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Convention in the cross hairs
OF THE EXAMINER STAFF
May 07, 2000
©2000 San Francisco Examiner
Meticulous plans afoot for multi-issue protest at Democratic gathering in
Sometime in July, at a Southern California location not yet decided, nearly
200 professional demonstrators and amateur anarchists are expected to attend
a summer camp to prepare for a political assault on the Democratic National
Convention in Los Angeles.
These protesters, many from the Bay Area, will learn the basics of
nonviolent activism, proper pepper spray and tear gas defense, how to link
arms, scale walls and trees, and produce sound bites for the mainstream
media. Organizers say they expect to hold activism workshops, a slide show,
and then "party down" around a campfire.
All of this takes place in the latter part of the Year 1 A.S. (After
Seattle). As if nobody protested anything before last fall's explosive World
Trade Organization conference, the public and media have been awakened. Many
longtime activists are for the first time getting a hearing outside of their
own often circular, insulated world.
"I think we're at particular moment, an historical moment," said Jai Ching
Chen, 27, an organizer with the nonprofit Youth Action for Global Justice in
Oakland, which expects to send dozens of demonstrators to Los Angeles.
The Democratic convention in mid-August - and the Republican National
Convention two weeks earlier in Philadelphia - could turn into an equally
chaotic Seattle Redux, taking the spotlight off Vice President Al Gore and
Texas Gov. George W. Bush and embarrassing host governors and police
agencies in both states.
Activists are determined not to be placed in so-called "protest pits," a
block-sized area the Los Angeles Police Department has already secured near
the Staples Center, the site of the Aug. 14-17
Democratic convention. Philadelphia activists recently dropped a First Amend
ment lawsuit after organizers agreed to let them march down a main
The disparate groups in California have secured two sets of attorneys,
started training for "direct action" protests and collecting bail money for
the inevitable arrests. They have formed committees on providing food and
shelter in friendly churches, public parks, schools, vacant lot encampments
and private homes for thousands of demonstrators.
One arts and culture committee is in charge of creating huge, grotesque
papier-mâché puppets. A spidery Uncle Sam is always a favorite, but perhaps
someone will find a way to levitate hair with paste and paper the way Gov.
Davis does with his comb every morning.
"Nothing just happens. It's all organized," said Lisa Fithian, 39, a
longtime activist and organizer for the D2K Network, the umbrella group
helping organize the Los Angeles convention protests. "Some of it is basic,
and some of it is quite sophisticated. It starts with people talking to each
other and learning."
While national political conventions are a natural and time-honored protest
venue, this year seems different, activists say. Dozens of East Coast groups
are busy preparing for Unity 2000 - the expected massive assault on the
Republican convention - while West Coasters are gearing up mentally and
physically for D2K in Los Angeles.
Activists decline to even speculate on how many demonstrators are expected
in Los Angeles. In Philadelphia, the estimates range from 40,000 to 100,000
on the streets.
"The nice thing about the Bay Area, there are so many experienced people
here now," said John Sellers, 33, who helps run Rukus, a Berkeley-based
group that trains activists and is planning the summer camp for July. "There
is quite a body of hardened activists here."
Letting some light in
In several interviews with Bay Area demonstrators who plan on protesting at
the Democratic convention, nearly every one marveled at how the public is
finally learning about once-arcane subjects like global trade and the often
secretive government groups that loan money, set policy and write treaties
between wealthy and developing nations.
Thanks to an unusual amount of support from organized labor - not a
traditional ally of the Rainforest Action Network, et al. - Seattle turned
into a full-scale Event with about 40,000 protesters, of which about 10,000
were estimated to be the traditional progressive activists. Windows were
broken, arrests were made, the mayor called for calm.
Many of those same activists carried their message last month to the World
Bank meeting in Washington, D.C., and got an equal amount of attention from
the media. Something changed, activists believe, and they're riding the
MSNBC-CNN-Fox News wave until it washes up somewhere else.
