The moment was fleeting, but the protesters and reporters traveling with Ralph Nader Tuesday night briefly recoiled and held their breath. For the second time, Nader was trying to make it onto the grounds of a presidential debate, for what was probably his last chance at making a splash big enough to draw serious media attention to his campaign.
Two weeks earlier, in Boston, Nader had been publicly and resoundingly evicted from the grounds on his way to the media tent, and his polls jumped the following week. This time, officials detained him at the first gate as he strode in off the street, and the officer who stopped him was just a little bit too rough.
The campus cop, from debate-host Washington University, grabbed Nader just above the left elbow and seemed to squeeze him just a little, causing the angular Green Party candidate to bend slightly but awkwardly. Briefly, it felt like it might grow ugly.
It passed, though. And while Nader didn't make it any further -- about four security checks away from the media tent he was trying to get to -- he exploited the situation beautifully.
WU police chief Don Strom came out to reason with Nader, saying that the Green Party candidate just didn't have the right credentials to get in.
"I do," Nader said, holding up his green "host" pass. He'd been invited by the Washington University student TV station, and its reporter, Gabe Roth, who stood eagerly next to him.
But you were not specifically approved, Strom said.
Nader then pointed to two of his staffers, George Farah and Tarek Milleron, who is also Nader's nephew, who had just strolled back from the other side of the checkpoint after having been admitted with the identical green pass.
Strom could only shrug, and admit that he knew Nader had been turned down earlier by the Commission for Presidential Debates for a pass to get in, and that there was nothing he could do. "I can escort you wherever you want to go," he offered.
Earlier in the day, Nader announced a lawsuit against the CPD for unlawfully denying him access to the Boston debate grounds. The CPD, a private institution run by a bipartisan committee, restricted participation in the debates to candidates polling only 15 percent or higher. "So you're prepared to be a defendant?" he asked Strom.
"I want to do what is right in this situation," Strom said, almost pleading. "I want to do my job."
"And you're saying I haven't been singled out," Nader said.
"No. No one has asked me to exclude Ralph Nader," Strom said. "I have grave respect for you."
And with that, Nader let up, telling Strom, "This is what I want you to do. I want you to go back to the administrators at Washington University and tell them I think their university was politically misused." Strom nodded. Then Nader shook his hand, before heading off to a waiting car that whisked him away for interviews.
As he left, he shouted out the window to great effect: "This is the biggest blunder the CPD has ever done." The small crowd of supporters howled.
The college student who had tried in vain to escort Nader in, Gabe Roth, was unable to conceal a huge toothy grin, even if he didn't land his on-camera Nader interview. "I thought we had a 50-50 chance," he said. "But one of our main objectives was just to document the whole thing," he said, pointing to another WU-TV colleague, grinning hugely behind a minicam.
He was even magnanimous about the police chief. "Don Strom does a great job for the university."
Nader continued to hammer at his list of issues all day Tuesday -- universal healthcare and "corporate control of the political system," to name two -- that wouldn't be addressed in the evening's debate. And he sent an afternoon crowd estimated by organizers at about 2,000 into paroxysms of delight. The crowd, gathered in a park just outside of the main campus, responded with enthusiasm to calls from various speakers who expressed concern about the plight of developing nations, and their exploitation by corporations and wealthy Western countries.
They jeered lustily when speakers invoked the WTO or the World Bank or the IMF; it was a crowd that shared the concerns of the protesters in Seattle last fall, Washington this spring and, most recently, Prague. It didn't seem to have a whole lot in common with the people Gore and Bush regularly pander to. No one came to hear about middle-class tax cuts or prescription drug benefits for the elderly or Gore's Medicaid "lockbox."
Their excitement and animation, coupled with the huge crowds Nader has been drawing nationwide (he sold out Madison Square Garden last weekend) makes a good case that there is a huge range of issues of importance to many Americans that the two main campaigns never talk about. It is, of course, the case for a third party, and that's the cause Nader's stumping for more seriously than he's seeking the presidency.
Nader needs to garner 5 percent of the vote on Election Day for the Green Party to be eligible for federal funding in 2004. And that's a goal he seems to care about. He's learned to deliver a punch line, even if the delivery is a little too windy. "They're just money machines. And after the elections are over they'll wait a few months, and then they start shaking down the special interests," he said. "It's mutual-interest extortion." The crowd went wild.
It was a typical Nader crowd in that it was difficult to pinpoint a key set of interests, other than a general feeling of being disenfranchised with the political system. The crowd included Food Not Bombs, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and a group holding a huge banner reading "Independent Palestinian State." And there were plenty of kooks; representatives from the Mars Society had driven in from Cincinnati, not even because they endorse Nader. ("We're not for any candidate," said member Jerry Black. What are they for? "First, robotic exploration of Mars, followed, eventually, by human exploration of some sort.")
There were plenty there, though, fully behind Nader even if they couldn't fully explain why. Julian Morris, a 28-year-old part-time student from Tulsa, Okla., said he and a friend came to St. Louis after having just started the northern chapter of the Oklahoma Green Party. A month ago, Morris says, he wasn't much interested in politics. "Then I saw Nader on TV, C-Span, I think, and I was just curious. I did some research," he says. "He makes it seem like it matters at the grass roots, that you don't have to have a lot of money to make a difference."
After the rally, Nader and his staff piled into a nearby van and pulled out, leaving a crew of reporters scrambling for hints about where he might go. We'd all heard that he would try to bust into the debates -- as indeed he did. But the question was where and when.
Soon, there was a small herd of reporters jogging through the charming little gated Washington University. As about three reporters and three cameramen ran through one quad, derisive chants of "Me-dia, me-dia, me-dia," erupted from the windows and from students sitting and sipping sodas on benches. We ran faster, though it was a little unclear where we were going.
The campus police had no clue. One wasn't even sure he'd stop Nader. "Why won't they let the man in!" he said. "He should be allowed to speak!" He wouldn't give me his name.
After Nader's brief appearance at the university's entrance, the supporters who had gathered quickly rejoined the much larger, angrier group from the earlier rally, which had taken over the portion of a street just behind the university. "We heard the Secret Service wanted to keep this street clear," explained Bill Ramsey, a local activist and one of the organizers of 017, a coalition of several dozen St. Louis interest groups. "We're prepared to stay here until something happens."
The state police showed up in full riot gear, and about 100 of them lined up shoulder-to-shoulder to block the street. At one point, Ramsey, on a bullhorn, split the group into two, urging a crowd that wanted to march around the university to leave, while the others would stay and participate in an "action."
About half the 1,000 or so left. Those who stayed seemed primed for a melee. At one point, Ramsey, back on his bullhorn, urged the crowds to participate "again on Oct. 22, for the National Day of Protest Against Police Brutality." The crowd jeered at the riot police. Several people started chanting "fuck the police."
The spectators in the crowd braced for the worst. Abbe Sudvarg, an event organizer who said she worked for a group called St. Louis Economic Conversion Project, started passing out vinegar-soaked kerchiefs for protection against tear gas. A few kids hoisted a large, upside-down American flag with a dollar sign stenciled out of the stripes. Then they lit the distressed flag on fire.
But somehow, nothing happened, and this tense moment also passed. The crowd split in two again, with a large portion moving toward the front of the university. Nader long gone, their thoughts finally turned to the other two candidates, and they wanted them to at least see that they were there.