My hotel in Denver is a block away from the 16th Street Mall–a ruler-straight stretch of Starbucks, Sunglasses Huts and Western-themed souvenir shops selling ceramic bald eagles paralyzed in mid-flight. At one end the state capitol building; at the other Union Station, near where the Big Tent will host bloggers throughout the week–in between, the Champs Elysees of middle America. It’s a fitting temporary home, since my impression so far of the DNC is that every huckster is here peddling something. Most obvious, the street venders hawking Obama t-shirts, buttons, bumper stickers and key chains next to their usual wares–Jesus is My Designated Driver and World’s Greatest Grandma fashions. The answer to the question–who buys this shit?–is everyone.
Or at least, Denver teems now with political tourists–delegates and Democratic Party volunteers corsaged with nine different kinds of Obama jewelry and bearing wide, relentless smiles. For these folks, the DNC is the culmination of a long year of work and worry, and they are here not so much to convene but to vacation. They have cameras, guidebooks and kids in tow. They wear Bermuda shorts, "athletic" sandals and floral print shirts. And they partake liberally, of the non-stop public lectures and free drinks in return for which they play an easy audience, primed at the pump to laugh heartily at even the lamest of McCain jokes thrice told.
I walked into one lecture during a wave of cheers, and it was only after a moment that I realized the speaker was rattling off a list of the Bush Administration’s worst crimes: torture (applause), gutting the Constitution (applause), voter suppression (loudest applause)! An uninitiated watcher would think he’d stumbled onto an honest meeting of Cheney fans (huzzah for executive secrecy!), but so overwhelming is the spirit of optimism here that even outrage finds its release in ovation. More than anything, this "transformation" may be Obama’s greatest accomplishment and his best weapon against McCain; it certainly was against Clinton and Edwards, who said more or less the same thing as Obama, but in a grimmer voice.
More discrete but equally present are the lobbyists who are here merchandising their own crass goods. Everything is sponsored by a raft of corporations too numerous to name. All you need to know is that the schwag bag given to delegates contained bottles of a noxious tonic called "Joint Juice" and an "AT&T Trivia Challenge" daring you to "guess the correct answers to these AT&T fun facts!" (#4, Where does AT&T rank among the ‘Most Military-Friendly Employers’ by G.I. Jobs Magazine? A) Top 250; B) Top 100; c) Top 50) Ah, good times, good times.
Buried in the midst of all this splendor are the dissenters–the antiwar protesters, Code Pinkers, anarchists, queers and Naderites. Despite fears that Denver 2008 would recreate Chicago 1968, yesterday’s demonstration was a gigantic bust. CNN reported a thousand protesters; the local Denver press counted the number in the hundreds (Recreate ’68 had projected as many as 50,000). Perhaps more numerous were the cops–in dark navy and tan–not just from Denver, but from Aurora and other towns nearby. They flanked the marchers on either side, in riot gear and on horseback, an entirely unnecessary show of force to curtail a clash that never was, and, in retrospect, never could be.
I caught up with a trickle of marchers as they left the main protest route and headed into the 16th Street Mall, where they picketed up and down while visitors and locals strolled. The Denver Daily News, the free commuter daily, reported that "major downtown streets were completely blocked by protesters"–but in reality the streets were already blocked, by shoppers and gawkers. From a distance, the protesters were indistinguishable from the DNC mobs and Sunday consumers, same flecks of color adorning their shirts, same wide grins. Even the anarcho kids looked like their less militant peers, there, across the street outside the record store, wearing their Ramones t-shirts and talking trash. I asked one young woman wearing a "No war for oil" shirt why she was here–to say no to war in Iraq! she said, somewhat redundantly, but with good spirit. And then, she left, breaking from the march momentarily to look over the Obama buttons for sale.