"There is definitely a call out there," said Jasmin De La Rosa, 24, a
coordinator with the Third Eye Movement, a progressive hip-hop activist
group in San Francisco that also plans to organize high schoolers and other
youth to demonstrate in Los Angeles.
De La Rosa said her main focus is to train and educate future activists "so
they know the root of what they are complaining about. . . . To train people
to think critically, to run meetings on how to do a direct action event that
includes a protest, a march and not a confrontation, but an interaction with
people in power.
"We hope by going to L.A.," De La Rosa said, "we'll see how some of the more
experienced organizers like the Direct Action Network do their work, so that
we can get some training and use that experience up here."
It's all part of an intricate and loosely affiliated network of groups
constantly trying to engage new members and get them trained for
demonstrating. Much of the work is just on education.
Youth Action for Global Justice paid for 15 Bay Area demonstrators to fly to
Washington, D.C., for the World Bank protests, where they were also sent to
workshops on non-violent activism. Global Exchange sponsored a 21-day,
20-city tour where six people in a bus traveled throughout the East Coast
doing training sessions on activism.
Significantly, the hundreds of grass-roots groups throughout the nation have
almost universally decided to focus their message on globalization, no
matter how arduous the link may be. The Los Angeles and Philadelphia
conventions will be about wages, Mumia Abu-Jamal, racism, the death penalty,
homelessness, and Gore's financial stake in Occidental Petroleum - all
linked in some way to multinational corporations and their deeds across the
"We were all spokes before," said Medea Benjamin, founding director of San
Francisco-based Global Exchange and Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate,
who also is planning on being in L.A. for the convention. "The spokes to
save the forests, the spokes on global warming, the spokes on labor rights
and women and what happens in the global economy. But to find this hub,
these super-national institutions - that gave us a way to put it all
Bringing it all back home
Activists hope the convention will be a way to "bring home" the debate and
start focusing on local and statewide issues and how they are linked to
world trade and corporate expansion.
Local demonstrators also feel the Seattle and Washington demonstrations
featured, frankly, too many white activists. There is a conscious effort to
attract more minority groups to protests in Los Angeles, so the
demonstrations look more like California.
"We feel like this whole globalization debate since Seattle has sort of been
presented as turtles and Teamsters, labor and environmentalists," said Van
Jones, 30, a Yale-educated attorney and executive director of the non-profit
Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in San Francisco.
"For the community of color, there are other issues. We feel like it's
really important to say, 'Hey, globalization isn't just what labor and
environmentalists say it is.' It also effects African Americans who are
seeing more and more aggressive police practices," Jones said. "Lots and
lots more money goes toward the security apparatus and less and less goes
toward the safety net and education."
As for the "security apparatus" in Los Angeles - the LAPD - the
activists are preparing for confrontations but hoping to work out an
agreement with police before the convention begins. A spokesman for the LAPD
said they are working on a plan to deal with the demonstrations but have not
released details. The entire security operation could be complicated by
Secret Service plans to protect Gore and Bush.
Suspicions of phone-tapping
Fithian, with the D2K Network, said she's convinced the LAPD is already
infiltrating their planning meetings, even bugging her phone. Demonstrators
say they are planning to practice nonviolence, and will train neophyte
activists to direct their energy constructively.
"It doesn't generally mean we want to go mess stuff up, it means there is
something we want to change about the world," said Harmony Goldberg,
executive director of the School of Unity and Liberation in Oakland, which
is helping organize youth for the convention.
Nevertheless, they are prepared for anything in Los Angeles. It's a
particularly sensitive issue for the LAPD, which has been under fire since
the Rodney King beating for how it deals with minority groups. Its Rampart
division faces explosive accusations of planting evidence on drug suspects.
The department has designated an area near the Staples Center for protests,
but police also have told activists they will be allowed in other downtown
public sites as well. Civil rights attorneys said they have strong legal
grounds for opposing the so-called Protest Pits.
"We hope they will not interfere with anyone's speech rights," said Dan
Tokaji, a Los Angeles-based staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties
Union who is working with the protesters. "We hope the city will not seek to
suspend the constitution while the Democrats are in town."
©2000 San Francisco Examiner
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