Is this What Democracy Looks Like? Welcome to the Police State

A commentary on this summer’s Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, with a focus on the demonstrations that took place outside the convention written on 19th September 2000

LAPD excercising their weapons. Photo Credit: Independent Media Center, Los Angeles.

The Democratic National Convention (DNC) came to Los Angeles this past August and brought with it thousands of Democratic party delegates, thousands of activists, and thousands of police. If you followed the news about the DNC, chances are you may have missed the latter two groups of people – most of the media played their roles obediently, and dutifully covered what each speaker said on the floor of the Staples Center, knowing that speeches were written and rehearsed well in advance, knowing that everything that took place was pre-ordained and given the blessing of the Democratic PR machine before being staged for the benefit of the rest of the world.

However, while Al Gore’s coronation ceremony took place during the elaborate 4-day ritual within the secure confines of the Staples arena, thousands of citizens got trampled on by LAPD horses and shot at with rubber bullets and lead-shot-filled bean bags from LAPD guns. Wait a minute, did I say shot at with rubber bullets and bean-bags? Yes, you read right. It may not have been the live ammunition used by cops in the 1960s, but the spirit of police and government repression of the 60s was alive and well on the streets of Los Angeles in the year 2000. Several times during the week of protest police outnumbered protestors and often placed themselves between the protestors and the very people the protestors wanted to reach out to – the public by-standers. Once a person had decided to join the march, he or she could not leave it until the march was over. LAPD tried very hard to minimize the presence of dissenters on the streets in the months leading up to the convention by denying permits, preventing rallies on Pershing Square (a central open area in downtown LA, historically important for expressing first amendment rights), and declaring fenced-in “protest pits” which could be used for only 50 minutes at a time. With the help of a federal judge these tactics were thrown out as being unconstitutional and the right to express dissent prevailed. LAPD responded to this perceived infringement on their turf by tightening the reins on the activist events so hard that it seemed as if each march was encased by a thick lining of blue-clad militia carrying guns and other equipment intended to repress and control while patrol helicopters circled above menacingly.

Despite the police-state atmosphere the marches were an incredible expression of solidarity and resistance against the present two-party duopoly that dominates major decision-making in the United States and world. Having progressed many steps from the Seattle demonstrations against the World Trade Organization last November, the LA marches contained widely diverse citizens in its ranks. There were older folks who had seen the 60s come and go, younger students who had never known such power could exist in thousands unifying, immigrants and labor unions, Black and Latino Americans, disabled people and high school youth, religious ministers and working mothers, gay and lesbian activists and more.

One of the things that struck me was that most of the activists in the fore front of organizing were women – women of color, lesbian women and even grandmothers. Another thing that jumped out at me as indicative of the power of this movement was the incorporation of art in political expression. The creative energy of protestors was fueled by careful creation of hundreds of papier mache puppets – some up to 10 feet in size – street theater and music, all of which played an important role in the activities. The main puppet, crafted by protestors at the “convergence center” (a four story run-down building rented by activists as a gathering place for preparation before and during the convention) was the Goddess of Democracy. Well aware of a criticism that activists only pointed out flaws and never suggested solutions, the Goddess of Democracy was intended to express both, ills and answers. Her enormous benign face and hands perched atop a giant red skirt on which were painted thousands of faces of people of every color, size and shape (hand painted on by the hundreds of activists that filed in and out of the convergence center the week before the convention began).

