The Real Constituency of Government

Published on 16th July 2000 on the D2KLA website, in preparation for the mobilization against the Democratic National Convention

Why are so many people organizing protests during the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles? Isn’t the Democratic Party supposed to be a left-wing party? Not according to columnist Jim Hightower: “Both national parties now exist as wholly-owned subsidiaries of corporate America, selling two brands of the same corporate agenda.” The major complaint shared by all the organizations involved in protesting the Democratic National Convention is that moneyed interests, not those of democracy and justice, are the prime forces to which both Democrats and Republicans succumb. This rings true when one considers the LA City Council’s stated eagerness to please “downtown merchants” when they voted to deny the Convention protesters an official permit to use Pershing Square, a public park in the middle of a business district.

Meaningful Participation, but for whom?

The Democratic Party Convention will be a tremendous boon to Los Angeles businesses. Convention organizers and city officials estimate that the Convention will bring $135 million to business. All infrastructure needs of the Convention will be served by lucrative contracts to local and other businesses. In addition, the 35,000 official Convention visitors, including 5,000 delegates and 15,000 journalists, will have to be housed, groomed, and fed, and their shopping and entertainment whims will need fulfilment. The Convention Committee is taking seriously their job of attracting first-rate contracts. A 90-page “Convention Vendor Directory” is available from the official Convention web site (http://www.dems2000.com/), which lists firms in fields ranging from construction to graphic design to security. The Committee has formed a Business Development Department, “to engage the local business community and keep it apprised of convention-related opportunities and vendor contracts.” The Committee considers itself, “committed to promoting the meaningful participation of local companies in the business opportunities to be generated by the Convention.” “Meaningful participation” by activists and labor is, however, not on the agenda.

Bailing out the Convention

Who pays for this bonanza for “downtown merchants,” which Convention organizers describe as, “giving back” to the Los Angeles community? The money for the Convention comes from a number of sources, including corporate sponsors such as AT&T, the “official web hosting and Internet services provider for the Convention.” AT&T has donated $1 million in communications equipment, services, and cash, to both the Democratic and Republican Conventions. Holly Bailey of the Center for Responsive Politics asserts that it is AT&T’s need for Congressional approval of its merger with MediaOne, rather than civic duty, that fuels this largesse. Originally, $35 million of the projected $58 million cost of the DNC was intended to be paid for by private donors. Democratic National Committee Chair Joe Andrew boasted that, “the citizens of California will get the benefit and not the burden” of having the Convention. Entertainment mogul David Geffen, insurance and construction magnate Eli Broad, and Ron Burkle, chairman of “Ralph’s” and other supermarket chains, had taken it upon themselves to raise most of the money. Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican, has personally raised over $6 million for the Convention, including $1 million of his own money. But private donations still ran short of costs, even factoring in the $13 million convention subsidy from the Federal Election Commission, given to both parties, and the $10 million in transportation and police costs which Los Angeles city officials promised to donate.

On 23 June the Los Angeles City Council agreed to “bail out” the Convention Committee, approving a $4 million public subsidy. The deciding vote came from Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, “a frequent antagonist in the Council,” who agreed to the payment on three conditions: (1) that Riordan and other donors who had pledged million-dollar letters of credit to the Convention pay up, (2) that public protests be allowed in Pershing Square, and (3) that members of the Police Department meet with an ad hoc Council committee before and during the Convention, “to avoid any [police] overreaction to the protests.” After “warnings and complaints from the police and downtown merchants,” the City Council voted 12 to 1 (Goldberg was the only no vote) to nullify their decision, backtracking on allowing Pershing Square protests, as well as the $4 million gift. After heavy lobbying by Riordan, the LA City Council voted two weeks ago to reinstate $2 million to “the cash-strapped convention host committee,” and voted back the remaining $2 million, to be paid after the Convention if the budget is still in arrears. The subsidy would have been denied, were it not for the vote of Councilman Mike Feuer. He switched his vote, saying, “We have to keep our promises … Once the … convention planners for the DNC were relying on that action, I think one shouldn’t undo it … a city can’t function that way.” No comment was given on how a city can function after the Council rescinded its promise to protesters, perhaps because they cannot offer $135 million in profits to “downtown merchants.”

Labor quieted by “friends”

In siding with business, the Mayor and City Council are acceding to the same interests that caused Governor Gray Davis, Al Gore’s California campain chief, to get a court order preventing transit workers from going on strike during the Convention. The Governor reasoned that a strike would “disproportionately affect the poor,” who wouldn’t be able to get to work, but perhaps a more important consideration for politicians is that the strike would deny the LA business district $1.5 million per day in expected profits. Davis also neglected to mention that the Convention organizers were counting on a $4 million gift from the public to pay for the more than 300 buses to get the delegates to and from their hotels. It might cause an embarrassment if the bus drivers didn’t show up for work.

