Down 16th Street, among the restored brick warehouses and the bland midwestern office buildings, today’s protest march comes, the personnel the same — anarchists in tie-dye and black face masks, nu-skool communists with tight-cropped hair and a predilection for denim, sixties veterans with santa claus beards or feminist battleaxe earrings — the theme different. Today it’s prisoners’ rights, with a dozen people in Guantanamo-style orange jump suits and the Hannibal Lecter masks the authorities are wont to use.
With, in tow, a phalanx of police in black from head to foot, machine-guns strapped down the middle of their body armour, thick barrels hanging pendulously between their legs, the march turned into the grounds of the massive Stalinist-lite Denver court house building, one of the designated protest parks, a la Chinoise.
I hadn’t meant to follow the march. I was looking for dried apricots (low GI) and the thing happened to be going towards the Walgreen’s pharmacy. By the time it swept past there, the police had locked in around it, with about forty hors d’oeuvres (pigs on horses), and other officers on such a dizzying array of transport that they seemed to be trying to win a bet — the Segway squad was lurking round one corner, the BMX flying division brought on the right flank, and an expanded golf cart with the top brass bringing up the rear.
We were all poured into one corner of the court house gardens. Batons were drawn. The various megaphones were starting up “Obama isn’t the change we need, revolution is the change we need! Only Communism can-“. Oh god. The cordon moved a couple of steps in. I realised that I hadn’t yet picked up my press pass. Curse you, zone diet. I heard the sound that’s a familiar prelude to a police barney, the low hum of a large van pulling up.
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“Stand back from there!” a cop barked.
Here it comes… “you’re on the road — you might get run over”.
So not exactly ‘Recreate 68’ as the T-shirts had it, though that time may yet come. But there’s no doubt that the city’s in carnival mode, the whole of its expansive downtown dominated by the convention.
T-shirt sellers, face-painters — recreate ’86 — and a select bunch of Christian lunatics, with enormous signs that seem to hold about two thirds of the Bible.
“Hey are you a fag? Well what about my civil rights to hate you!” yelled one at a thin man in a bicycle helmet, so probably an accurate choice for the barb, but nasty nonetheless. By such tactics, each fundamentalist has earned a police detail of about 25, thus swelling each appearance into a traffic stopping mini-demo.
In Starbucks, CNN is playing the Convention prelims — people who know someone who knows one of the stage crew, standing at the podium for a souvenir photo — there’s a long queue of them, but FOX news is videoing them from the other end, so they’re all looking back to that camera, and so having both CNN and Fox on the screen would show a perfect loop…
Back on the street, we run into a fast-moving mini-demo of Hillarytar… of Hillary stalwarts, about twenty of them, with three media crews in tow. For the most part white woman d’un certain age, they have cardboard Hillary masks tied to the back of their heads, which is deeply deeply disconcerting…
Serial interviews are happening “Hillary got the most votes, the rules were stacked against her etc” not untrue, save for the fact that Hillary agreed to the rules, and thought they would shift things her way. US crews throw in questions about Hillary having asked her supporters to pull it in etc, which gets the response that they want to stand for her.
“Given that Hillary and Obama have identical policies what difference does it make?” I ask, in a Westminsterish mood, and the question seems to throw everyone.
“I don’t think that’s relevant,” says one.
Further down the road, they pose with an eight foot inflatable man, advertising a nearby grillhouse, a homage I guess, to Bill.
“HRT has a lot to answer for,” says a man beside me who I just made up so as not to have that joke hung round my neck. Damn.
At the Big Tent — a, well, big tent set up on a vacant lot downtown, and being run by an alliance of powerful blogs and progressive organisations — bloggers in rows are ticktacking away, like they were in a sort of online content Nike. None of the TVs are turned to convention coverage — they’re covering a debate about progressivism which is going on on the second floor of the tent — and the bar is a single table shoved into the corner (the juice stall and massage centre by contrast is expansive).
“We open at 7am,” says the nice young woman filling in my registration “for yoga”.
