During the 2000 election, many activists saw little difference between Democrats and Republicans. This year, however, giving Dubya the boot has become the overriding concern, and the slogan “The Evil of Two Lessers” has been replaced by “Anybody But Bush.” That leaves progressives with a question: whether to demonstrate at the Democratic National Convention in Boston July 26-29 or to give the Dems a pass and concentrate on the Republican National Convention in New York August 30-September 1.
While protesters for the latter have united behind the banner of “RNC Not Welcome,” a coalition of progressives in Boston became bogged down this winter in soul-searching discussions about their message. “Although the Democrats turn our stomachs in a lot of ways, we also didn’t want to derail the ‘Dump Bush’ agenda,” says Cynthia Peters, an organizer with United for Justice With Peace. The coalition eventually decided on a middle road between protesting and not protesting by organizing “People’s Parties” in four Boston neighborhoods to coincide with the DNC’s opening parties for delegates on Sunday, July 25. These, in turn, will cap a three-day Boston Social Forum, which will include more than 400 workshops, seminars, films, performances and exhibits on issues like global justice, immigrants’ rights and feminism.
With events like these, organizers hope to provide a positive alternative to both the Democratic platform and the kind of confrontational mobilizations that have led to violence and arrests in the past. The neighborhood parties will also reach out to delegates with the “Fund the Dream” campaign, a national petition calling for the re-allocation of $100 billion from the Defense Department to social programs. Organizers hope the campaign will help forge a bond between sometimes-disparate middle-class antiwar activists and inner-city community organizers that will last beyond the election. They are encouraging activists in other cities to use the energy they might have spent in coming to Boston to throw People’s Parties to strengthen their own communities, and they have challenged protesters coming to the DNC to plug into local concerns.
One group that has listened is the Kucinich campaign, which originally planned a mass rally on Boston Common but changed plans in favor of a series of teach-ins and street actions on civil rights, economic justice, the Iraq war and healthcare in neighborhood locations during the week of the convention. These will culminate in a Progressive Convention on Thursday, July 29, at which the campaign and its allies will ratify a progressive platform that will form the basis of a nonprofit political group to continue its work no matter who wins the election. The campaign plans to bring its issues inside on July 29, with a demonstration on the convention floor a half-hour before Kerry’s coronation, in which sixty or so delegates will hold signs reading Democrats for Justice and End the Occupation.
The emphasis on decentralized protest has spread organically through Boston protest circles. Even the “anti-authoritarian” Bl(A)ck Tea Society (a revolutionary riff on the Boston Tea Party) has decided against converging at the convention’s FleetCenter location in favor of a street fair on Boston Common, the “Really, REALLY Democratic Bazaar” on July 27. “We think the ‘Anybody But Bush’ movement is laughable,” says BTS member Frank Lamont. “That’s what got us Clinton and more inequality and corporate rule.” However, frustrated by the traditional scenario of protesters hurling themselves at a fence lined with riot cops, which they say has become ineffective as a tactic, the group plans acts of creative civil disobedience scattered throughout the city. “Cops are militarized to an insane level now,” says Lamont. “It doesn’t make sense for us to put ourselves in a situation [confronting] these jackbooted thugs who are just looking for trouble.” While the BTS has committed itself to nonviolence, its website calls for protesters to “defend Boston,” and the group has offered support to groups espousing a “diversity of tactics.”
To be sure, some groups will converge on the convention center, either in a “free speech” area set aside by police or in the street outside the arena. The ANSWER Coalition, which spearheaded many of the protests against the war in Iraq, has called for a rally on Boston Common on July 25, to be followed by a march to the FleetCenter–an action some activists frown upon as unnecessarily spoiling for a fight. “John Kerry voted for [the Iraq war], and he supports the occupation,” says ANSWER organizer Peter Cook. “We want to confront the Democratic Party head-on.”
Hoping to defuse tension and avoid the violence that marred conventions in Philadelphia and Los Angeles four years ago, Boston police have stressed that their policy is one of “high tolerance for civil disobedience,” according to superintendent Robert Dunford, who oversees convention security. However, the recent arrest of a student protesting the Iraq prison scandal has raised fears that police are cracking down in advance of the convention. City permitting policies have also been restrictive with regard to free speech. Officials denied ANSWER’s request for a permit to march in front of the FleetCenter and instituted new rules just two months before the convention, forcing even groups who had been approved for permits to re-apply.
“It’s incredible,” says Carol Rose, director of ACLU-Massachusetts. “They said they were going to create a one-stop shop, and instead they’ve laid another layer over the existing bureaucratic structure. It’s creating a real roadblock for people who simply want to exercise their rights.”