Monday, September 01, 2008

Labor Day; Paul Bloom at the Democratic Convention

We had an exhausting Labor Day--everyone up early, cleaning and moving boats. Andy hung the kayak from the ceiling of the boat house, Aunt Ellen scrubbed the kitchen floor twice, etc. etc. Nathan and hid friend went water-skiing, then we all packed hurriedly because David had to be on a plane to Norway at 7:15 PM. Took the boat out at the boat ramp (Nathan drove it over), the Geller Weinbergers headed off for Brookline, Andy and Taxi and I took the boat to Connecticut and dropped it off, came home, unpacked, washed clothes, picked tomatoes, made the season's first raw tomato sauce over penne--very nice.

I'm on a listserv with other veterans of the 1968 student protests at sit-ins at Columbia University-- a fascinating group of people. Paul Bloom gave me permission to include this report of his time in Denver outside the Democratic convention, which seems appropriate as the Republicans go about their business hampered by Hurricane Gustav and perhaps by unexpected fecundities. Here's Paul's piece:

I was outside the DNC for the four days of its life in Denver. The heavily armed, massive police presence in Denver was daunting even to convention delegates. Police on horseback, police on motorcycles, SUV’s rolling down the street with three or four helmeted police on both side running boards and on the rear bumper, squadrons of cops leaning against buildings, lurking in alleys, and poised on street corners suited in protective gear reminiscent of Star Wars, armed with gas guns, tasers, shotguns, semi-automatics, and who-knows-what gadgetry; Denver police and sheriffs, police from other jurisdictions (one afternoon i found my way blocked by mounted police from Cheyenne, Wyoming), dozens of federal police agencies and countless armed private security guards were ubiquitous.

One evening i was walking down the street past a federal courthouse talking into a cell phone when a guy pulled up and jumped out of his car to take a picture of a church across the street. Immediately, a couple of armed security guards ran out of the building and grabbed his camera. “Hey, that’s a nice church, make a nice picture,” i volunteered. “Just keep moving!” was the reply. “I’m not in your way,” i rejoined. “This is federal property, just keep moving!” I was on the city sidewalk.

Still conversing on the cell phone, describing to my friend what was happening, i moved to a bus bench at the end of the block and watched as more guards and police emerged from the courthouse. One of them (Federal Protective Police) came over to me and demanded ID. As i handed it to him i asked ”What’s the problem?” “You were interfering with the officers.” “No, i wasn’t in their way at all.” “What have you been smoking?” “I don’t smoke.” “Put that cell phone down when i’m talking to you.” “I’ll just keep it on, thanks.” Wham! He grabbed the phone and shut it, and put me in handcuffs. “For your protection and mine.”

Ten minutes later, after ID checks had run their course, he let me go. This was not an uncommon experience --- in the days following i heard countless similar tales.

Unlike Chicago ’68, where a peace plank had been introduced on the floor, and where Connecticut Senator Ribicoff in his nominating speech for George McGovern denounced the “Gestapo tactics” of Mayor Daley and the Chicago police, there was a great disconnect between the official Democratic Party convention agenda and protesters. Denver Mayor Hickenlooper, a Democrat, did everything he could to isolate demonstrations and make protesters invisible. Only as a result of the Iraq Veterans Against the War march was a bridge put in place between street demonstrations and the party inside.

Prior to the opening of the convention, a federal judge had ruled that security needs outweighed First Amendment considerations, and affirmed the city’s right to restrict protesters to a fenced-in area out of sight of convention attendees. The Free Speech Zone, which actually appears as such on official maps, consisted of a 50,000 square foot parking lot surrounded by a 10 foot high chain link fence and an inner rail iron fence, with no bathroom or porta-potties.

Addressing a rally Sunday prior to the convention, Ron Kovic pledged: “I gave three-fourths of my body in Vietnam and i’m not going to be put into a cage in silence.”

No demonstrations took place in the Free Speech Zone.

However, in a park far from downtown and the Pepsi (convention) Center, the mayor had permitted organizers to place tents and hold support activities but forbidden them to sleep. There a national group called Tent State University facilitated much of the organizing, including logistics for Wednesday’s IVAW-sponsored Rage Against the Machine concert at the Coliseum, and including Resurrection City Free University, a 4-day series of more than 40 colloquiums on the park lawn with presenters such as Vincent Harding, Cynthia McKinney, Vincent Bugliosi, and Stephen Zunes.

Because they were forbidden to camp at Tent State, at the end of long, hot days 30 or 40 people trekked to what they called the Freedom Cage to sleep. No fires were permitted, amended to “no heat sources” after someone tried to cook breakfast on a battery-powered hot plate. Campers had to walk three or four blocks to bathrooms, harassed at police blockades coming and going. Stadium lights were kept on at all times and, as people started to retire, giant floodlights were turned on for the remainder of the night. Police in cherrypickers kept an all-night vigil over the 30 or 40 campers who woke each morning to find themselves surrounded on the ground by Secret Service among others.

On Wednesday, after a free concert by Rage Against the Machine which opened with a stirring speech by Ron Kovic, about 100 Iraq war veterans, many in uniforms, led a crowd of four or five thousand around the Free Speech Zone to one of the barricaded roads leading to the Pepsi Center. There everyone waited hopefully for a response to a letter the Vets had sent into the Obama camp which read in part: “Sen. Obama, millions of people are looking to you to restore our reputation around the world ... In this ominous time, you symbolize a hope for a better America.”

The letter went on to express three goals: immediately removing U.S. troops from Iraq, providing full health-care benefits to returning veterans, and paying reparations to Iraqis for damage done during the war.

When no one from the Obama campaign emerged from the arena to speak to the group after more than an hour, veterans led demonstrators to another Pepsi Center entrance where we were met by lines of police in riot gear, and above us sharpshooters in cherrypickers poised to shoot pepper balls and who knows what into the crowd.

The veterans made a line of their own facing the police, and began walking toward them. Police warned them to stop or face pepper spray and arrest. As protestors behind them began to prepare for mass arrest, many donning bandanas to protect against gas, two white-shirted Obama staffers arrived and asked that representatives of IVAW be escorted over to speak with them.

After a brief conversation, the representatives returned to the crowd to announce that they had been promised a meeting with Phil Carter, Obama’s liaison for veteran’s affairs, and that Obama would receive their letter.

A cheer went up, and many cried tears of relief that victory was achieved, and a dangerous confrontation avoided.

The discipline of the march, the joy of success, and the spirit of the people resulted in the warm and amazing sight of demonstrators shaking hands with police and thanking them. The police, too, seemed relieved. To one crowd of six heavily armored police Ron Kovic introduced himself: “I was a Marine wounded in Vietnam 40 years ago. I wrote Born on the Fourth of July.” The officers took off their helmets, shook his hand, and asked to be photographed with him. As all six gathered around him, one of his friends took picture after picture with each of the officers’ cameras. An unforgettable moment!

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