The Wazee Street Bar ten minutes later, where the Crikey desk was hastily reassembled, has by contrast all three news channels on, and a reliably destroyed bunch of barflies whose only experience of blogging is the occasional alcohol-induced trousers emergency.
“Howdchew like Denver?” says one, ordering a vanilla vodka and grand marnier shooter.
“Svery dry,” he says answering his own question.
By now, the Convention is under way, with the actual Convention part of the convention under way, the stuff — minutes of the credentials committee, report of the rules committee — that every party has to undergo, just not with coverage by nine television networks. The ratings will be low of course — at least the Democrats should hope they are, because these appearances show the internal apparatus of the party as it is, and as its critics have charged it as being, a party which has come to be dominated by the 60s social movements, as mainstream working class membership and involvement evaporated from it. So in the rapid three minutes appearances that fill the rest of the afternoon, we get, well too many people with chunky wooden jewellery and slim hipped timeserving congressmen, to give any sense that this is a mass party, rather than a coalition of all who have been hitherto marginalised.
“You excited by the Convention?” I ask.
Most of these speakers — a large bald female pastor is up now, a sort of cross between Skunk Anansie and Sue-Ann Post — have worked hard for the party, given decades of their life to the fractious task of running a sprawling and only semi-real organisation, and the charge of take-over is only half-true — the Democrats lost a lot of its base because reactionary union leaders led the rank and file out of it in the 60s, out of sheer pique at its push for civil rights, and its anti-Vietnam war message. The social movements were filling a vacuum created by the corruption and reaction that paralysed the American labour movement for 25 years.
Nevertheless, with NAFTA and the failure of a health care push in the Clinton government, you can’t say that the Democrats worked that hard to get them back, and the roll-call of speakers this first afternoon says it all. The only union leader to speak is the head of the teachers union. Could the organisers not find an Ohio engine parts shop steward, a middle-aged working mother doing split shifts between the Pancake House and cleaning rooms at the Days Inn? Could we hear about the wreck of New Orleans from an average Joe/Joan, not a musician who “had to take flight with my tribe of friends when the levees broke?” And who has made a documentary film of her experiences?
It’s not that I think these people have any less right to be up there — and if the Democrats can elect a half-Kenyan ex-leftist senator of two years standing to the White House, then they will have pulled off a game-changing coup with little parallel in the country’s history — it’s simply that there’s a missing middle in the way the party is presenting itself to the wider American public.
By the time I wandered down to the Pepsi centre and passed through the quietly professionally paranoid security, the afternoon had segued into a musical interlude. Man they’ve got a hot tight huge band, rocking it out, the GOP will never top them belting out RESPECT and “are you gonna go my way”, it’ll be Wilfred Brimley doing “Tea for Two” on the paper comb, the floor of the convention was full with people bopping to their various level of ability — i.e. there were black people dancing, and white people shifting their bodies around like they were balancing a load of bricks on a trolley.
The moment that pierced the heart was a young girl, about 12,13? singing, wobbly, but never off tune Alicia Keys’s No-one (“No-one no-one/can get in the way of what I’m feeling”) which seemed to take all the aspiration in the auditorium, all the hope, and lift it simply to the ceiling. Three minutes like that is often all you need to remind you where you stand and why. Then there were some more party goons (stop press: just as I was about to press send, some workers and unionists came on — but even here, the workers were giving testimonials to Barack Obama’s magical powers, rather than talking about their own day to day struggles).
The Convention is, as the network talking heads have said, the chance the party gets to present itself to the nation, less mediated by the spin, counterspin and news cycle agendas, and even though less and less people have been watching it over the decades, it still commands far greater attention than would say the standard ALP Hobart/Terrigal-based smorgasbord of sh-t sandwiches that pass for party democracy.
Well, they will have to do all that and more (Caroline Kennedy on now, talking about Jello Biafra’s soon-to-be-latest recruit). The last six weeks have been opportunities lost, coming off the solid lead from the primaries and Obama’s Europe trip. Everything has to go right from here on And on the bar balconies of the downtown hotels on 16th street, the lights are coming on, as the black tie parties start, and in the hall, Ted Kennedy emerges to speak to the party for the last time….