The injunction against a transit worker strike is one of many tactics which city and state officials are using to prevent labor unrest during the DNC. Approximately 300,000 worker contracts in the LA area are up for renewal this summer, including those of concession workers and engineers at the Staples Center arena, where the Convention will be held. Many labor unions have already announced plans to strike downtown during the DNC. In order to keep Staples Center workers from joining in, a “peace agreement” has been worked out between labor officials and Democratic Party officials. According to the New York Times, “the involvement of Staples Center workers [in strikes] would have been an embarrassment for Democrats, who consider themselves a friend of labor.” Unfortunately, Democrat Gray Davis’s obtaining a court injunction to stop transit workers from striking is not considered an “embarrasment” to his own status as a “friend of labor.”

Riordan’s warning

In a 13 July Op-Ed piece for the Los Angeles Times, Mayor Richard Riordan justifies the Council decision to deny protest permits, warning protestors not to “disrupt our city.” Citing concern for the “safety of our residents, our visitors and our businesses, as well as the reputation of our city,” the Mayor cautions, “it is important that city leaders not play into the hands of anarchists. We must not handcuff police …” An ironic metaphor, for of course it will be the police who, he tells us, will use “a strategy of restraint and containment” against demonstrators who get out of line.

Labeling as “anarchists” those demonstrators against whom “the police will have to be tough,” betrays more than a lack of understanding of political theory. It displays a lack of appreciation for the tremendous political scope of the more than 70 groups involved in the protest movement. Riordan advertises the main website for the protest organizers (http://www.d2kla.org), urging readers to observe for themselves how the “anarchists” disseminate “their methods of malice.” Has Riordan seen the website? It is doubtful, since if he did he would find that the groups endorsing the protest range from radical environmental organizations like Earth First!, to community organizations like the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, to political parties like the International Socialist Organization and the South Central Green Party. These groups are to the left of the political spectrum, to be sure, but many of them would cringe to be called “anarchist.” According to the web site, “D2K NETWORK is composed of groups and individuals working to coordinate and support events and nonviolent protests during the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles,” hardly a malicious credo.

A travesty against the Constitution?

Many critics rightfully denounce the City Council’s decision to deny demonstrations in Pershing Square as a denial of First Amendment rights. But it is dangerous to imagine that at some enlightened time in US history the situation for those critical of powerful institutions and people was any different. It was not. The framers of the Constitution were themselves (white) men of privilege, who brooked little challenge to that privilege. Most were lawyers, most were wealthy and owned land, slaves, manufacturing, or shipping. Half of them had money loaned out at interest. The majority of them were well aware of the need to preserve that privilege, and tried to justify it. Alexander Hamilton, aide to George Washington and member of the Constitutional Convention, wrote:

All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and the well-born, the other the mass of the people. The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; … [but] it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct permanent share in the government.

During the framing of the Constitution, the fifty-five men “conducted their sessions in complete secrecy with armed sentinels posted outside convention doors,” in a manner similar to the affairs of modern global financial institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. (Indeed, many people are aware of some continuity between the DNC protesters and the groups that were so vocal in criticizing the WTO at Seattle last November, and the World Bank/IMF in Washington in April.) In the founding years of the United States, many Americans were not happy with the Constitution. Shays’ Rebellion in western Massachusetts in 1786 was an uprising by mainly poor farmers, who resented among other things the strict property requirements for voting in the new government. After public criticism of the original Constitution, the amendments known as the Bill of Rights were passed by the first Congress.

The Bill of Rights: often ignored in practice

On paper, the Bill of Rights was an impressive document that granted unprecedented freedoms to US citizens. Unfortunately, as historian Howard Zinn writes, “What was not made clear … was the shakiness of anyone’s liberty when entrusted to a government of the rich and powerful.” In 1798, just seven years after the First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech, was passed, Congress passed the Sedition Act, which mandated prison for those who expressed sentiments that were “false, scandalous, and malicious against the government, Congress, or the President, with intent to defame them, bring them into disrepute, or excite popular hatreds against them.” Surely this was against the First Amendment, yet the law was passed, and enforced for two years.

Similarly, in 1917, Congress passed the Espionage Act, which imposed prison sentences of up to twenty years for “Whoever, when the United States is at war, shall wilfully cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty in the military,” controverting the Thirteenth Amendment, which stated that “involuntary servitude” was outlawed in the United States. When Eugene Debs, a socialist candidate for president, criticized US policy in World War I, saying, “Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder,” he was arrested for violating the Espionage Act and sentenced to ten years in prison.

In his op-ed piece, Mayor Riordan mentions Martin Luther King Jr. He cautions that like King, the DNC protesters “must be prepared to pay stiff fines and face arrest and jail,” if they engage in civil disobedience. It is understandable that Riordan might want to maintain “order” in Los Angeles, so as to please the constituency that counts. Perhaps he is just playing a role, but the protesters also have a role to play, highlighted many times by Dr. King himself. In 1963, when King was in prison in Birmingham, Alabama for participating in nonviolent civil disobedience, he wrote, “History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.” In practice, the Bill of Rights cannot be taken for granted; it must be fought for.