The Goddess of Democracy Photo: Courtesy of David Hanks/Global Exchange

Each morning during the convention people presented a skit at Pershing square which involved displaying props representing the ills in today’s society. These included the state of the prison industrial complex and the world-record-breaking 2 million Americans behind bars, most incarcerated for non-violent crimes, the racism of that system and the corrupt law enforcement system that accompanies it, poverty and sweatshops in LA, the bloated defense budget, the poor state of public schools, the growing income gap, the monopoly of corporate kingdoms in everyday human life, and more. Following this, the Goddess of Democracy was displayed during a song and dance after which activists brought out hand painted signs in the shapes of puzzle pieces which represented their vision for the solutions to these problems. Solutions included empowering youth, allowing third party candidates to run for office fairly alongside the Demolican and Republicratic parties, campaign finance reform, citizen oversight of law enforcement, improving schools instead of building more expensive weapons, improving health by ending privitization of health care, etc, etc. The images were the most powerful visual expressions of progressive political solutions that I had ever seen. It turns out that the LAPD thought likewise for the puppets were targeted by them during the demonstrations (in Philadelphia the Philly police successfully confiscated all puppets before they were even used). At the end of the first days demonstrations, LAPD surrounded and confiscated the puppets outside of the Staples Center for no apparent reason. After much ruckus and chanting of “Free the Puppets”, LAPD returned them to avoid a scene.

Apart from the morning puppet processions, each day was filled with marches describing a huge multitude of issues organized by a vast array of networks, coalitions and other grass-roots organizations which included the Direct Action Network, the Southern California Fair Trade Network, the International Action Center, the Bus Riders Union, the East Timor Action Network, Billionaires for Bush (yes, it’s a joke), Global Exchange, the International Socialist Organization, International Black Women for Wages for Housework, Campaign to end the Death Penalty, some local chapters of Amnesty International, Amazon Watch, the Los Angeles Green Party, Queers for Racial and Economic Justice, several union locals such as PACE, ACORN, etc and more. The press often complained that there were too many issues for them to disentangle. Perhaps if the activists had bee dictated to by a leader about what should have been said and done so as to present a clear, well-rehearsed political protest for the purpose of easy reporting, we would have had “better” coverage of our distilled issues. The fact that there were so many issues expressed in the marches – and these were not narrow, special-interest issues – they included police brutality, racism, the genocide of Iraqis, the occupation of Puerto Rico, the faile so-called drug war, homelessness, the exploitation of sweatshop labor, the corporatization of human needs, the selling off of politicians, the list is long and serious – the fact that there were so many issues ought to have clued the press in on how timely and necessary these demonstrations were and that they are an indication of deep dissatisfaction among those majority of citizens that aren’t seeing the fruits of a supposedly civilized and prosperous nation. While I would commend some media outlets such as LA Times and Channel 2 on providing pretty balanced coverage, I would say to the rest – sorry folks, well-rehearsed, “politically-correct” staged plays by the two parties were clean and easy to report. But real democracy is messy and cannot be compartmentalized into one neat little sound bite. What the corporate media lacked in depth of coverage, an ad-hoc collective of activist-journalists calling themselves the Independent Media Center, made up for with intense minute-by-minute street coverage using an impressive combination of radio, video, print, photographic and web media with a focus on the protestors rather than delegates.

In addition to the marches there were also a number of parallel conferences that took place, organized by activists, to provide the intellectual fodder for progressive political dialogue. These included the Shadow Convention, the Homeless Convention, the North American Anarchist Conference, the People’s Convention and countless teach-ins, lectures, presentations and workshops. While I was able to attend only a fraction of these, I was impressed by the variety of exchanges that were occurring in such a short span of time. It is obvious that the current explosion of political dissent has been brewing for a while and was long overdue.

In the end, several hundred activists were arrested and many more were shot at and injured by the police. And we heard corporate reporters and delegates sigh in relief at a week of activities (planned for over a year) that had been carried out with little disruption thanks to the well-coordinated repression of the LAPD. No one attributed the relative calm to the reserve of the thousands of people who demonstrated peacefully. Al Gore was crowned king and no one inside the Halls of the Staples Center had to face the ugly reality of thousands of disgruntled citizens on the streets except when making their way from the Convention to their hotel rooms. Perhaps they can ignore the cry for real democratic change for now. But then again, it has only been ten months since Seattle.