Jackson: Keep hope (and Gore) alive!

A West Palm Beach rally for the enfranchisement of Democrats, and others.

Published November 14, 2000 2:12AM (EST)

As Monday's protest march reaches Narcissus Avenue, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and his team turn left.

A few blocks away, a stage has been assembled outside the West Palm Beach governmental building, at 3rd and Olive streets. But a welcoming crowd does not await Jackson. Approximately two dozen supporters of Gov. George W. Bush -- half of them black and all of them hostile -- have reserved choice spots at Jackson's "Democracy & Fairness, Every Vote Counts, Every One Counts" rally. While Jackson & Co. are marching from the Meyer Amphitheater, near the inlet that separates Palm Beach from West Palm Beach, the pro-Bush contingent stands front and center, shouting "Jesse go home!" at the top of their lungs.

Soon they can say it right to Jackson, as he mounts the stage, around 5 p.m. And they do. And they won't stop.

It doesn't matter what the protest organizers do or say -- whether they attempt to stop the heckling with mockery or prayer or an off-key verse of "My Country 'Tis of Thee." The Bush-backers keep yelling. They hold their signs high, blocking Jackson from the platform set up for the TV cameras.

Soon enough, Jackson leaves at the advice of police, who cite security reasons. He skedaddles back to the amphitheater and the rally is moved there.

The Jackson demonstration is clearly a disappointment for its organizers. West Palm Beach police were told to prepare for a crowd as big as 30,000, but the turnout was closer to 3,000. And it is not exactly a cross section of the local electorate. For the most part, the participants seem to be among the most fervent supporters of Vice President Al Gore. Based on their signs and banners, they come from liberal interest groups that detest Bush and all that he stands for -- People for the American Way, local Gore-Lieberman activists and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The most popular sign -- "Let every vote count" -- is the work of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates Inc.

Jackson is staying in my hotel, so it was not tough to catch him earlier Monday afternoon. He was standing in the lobby, resplendent in a flowing black silk shirt, his well-fed belly poking out from its midst. Surrounded by cameras, his entourage and fans seeking his autograph, Jackson is in his starry-eyed element.

"So why are you here?" I asked him. Angry Bush-backers have been slamming him for days; some Democrats have even expressed concern -- albeit off the record -- that his presence isn't exactly helping things.

"Disenfranchised voters have faces," Jackson said in his famously modulated tones. "They're Jewish Holocaust survivors, they're African-Americans, they're Haitian-Americans, they're farm workers, they are students. They were turned away. They have a right to vote. And their vote must count. Because they matter. There are voices that are trying to close the door on them again. They closed the poll on them last Tuesday; they're trying to close the polls again. Democracy puts a higher virtue on fairness and accuracy than it does speed. Let's have a fair count."

"So should there be a re-vote?" I asked, not that this is a likely scenario, considering how much Sturm und Drang there is over even a manual count.

"It could be a first vote," Jackson replied. "That's fair. Either undercounted, discounted, disenfranchised, voters need a fair vote."

What of the reports that some of the Gore chieftains weren't happy being represented by such a polarizing, controversial figure as himself?

"The right to vote is not about Gore or Bush, it's about people who are disenfranchised. I marched. Our right to vote is sacred. The issue today is not the campaign. It's essential to vote. Now, I think Gore does appreciate what we're doing. Because he knows the disenfranchised people have a right to be heard."

But a few hours after Jackson and I talk, it's Jackson's stormy presence -- and the continued heckling by the Bush-backing loudmouths -- that keeps some of these disenfranchised voters from being heard. "Recount Their IQs!" reads one of the hecklers' signs, which appropriately convey the disdain they feel for the largely Democratic voters who are complaining about the ballot. Because of the tumult, an officer from the Florida Council of Senior Citizens doesn't get a chance to tell the crowd her story without interruption. Neither does an 18-year-old girl, or a female African-American minister. One by one, these voters who had problems with their ballots try to show the world that they're not morons, that something was wrong with the ballots, but they get shouted down.

Ironically, the dozen African-American hecklers -- the most vociferous "Jesse Go Home" bellowers -- aren't even from Palm Beach. They have been bused in from Miami, though they won't say who paid for their tickets. (Finally, a busing program that conservative Republicans can support!) "Freedom Fighters International," they call themselves, and their members steer me to their spokesman, Michael Symonett, who proceeds to tell me that Gore's a murderer.

After Jackson moves the speech to the amphitheater, Symonett and his brood try to muscle their way to the front. But the amphitheater is a beautiful and serene setting, and the hecklers are vastly outnumbered here. Here they heed requests from the stage for them to take their signs down and be quiet. Before Jackson takes the stage, a local rabbi makes sure that he feels welcome, leading the clunky chant "This is Jesse Jackson's home! This is Jesse Jackson's home!"

"I marched 35 years ago in Selma, Alabama, for the vote to count," Jackson says. "We must not surrender. We will not let democracy down. We will stand tall. This crisis is not so much about Democrats as it is about democracy. This crisis is not so much about Republicans as it is about our republic."

"Democracy requires courage, patience and eternal vigilance," Jackson says. "Accuracy and fairness are higher virtues than speed."

But then Jackson launches into the typical liberal bromides that stand to make his protest seem more like a feast of sour grapes than a millennial reincarnation of Selma. He says that the nation stands at a crossroads -- and the right road is pro-choice, pro-environment, pro-affirmative action and pro-universal health insurance. His party-line rhetoric undercuts his call for Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris to recuse herself from the election's decision-making process -- calling her "a Jeb Bush ally and George Bush delegate."

Jackson closes with his trademark Sunday-morning chant: "Keep hope alive!" It's pretty clear which candidate Jackson and the crowd think represents hope. But the odds don't look so hot for their candidate, or the chances of a revote or even a full manual recount in West Palm Beach. For their sake, that hope better have a shelf-life past close of business Friday, when the absentee ballots are due.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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2000 Elections Al Gore George W. Bush