At some point during the upcoming Republican National Convention, delegates will look out the windows of the Xcel Energy Center, or down from swank hotels and grand old after-parties, and there, past the security fences and the legions of taser-toting police and private security guards, they will see the other America spilling into the streets of St. Paul, Minnesota.
That is, if the Republicans even make it that far. From September 1-4, the RNC will be besieged by a panoply of protesters–including antiwar activists, Iraq War veterans, Hurricane Katrina survivors, immigrant workers, labor unionists, anarchists, environmentalists, feminists and queers. At the frontlines will be America’s young dissidents who will walk out of class, lock down intersections and dance in the streets to “Funk the War.”
The view from Denver at the Democratic National Convention at the end of August will look a little different. That’s because in the age of Obama many of these same movements, so united against the RNC, are deeply conflicted over the Democrats and the party system itself–perhaps none more so than the youth movement. At issue, say organizers across the country, is not only their relationship to the Obama campaign and the presidential elections but the very meaning of democracy in 2008. Is true democracy possible inside the party system and on the campaign trail? Or is democracy to be found and made by the people in the streets outside? Will the two ever meet?
Not if the conventioneers have their way. Uncredentialed activists are to be fenced off and kept away from the Pepsi Center in Denver by parking lots the size of football fields. The protesters descending on the RNC will be cordoned off into designated “free speech zones,” guarded by thousands of police officers to the tune of $50 million at this “National Special Security Event.”
The streets will also be haunted by the ghosts of conventions past, from the cracking of skulls at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago to the pre-emptive arrest and detention of nearly 2,000 protesters at the 2004 Republican convention in New York City. Like their predecessors outside those arenas, this year’s dissidents have come to see the party conventions, advertised as the ultimate showcases of American democracy, as exhibits A and B of the nation’s deficit of democracy instead. And they cast themselves in opposition, as the keepers of the flame.
“It really will be a collision of opposites,” says Minneapolis activist Katrina Plotz when asked about the RNC, which she is organizing against with the Coalition to March on the RNC and Stop the War. “A scripted and sanitized spectacle for a homogenous group of wealthy elites inside the convention hall versus a thriving, organic movement of the masses outside.”