to demonstrate its patriotism. To some, the five-foot-wide poles were a wonder. To the cab driver who drove me from L.A. International, the poles were "a disgusting waste of money."

The soundtracks clashed. Rage Against the Machine's renegade raps throttled the tepid Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow. Unless the average voter knew someone already invited to the DNC, there was little chance they would get their hands on an admittance badge (color-coded to distinguish a guest from a very special, honored guest.) Political pundit Arianna Huffington was so offended she shelled out $500,000 of her own money to host a daily shadow convention featuring critics of the campaign, including Christopher Hitchens, Gore Vidal, Jonathan Kozol -- even Gary Hart. But nothing, not even the bomb threat on shadow convention opening night, could match the protestors' performance.


Seventh Street: straight up 'hoodville, downtown, a world away from the DNC.

Eight a.m., Friday: Hop on L.A.'s newly built subway system -- the most expensive in the world at $1.35 for a one-way ticket. Sit alone. No one in L.A. uses the subway. Ride to MacArthur Park, show an address to a cop writing a ticket. Tell him I'm looking for the building the protestors are renting.

"Is that where all those kids are?" he says, sighing. "Jesus. That way."

Sandwiched between a deli and wig/check-cashing shop, the four-story building the peace de resistance has rented is buzzing with protestors. Ground floor: Puppet workshop. Purpose: puppet-gandizing, defined as intimidation through papier mache. The Indigo Girls' hippie anthem is blaring: I went to the river, I drank from the fountain... . I am the only woman in the building whose armpits and legs are shaved. There is no air conditioning. The day's projected heat index is high enough to incite random killings. Most of the dreadlocked, rag-wearing protestors smell like they were marinated in urine and onions. This odor does not go well with the smell of their vegan-friendly lunch -- lettuce and soupy brown beans. I try all week not to concentrate on these things, but their B.O. is the first thing I notice and the one constant annoyance I cannot ignore.

My chi is blessed at the door by a woman burning incense. Signs, signs, everywhere, signs. Free Mumia, Save a Forest, Raise the Minimum Wage, Withdraw U.S. Navy from Puerto Rico, Provide Universal Health Care. Enormous Mardi Gras puppets repeat the protestors' battle cry, "Human Need -- Not Corporate Greed!" Every inch of wall holds up piles of cardboard drawing attention to the general causes: The Environment!; Send a Pig (cop) to the Slaughterhouse!; Let the Light In, Chew Grass!

While I'm writing down these sights, a guy named Turtle tells me that I need a media escort if I'm with the press. I ask him why and tell him that I don't want an escort.

"Are you corporate media?"

"I'm with an alternative newsweekly in Memphis."

"Well, okay, but stay down here. Please don't go upstairs unless you have an escort."

I smile and wait until he's gone. I put away my notebook and look for the stairs.


2nd floor: sports wear, ladies' lingerie, Anarchy 101.

As always, what is forbidden is a whole lot of fun. On the second floor, a two-hour class called Legal Observing teaches protestors to take detailed notes and videotape police action that looks over-the-line. Most people in this class are under 30; there is one suburban mother, and one elderly woman -- who calls herself a career protestor -- crocheting a blanket and wearing a Gays Against the Bomb T-shirt. They view a video of officers roughing up innocent citizens and then gather into groups to discuss what they remember from the clip. By the end of class, each knows what to listen for and where to concentrate their cameras. Film school for revolutionaries. The pupils are also taught how to properly pick up evidence with latex gloves and plastic baggies. The videos and evidence are to be sent to Washington, D.C.'s Midnight Special Law Collective, an organization that files police brutality lawsuits.

The instructor, who had his arm broken by a wooden bullet during the WTO riots in Seattle, finishes class with a clip of an unprovoked protestor backhanding a cop.

"This is nice," he says. "But we don't want to see this. If you capture this, keep it to yourself. We are not here to collect propaganda that helps the cops."

Several classmates are visibly confused about this last lesson. It is one of many contradictions in the protestors' modus operandi. They complain that the press is controlled by corporate bucks, but they insist reporters on their turf be baby-sat by an escort. A few protestors wear Nike shoes while painting signs condemning sweatshop labor. And this: It is Us against Them -- the cops. Objectivity is useless when at war.


3rd floor: mens' apparel, ladies' shoes, Resistance Training.

Welcome to the crawl house.

Everybody get down!

Four scruffy, sweaty girls, with clumpy dreads hanging in their perspiration-soaked, pimpled, angry faces, are on hands and knees, crawling toward me like turtles whose shells are on fire.

"Tear gas to your left! Pepper balls in the air! Rubber bullets, wooden bullets! Those motherfucking Nazi cops are all around you! Head down, keep your eyes straight ahead. Gas masks on only when you are moving. Stay still and it's this: Watch!"

