Eye on the Empire
by Alan Bock

August 16, 2000

None But the Scruffy

At the Democratic Convention, as at the Republican get-together a couple of weeks ago, the only place you're likely to hear anything beyond mild criticism of tactics in foreign policy is in the streets. Even the "Shadow Convention," which touts its desire to deal with issues the major parties won't address, with Arianna Huffington as frontwoman, isn't talking about foreign policy, except peripherally as it affects the drug war. The dialogue on the streets is not notably sophisticated, but at least it is there.

A bunch of signs in Pershing Square and in what are apparently slated to be daily marches to the designated protest square at Staples Center saying "Gore: Oxy Out of U'wa Land" doesn't say it all about a consortium led by Occidental Petroleum drilling in indigenous peoples' territory or about the suspicion that the U.S. military aid to Colombia is really more about protecting Occidental Petroleum's interest than about the drug war or the civil war, or that the Gore family has been treated generously by Oxy since Armand Hammer's days, or that Al Gore still owns Occidental stock. But those signs at least raise the issue, which is more than the major media or the conventional politicians will do.


To a certain extent the protesters may be right. A march on Monday morning from Pershing Square (traditionally a free-speech location in Los Angeles since the old days when people actually did get up on soap boxes) to the protest location near Staples. It wasn't a pre-approved march and there was a brief and mostly peaceful confrontation with the police (who are omnipresent in downtown Los Angeles this week, some in full riot gear, using hotel parking lots as staging grounds, adding to the difficulty we ordinary folks without limousines have getting around) that led to 10 arrests or so.

Perhaps it wasn't only because of the arrests that a wire service story laid out the issues revolving around the U'wa land and US intervention the activists had been trying to bring to public attention. But it is more than possible that if there had not been arrests there would have been "no story." Maybe not, because the official Democratic proceedings are so predictable (aside from giddy speculation about whether Bill Clinton will continue to overshadow Al Gore even after his "swan song" tonight) that the protests in the streets are getting more attention than they did in Philadelphia.

Most media organizations are trying to cover three, maybe four aspects of the convention the official proceedings, the backroom murmurs and rumors, the Shadow Convention, and the street protesters, in approximately that order in part because that order reflects the order of ease of coverage. So the protesters will manage to place a few issues into mainstream news coverage, perhaps even get something resembling a continuing dialogue going on one or two. The likelihood is that would not happen without the protests, because most journalists report what officials or newsmakers say rather than seeking out stories or explicating issues.


I spent a few hours with the protesters Sunday evening and some more time on Monday morning. The official D2KLA coordinating committee has resolved that the protests will be nonviolent, and for the most part the activists are policing themselves. On Monday a few black-clad young activists rushed the 12-foot chain-link fence that separates the official protest site from the Staples Center proper and started yelling at the cops.

A few minutes later somebody produced an American flag "copy" (one of those with corporate logos in the place of the stars) and spread it out against the fence. Soon others produced lighters and the flag was smoldering. The cops stayed cool (having passed through their lines on the way from the convention media center I knew they had plenty of back-up). Some mostly older demonstrators came over and berated the black-clads for diverting attention from the real issues (Mumia Abu Jamal, the racist death penalty, etc.) the speakers were discussing from the podium. They were rewarded with an obscenity-laden rant about how your generation blew it but our generation will really sock it to the establishment. Or something like that.

There are real questions and valid disagreements about tactics. If you're delivering a radical message or a message the mainstream media are not eager to communicate, is it necessary to do something outrageous or even violent to get attention? A case could be made for the notion.

One problem with street demonstrations is that not only is it difficult to start a nuanced discussion, the incentive is to hype up the rhetoric to the point that it's likely to turn off mainstream Americans. At the street rallies I attended, there were not only hard-core denunciations of evil corporations, but the kind of close-to-anti-Americanism that has been the hard left's downfall. That crowd, in that street, loved it when a speaker from Philadelphia MOVE called for revolution and said, "We need to shut this M-F country down." But it doesn't play well with most Americans.


The "Shadow Convention" put on by shrewder people, seems to have created more of a stir in Los Angeles than in Philadelphia, and it is raising issues neither party wants to deal with seriously, especially the drug war. While the drug war does have foreign policy implications, especially in Colombia, some of which will probably be discussed during Wednesday's session, the Shadows don't include foreign policy directly in their program. One can understand that the decision to focus on three issues, each of which already has an organized constituency willing to put in some work and recruit some volunteers, it's a shame foreign policy wasn't one of them.

So, for better or worse, that left foreign policy to the street demonstrators. One wishes they had raised the issues more effectively, but I'm glad they raised them at all.

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