Tears, but no tear gas

The toxic combination of Johnny Rotten, Newt Gingrich and a mile-long hoagie causes plenty of hurt feelings, but protests stay in check.


Anthony York
August 1, 2000 2:55AM (UTC)

Monday brought another strange convergence to downtown Philadelphia. As volunteers set up to serve a mile-long hoagie to delegates for "Wawa Hoagie Day," sponsored by the ubiquitous Philadelphia hoagie shop, a motley crew of several thousand protesters converged on city hall for a rally and march for economic human rights.

And in the middle of it all, surrounded by a camera crew from eYada.com, the artist formerly known as Johnny Rotten, front man for the Sex Pistols, was weaving his way through the crowd.

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"Hello, poor people," Lydon bellowed out as he made his way through the protesters.

When one protester recognized Lydon, and handed him a piece of protest literature with the headline, "Never Mind the Ballots," (a nod to his ex-band's "Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols" album) a wide, shit-eating grin swept across his face.

"I'm Mr. Rotten, and I'm here because I'm amused by American politics," he told Salon triumphantly. It didn't take long before Rotten was swarmed by a herd of TV cameras and microphones, as reporters (who may well have outnumbered police at the rally) went desperately searching for stories.

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But not everyone was amused by the rocker's act: decked out in an iridescent purple shirt and stylish shades, bumming smokes, having a good ol' time mocking everyone.

"Make money, not war!" he cheered.

One very sincere protester, head cleanly shorn, confronted the irreverent Mr. Rotten in front of the cameras. "You're just a celebrity for yourself," he cried, his voice filled with nervous emotion.

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"You're goddamn right," Rotten replied.

The kid took a deep breath, and in, like, a full-on Valley accent barked, "Johnny Rotten, you sellout fuck!" With that, he stormed off on his mountain bike.

But the protest from city hall down to the First Union Center, where the convention is being held, was larger than any of Sundays pre-game warm up events. Monday, the protesters didn't get permits. They didn't stay in their pre-ordained, quarantined areas. While Sunday's protests were more carnival than political, it was a different cast of characters.

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"I didn't lug a ten-pound tear gas canister all this way to not be able to use it," said Russ, a 23-year-old protester from New Jersey who did not want to give his last name.

The march attracted along the standard handful of anti-protesters; your friendly neighborhood resident crackpots. One, who identified himself as Brother Steven White, taunted protesters with a sign that read "Fornicators and drunkards will join Tupac in hell."

When I caught up with Brother Steven, he was in the middle of a shouting match with a group of protesters about who would be joining Tupac "in an eternal hellfire."

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"Tupac and Elvis, along with John Denver," he explained.

John Denver?

"John Denver loved animals more than God," he explained, evidenced by his numerous appearances on "The Muppet Show."

"He is weeping, weeping -- burning right now," Brother Steven said.

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"What about Clarence Thomas?" shouted one of the protesters. "He's a porno freak." Brother Steven described Clarence Thomas as "a holy man of God," and criticized his accusers during his Senate confirmation hearings. Or at least he meant to.

"Anita Baker is a whore and a liar," he said. It's assumed he meant to refer to Anita Hill, and not the platinum-selling R&B artist. But who knows?

From there, the march proceeded down Broad Street, one of Philly's main drags, closing a seven-block swatch of the roadway as the protest serpent wove its way toward convention central.

But a wild swarm of reporters and a handful of protesters took a quick detour when a portly white-haired man stumbled out of a Broad Street White Castle next to a community activist clad in a fez.

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"Fascist!" screamed one.

"A Newt is a reptile," yelled another, mildly confused marcher.

"Come back Newt, the Democrats need you."

Not everyone caught the surprise sighting of Newt Gingrich, and nobody seemed more surprised than Gingrich himself, who had apparently just scarfed down a couple of Slyders, and quickly found himself back in a media herd. Police had to barge through the crowd and hustle the former House speaker behind a gated fence.

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Gingrich said he was meeting with Kenny Gamble, a co-architect of the "Philly soul" sound and founder of Philadelphia International Records. Gamble is now an activist with an organization called Universal Companies, which Gingrich said is "providing better housing, better education and better jobs in a safer neighborhood."

"I'm delighted that the protesters brought you guys by," Gingrich said to the cameras. "Because it gives you a chance to write about something positive in Philadelphia instead of just people who make noise."


Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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