GOP-looza

So far, the convention protests resemble a rock show with particularly tight security more than they do the riots in Seattle.

By Anthony York
July 31, 2000 2:21AM (UTC)
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With the weeklong party known as the Republican National Convention set to kick off here Monday, Sunday was the pre-game pep rally. The requisite red, white and blue bunting welcomes convention delegates, as taxi cabs and Lincoln Town Cars unload hordes of men in polo shirts and pleated khakis, and women dressed smartly in patriotic colors complete with star-spangled scarves, giddy with pre-convention excitement.

And there are enough TV personalities walking around to give most passersby a "Big Brother" complex: walking down Arch Street, syndicated columnist and ubiquitous TV pundit Mark Shields stops to yuk it up with Rep. Henry Hyde, who is riding shotgun in a forest green Town Car, waiting for the light to change.

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But behind the bunting lurks a certain fear about which group of protesters is going to show up for the events this week in Philadelphia: the 10,000 responsible protesters convention organizers are hoping for, or the 100,000 fiery activists they fear. The largest of those events was supposed to be Sunday's Unity2000 march and rally, held in the center of downtown.

But the Unity event Sunday was enveloped in the same carnival atmosphere that seems to prevail in the rest of the city. Uniformed Philadelphia police officers were everywhere. But they were joking with their colleagues, grabbing the corner of a park bench in the shade, standing idly on a street corner pulling at a Marlboro.

"Is everyone behaving in there," I asked an officer before venturing into the heart of the Unity happening.

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"Sure," said the police officer, taking a swig off his water bottle. "It's a good time in there today."

Indeed it was. It was more like a Lollapalooza festival with extra-tight security. There were drum circles, food booths and enough information about leftist causes to fill the First Union Center. There were dancers in Mayan headdresses dancing for human rights; information about executions in Bali, animal testing, the plight of farmers in third-world countries, the case against building a baseball stadium in Philadelphia's Chinatown, for closing the School of the Americas.

In the center of the event were two adjacent booths that seemed to perfectly capture the event -- one stand selling cheese steaks and one with petitions calling for a new trial for Mumia Abu Jamal -- a true Philadelphia event.

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"Unity2000 is the safe demonstration," said Leon Oboler, spokesman for the event. "This is the place where people can bring their children. People who want to make their voices heard can be there to present their ideas even though we all have different issues. People are here in solidarity with all of the groups in terms of their issues."

But just because the event was one giant warm fuzzy, Oboler said it didn't necessarily follow that all would remain calm throughout the week. "I know that several of the groups and several of the people will be involved in other actions later on in the week."

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Others involved in the protest movement here say there has been a misguided slant in the stories about what will happen outside the convention hall. They insist that story is being whipped up by a news media that is interested in a cops vs. protesters drama, complete with billy clubs, tear gas and dreadlocked kids being dragged off to jail.

Of course, Oboler acknowledges, some people on the streets of Philadelphia this week will be out to wreak havoc. "There's always that chance," he said when asked about the possibility of conflict. "What we're trying to do is make sure that our message doesn't get lost, and we've been working hard on that."

Police say they are bracing for the worst while remaining optimistic that everything will remain under control.

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Many community activists say that battling the perceived threat of violence is part of the challenge of the Republican convention. Many of the groups most responsible for the Seattle and Washington protests are planning low-key affairs in Philadelphia, or skipping the party altogether.

Meghan Conklin, a spokeswoman for Washington environmental organization Ozone Action, whose activists were the first ones arrested during the World Bank protests in D.C., said there are other events that are more important than either of the major political conventions this summer. Conklin said her organization is conducting more of a stealth campaign in Philadelphia, which it has used throughout this presidential campaign season. During the early part of the primary season, Ozone Action made sure that there were young people in the audience to ask the candidates questions about global warming.

John Sellers, one of the key players in the Ruckus Society, in California, said that kind of thing is exactly what the movement, if it can be called that, needs. "Thank goodness there are still campaigning organizations and mini-movements for climate protection that have the eye on the prize of their particular campaign and aren't being sucked into the pitfall of being becoming protest junkies," he said. "A lot of times, we run into problems when we lead with our tactics rather than our vision."

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But Sellers, who is concerned primarily with stopping what he describes as the spread of global economics and the power of corporations, says there was a compelling reason for him to come to Philadelphia this week. "In this country, we have a one-party system with two heads. We're building a movement that's fighting a system that's been in place for the better part of 500 years. It's not going to fall over night."


Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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