A barefoot, screaming woman with a clipboard mimes taking a gas mask off one of the crawlers, spraying mace into her mouth, and shoving the mask down again.

The crowd gasps.

Resistance training is a dance -- a square dance. Take your partner, do si do, join hands, shout "Hell No We Won't Go!" Promenade and take the lead; shout together now, "Down with the LAPD!"

Don't let what you've seen on television fool you. Protestors are organized. Most are in their 20s and white. But they grew up in places as disparate as Holland and Mississippi. They began practicing their protests a week before the delegates arrived in L.A.

There is no time to waste. By the time the curtains are pulled Monday night, the protestors must perfect DADA (Direct Action During Arrest) Consensus Facilitation and ARDA (Arrest Risking Direct Action), all of which is fancy terminology for how to avoid a five-0 beatdown. The teachers outnumber the students because most are veterans (read: less than a year) of the WTO uprising and the Philadelphia convention protest. When they aren't choreographing a blockade in front of The Gap, or some other corporate oppressor, they are "dialoguing" about what civil disobedience means to them. Every now and then, a few will embrace.

It's hard not to be moved at times by their dedication. A teenage girl tells everyone that she and her mother were homeless for awhile. She has come to L.A. from New Jersey to march with Ted Hayes, a homeless activist, whose National Homeless Plan seeks to decriminalize panhandling. Hayes would later take a hit in the abdomen when the LAPD began shooting bean bags from cannons during a Rage Against the Machine concert.


A word about the riot.

The protestors may have had a point about corporate media. The riot after the Rage Against the Machine concert was much more violent than any CNN video or soundbite showed. Before it broke out, two rows of enemies faced each other: 75 black-hooded members of the anarchist group Black Block and the LAPD, with batons and pepper spray cocked. The Black Block started to smash and throw concrete. The cops reacted by announcing that everyone -- including the protestors who were peacefully dancing to Rage's music -- had to disperse within 15 minutes. Logistically, that was like ordering a packed crowd to exit The Pyramid and be in Bartlett in five minutes.

Wooden and rubber bullets flew; batons were whacked against legs and backs of protestors for no apparent reason. Police crushed protestors between their horses and a chainlink fence. Many protestors were hit as they tried to run away from the police. The Black Block agitators blended into the crowd.

The next day, following directions on a leaflet I was given at the 7th Street headquarters, I went to a San Fernando Valley suburb to snoop around the National Anarchist Convention.

A lot of kids dressed like Johnny Rotten were sitting outside a house smoking. As far as I could tell, the house was empty except for some more people standing around and smoking. I was told that I couldn't come in unless I paid $25. I declined and started back toward my car. A man from inside the house ran after me. Sympathetically, he quietly told me that I looked as if I had money and a job and that is probably why I was not allowed inside. He pointed toward a guy with a mohawk and army boots who walked through the door without paying. I was wearing a white T-shirt, shorts, and tennis shoes. I had left my diamond tiara at home.


Back to 7th Street

Fourteen-foot-tall skull puppets, representing the armed forces, or the police, take their place next to their other puppet friends The Mark of Democracy; Social/Ecological Puppets; Solutions aka The Puzzle Pieces; and the Direct Democracy puppets.

Puppet Pageant director Tim, who has spent the day burning sage to exorcise negative political spirits, herds the protestors and their puppets down to a nearby park for rehearsal. They sing freedom songs along the way.

Tim breaks the groups up.

"Let's work on our round-robins," he suggests. "Drummers and dancers, why don't we try to get in sync? Because when you guys said, 'Rise up!' and they were going, 'Down with the system!,' it's just not working."

Puzzle Pieces executes a round-robin that would embarrass the Harlem Boys Choir. Their chant, Work's just tired, traffic, smog, smog. Work's just tired, traffic, smog, smog, is accompanied by a modern dance interpretation of large cars toppling the protestors as they pretend to moan and choke. They were matched in vigor by the Social/Ecological puppet team knocking down protestors with giant fists labeled "LAPD."

Out of nowhere, a man wearing a button that reads, "Don't shoot, I'm not a protestor," interrupts the rehearsal.

"Hey, you freaks! Do you think you're changing anything?" he shouts. "You should all just put that stuff down, take a shower, and come to the Staples Center. Do something meaningful."

A skinny protestor, probably no more than 16, wearing a spiked dog collar and combat boots, timidly walks toward the loud-mouthed bully. The man looks stunned as they face each other silently for a few seconds.

Then, without a word, the kid bends down, picks up a papier mache tulip and gently sticks it in the man's straw cowboy hat.

The crowd applauds ecstatically.


Weekly Wire Suggested Links










Page Back Last Issue Page Forward

News & Opinion: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17

Cover . News . Film . Music . Arts . Books . Comics . Search

Weekly Wire    © 1995-2000 DesertNet, LLC . Memphis Flyer . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch