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The Un-Conventional Party

By Ashley Hahn

Outside the Democratic National Convention in Boston, amid the Kerry-Edwards signs, creativity and dissent are rampant as progressives urge Democrats to find their spines

‘It ain’t my people, these are my people right here, and that ain’t their party in there,” says Charles Shaw, lead organizer of the Massachusetts Green-Rainbow Party’s election year protests, bullhorn in hand, gesturing at the Fleet Center, which the crowd is walking away from on Monday, the first official day of the Democratic National Convention. “Is that your party, people?” he says into the megaphone. “No, I don’t think so.” The crowd agrees.

“At least the Republicans are right up front with their bullshit democracy, but the Democrats, they still want to lie,” says Shaw after watching a limo drive by pulling a flatbed with a flight-suited Bush statute and ads for “They still want to play games like there are quasi-progressive elements in them at all.”

Throughout Boston, it is apparent that the party is not just within the walls of the Fleet Center: From marches and patriotic tours to alternative conventions and bazaars, the city is full of activity.

Demonstrations are happening all over, and police swarm like fruit flies. Political discourse on street corners is as pervasive as the police officers, who came to Boston from all over the country. A Washington, D.C., officer imported for the convention thinks being in Boston has been easy thus far and people have been very nice. Police seem fairly calm with the crowds, a very different story from 2000’s acrimonious clashes at both conventions.

Despite the noise caused by demonstrators and the commotion of activist visitors, Boston is going about its business. Though Bostonians dreaded a heinous commute, the T appears to be running efficiently, and cars are overcrowded only at peak times. Those still in town seem patient with it all, though it seems much of Boston headed for the hills to escape the invasion.

‘We’re just making it more visible,” says Kerry volunteer Cathy O’Connor, who is handing out bumper stickers in front of Quincy Market on Monday, though she admits that the fact that there’s a convention going on is hard to miss. She says she is volunteering because the election is more high-stakes for her this year, particularly when it comes to the administration’s foreign policy.

Nearby, MSNBC is set up to shoot Hardball. Behind the stage stand lots of fresh-faced Democrats holding Kerry-Edwards signs. Behind them are a few people from the Massachusetts Alliance of College Republicans dressed as huge yellow foam flip-flops, some holding blue cardboard ones saying “Kerry flip-flops.”

“Democrats basically are more interested in the whole life of an individual,” says Eva Ritchey from Hendersonville, N.C., leafleting in front of Faneuil Hall for Democrats for Life (one of many pro-life organizations that turned out for the convention). To her, Democrats care more about people issues in ways Republicans don’t, particularly when it comes to social services. But, she asks, “What do you do when you’re a pro-life person and yet your party seems to give very short shrift to that ethic?”

Ritchey says she was an independent until she found Democrats for Life. She says she’s distressed to watch the Democratic Party’s “steady erosion in the South, which is culturally conservative, and it’s this issue.” The group came to Boston to let the Democrats in the convention know that they take issue with a longtime part of the plank: that keeping abortions “safe, legal and rare” is a Democratic priority. “We want to support policies that will take us to rare,” she says.

Above Boston’s revolutionary landmarks sits Government Center, where the Socialist Party has convened a Monday rally against the two-party system and then a “Dump the Democrats” march. Party member Mary Loritz says, “We need to move away from the Democrats because they’re centrist, they’re corporate and they’re capitalist.”

Meanwhile, another march is going by. “Democrats get smart, your party got no heart,” shout several hundred people marching up Cambridge Street, where Government Center’s behemoth buildings of federal, state and local offices overshadow the smaller Socialist rally. The marchers, most of whom are Green-Rainbow party members or anarchists, are marching toward the Fleet Center, home to this year’s DNC events.

I still know how to work a crowd: Howard Dean. Photo by: Ashley Hahn

Holding a Democrats for Peace and Justice sign reading “Repeal the Patriot Act,” Sarah says she’s marching because she’s worried about the erosion of our civil liberties. She says this between shouts of “Take off that stupid gear, there is no riot here,” which rapidly change to “Get those animals off those horses.” Most police are on Smith and Wesson bicycles (One protester asks, “Can they shoot too?”). Motorcycle cops are leading the march, which makes it at first look like a police escort, but protesters facetiously just say all of the police presence makes them feel extra safe.

Boston is often called the birthplace of liberty, and both the Democrats in the convention and the activists outside are milking that. Some protesters wear tricornered hats in homage to past patriots, and the slogan for the Bl(A)ck Tea Society—a major organizer of unconventional events and protests—is “It’s time for another tea party.” The theme of liberty is being contrasted frequently with the limited and forbidding “free-speech zones,” which may be the only thing the majority of those outside the Fleet Center agree on.

“Unfortunately, I believed what I was told in school,” says the Bl(A)ck Tea Society’s Elly Guillette into her bullhorn to a cheering crowd. “I believed that this was the founding of the Revolutionary War, that Boston was a city where your First Amendment right was protected, and that this was a place—above anywhere else—that you could go and exercise your rights. It is terribly, terribly sad that I have spent six months of my life working with the city of Boston to be given the horrible concentration camp that is beyond those fences.”

“The free-speech zone, beyond those walls and those buildings, is covered with razor wire and National Guardsmen with guns over top of it, and they expect us, people of this country, to go into a cage,” Guillette tells the crowd. “We don’t intend to give up our First Amendment rights. We are not going to self-incarcerate.”

Rather than going near “the pen,” as the “free-speech zone” is more aptly dubbed, the marchers want to rally on a nearby street, protesting police brutality, the criminal-justice system and the Patriot Act. They attempt to stop the procession mid-street, but the officers say their permit is only for marching. While marchers sit in the street chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets!,” the police and activist representatives hash out the finer points of permits and locations. Protesters don’t want to be herded anywhere, but police officers tell them they can proceed to Canal Street, in what’s considered the “soft zone,” in which no traffic other than pedestrian can go (meaning no bikes, much to cyclists’ ire) and where no sticks can be carried.

“You can march any place you want in there, you don’t have to go in the pen, you can go up and down Canal Street, anything you want, but you can’t stay here,” says police superintendent Robert Dunford. The threat of arrest for staying in the street is tossed around, and Dunford reminds the anarchists in particular that the police aren’t enforcing some laws that could apply. “You have people who are masked, that’s a violation of state law. We’re not going to enforce it as long as there’s no disobedience or disorderly [conduct] or crime.”

Eventually the groups agree and head to Canal Street.

Later, legal observers from the National Lawyer’s Guild say things were pretty calm through the day Monday with no known arrests, and the street medics say people were at worst dehydrated.

Waving to snipers and military police, and shouting “Peace be with you,” the marchers come right up to the fence surrounding the pen. A group of Kerry volunteers appears, trying to hand out bumper stickers, and saying inspiring things like, “You’re all going to vote anyway, so I don’t even want to hear it.”

The flip-floppers arrive and rumble with Kerry supporters. “We’re looking for a president who can be strong, consistent, effective, and that president is George W. Bush,” says Harvard student Laura Openshaw, holding a huge flip-flop.

The marchers hardly pay attention to the young party devotees, moving closer to the pen.

Out of nowhere, people are hawking “Fuck Bush” T-shirts and bumper stickers saying things like “Less Bushes, More Trees” and “Bush on Mars 2004.” Around another corner are the Electoral College cheerleaders—a company’s ploy to get political types to buy college merchandise saying Electoral College by sending four cheerleaders and a dog out all dressed up.

At the exterior fence of the “hard” security zone, protestors shout at the Fleet Center, festooned with its red, white and blue bunting, about issues ranging from the war to free trade, corporate greed, and the fact that progressives are not a focus group of the Democratic Party. They alternately kick and kiss and rattle the fence, and more police materialize. Some activists start demanding, “George Bush, John Kerry, walk the plank! Walk the plank!”

In Copley Square there are more than 900 combat boots arranged in formation on neat green grass, an art installation by the American Friends Services Committee. Each represents an American soldier who died in Iraq. Over on Boston Common is the Bl(A)ck Tea Society’s “Really, Really Democratic Bazaar,” a kind of open-air marketplace and family day providing an occasion for progressive activists of every stripe to celebrate alternatives to corporate lifestyles. And over the river in Cambridge on Tuesday afternoon there is a very different kind of convention going on, a middle road between the Democrats in the Fleet Center and the fence-kicking types.

The “Take Back America” convention is a three-day forum for people who want to talk about ways to advance progressive issues within the Democratic Party and who are disappointed by the party’s current agenda. Several hundred people are lined up around the hotel where TBA is being held by the Campaign for America’s Future, and the room is already full to its capacity of 600.

Howard Dean takes the stage, revving the crowd’s engine, shouting the names of states and praising the efforts of average Americans to affect this election. “Politics is too important to be left to politicians. We need your help,” Dean tells the cheering room. “If you want democracy to work it’s more than organizing, it’s more than contributing money, it’s getting out and doing it and building your own campaign organization.” It’s important, he says, for people to feel like they have power over their own lives again.

Eric Shifflet, a conventiongoer from New Hampshire, is thrilled to see Dean and Michael Moore, and wants to feel energized by the alternative convention. “I have never felt so politically motivated—pissed off—in my life,” he says. “I think this administration has done great things to bring out the best in progressive people.” Though he is inspired by Dean, he voted for Kerry in the New Hampshire primary because he thinks Kerry has the best chance against Bush, and he hopes that’s still true.

Most people in attendance feel that the Democrats across the river are too centrist. “I don’t know if the Democratic party is necessarily addressing everything that this conference is, so that’s why I feel this is really where it’s at,” says Brendan Fitzgibbons, who came with his friend Manuel Geraldo. They believe that it’s important for young people like themselves to get politically engaged, and the war is at the front of their minds.

While progressive economist and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich launches into a talk on “kitchen table” economic issues, the crowd outside has hardly dissipated. A few hundred people who could not get into the hotel are massed outside below its restaurant’s porch. So each speaker—including Barbara Ehrenreich, who wrote Nickeled and Dimed, Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, and the firebrand Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky—takes turns on the balcony, talking a bit more informally to an appreciative crowd. Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! and Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, also take the stage, decrying corporate media for “beating the drums for war,” as Goodman says.

Camped out on the grass is Nicole Agusti, a 25-year old who worked on the Dean campaign but now works in a coffee shop, without health insurance. She is excited about the impromptu rally and says, “I support John Kerry 100 percent at this point. I think he’s going to be forced to represent progressive democratic views because if you look at the energy of this crowd, these are the people who didn’t get inside.”

Nancy O’Neill stands with her back to the Charles, and reluctantly admits that she voted for George W. Bush. What does she think of the president these days? “That’s why I’m here,” she says, and with a little laugh, adds that she wishes John Edwards were the presidential nominee and is lukewarm on Kerry. “I’m hoping the DNC will rally more for the economy,” she says, particularly worried that the GOP’s “family values” campaign will be distracting.

Man of the month: Michael Moore. Photo by: Ashley Hahn

The waiting crowd is antsy for Michael Moore—who is late to begin with and then waylaid by corporate media interviews—and chants his name. Moore obliges finally and the remaining crowd is ecstatic, hanging on his every word.

“Whenever they take a poll it’s always among the likely voters and they say it’s a 50/50 country,” Moore says of pollsters’ predictions of a tight election in November. He disagrees. “It’s not a 50/50 country because they’re not counting the other 50 percent who’ve been disenfranchised. We need to give them a reason to come out of the house on Nov. 2. John Kerry needs to inspire them and promise them and promise to follow through and not leave them behind.”

The crowd is closer to the stage, on its feet cheering and clapping. Moore shouts over them, as though he were trying to reach the Fleet Center over the river, “Have some guts Democrats! Find your backbones!”

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