Environment

Enviros Quiet In New York

Most mainstream green groups are opting out of GOP convention protests in New York. Instead, they'll be pounding the pavement in swing states.
New York City expects protests at next week's Republican National Convention to be the most widespread and strident to hit any political convention since Chicago in 1968, when the Democrats nominated Hubert H. Humphrey over Eugene McCarthy at the height of Vietnam furor, and chaos stole the political spotlight.

Already GOP spinners have begun framing the anticipated demonstrations as authorized by the Kerry campaign and evidence of the Democratic Party's "radical" underpinnings. Already, too, the GOP and the media are naming environmentalists as one faction likely to be among the most vociferous protesters.

On Sunday, Adam Nagourney of The New York Times wrote, "Even though Democrats are not involved in organizing the protests, some of the participants are almost certain to be aligned with traditionally Democratic groups, like labor and environmentalists, and Republicans made clear they would seek to link Mr. Kerry and the Democratic Party to any disorder."

Nagourney went on to quote a warning from Ed Gillespie, chair of the Republican National Committee and a senior Bush campaign adviser: "The line between the official Democratic Party and labor protesters, environmental protesters, and antiwar protesters is fairly blurry, and I'm not sure they want to have Democrats engaging in violence in New York against our convention. It would seem disrespectful and antidemocratic."

It's true that dozens of activist groups ranging from Billionaires for Bush to Hip-Hop Summit Action Network have announced plans to flood the streets of New York next week, and that anarchist groups such as RNC Not Welcome and A31 Coalition have vowed to use guerrilla tactics and civil disobedience to disturb the event.

A few ragtag enviro groups have also made noise about participating, including Time's Up!, a New York City-based bicycling and environmental action group whose members plan to march against Bush's environmental policies astride their two-wheel steeds, and the Rainbow Family, whose members are still singing the flower-power gospel (and quite possibly still having flashbacks to '68).

But Gillespie might be surprised to learn that most well-known enviro groups intend to steer completely clear of the convention. In fact, of every major environmental organization this reporter contacted – Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Defenders of Wildlife, League of Conservation Voters, Environment2004, Natural Resources Defense Council, Union of Concerned Scientists and the Sierra Club, most of which were actively involved in rallies during the Democratic convention in early August – only one, the Sierra Club, has any plans to hit New York City next week.

"We don't see it in our interest to be in New York. There's no value added," said Aimee Christensen, executive director of Environment2004. "If you go to the convention, it's a scattershot approach, it's sending a national message, and we want to apply our efforts in a more focused way. We want to speak to Republicans, but we want to speak to them in swing states – Florida, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Wisconsin. That's where we'll be pounding the pavement, not New York."

Christensen added that while she saw good opportunities for media exposure at the Democratic convention, which justified her group's efforts there, she didn't see any in New York.

Likewise, John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace USA, said his organization is not getting involved "because it's too partisan. We like to put pressure on all politicians, so for us to be in the streets of New York would align us with the Democrats, not the environment."

Defenders of Wildlife is also taking a pass, according to spokesperson Brad DeVries. "We have no plans to get involved," he said. "I really can't think of any green groups who are organizing around this. Maybe try League of Conservation Voters, I heard they're doing something."

But no, not even LCV – one of Kerry's most outspoken backers, which plans to spend upwards of $6 million to get out the green vote in swing states, and whose president Deb Callahan spoke at the Democratic convention – has any designs to make mischief on the streets of New York next week.

Are they scared of GOP threats to blame the protests on Kerry? Are they concerned that such activities might backfire? Hardly, insists Chuck Porcari, the group's spokesperson. "We're not intimidated by any means," he said. "We're all for talking to Republicans. In fact, we've just helped two Republicans win congressional primaries. But this election is not going to be won or lost in New York City, it will be won in the five swing states where we're knocking on 1.5 million doors to recruit voters."

Carl Pope, president of the Sierra Club, is the sole environmental leader who expressed a different view. "The reason the Sierra Club is going to be present in New York City is because this is not just the coronation of George W. Bush, it is a defining moment for the Republican Party – a party that has a long tradition of conservation going back to Theodore Roosevelt," he said. "I meet disgruntled Republicans at every state I travel to who feel totally alienated on this issue. We want to be there to say, 'It's time to take back the party.'"

Still, Sierra Club activists will not be blocking intersections or chanting beneath cumbrous papier-mache puppets. Rather, they'll be staging a vigil from dawn 'til dusk every day for a week, beginning today, downtown near Ground Zero to protest the Bush administration's distortions of air-quality information after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"It's critical for there to be a moderate, peaceful, substantive voice at the demonstrations," said Suzanne Mattei, director of the Sierra Club's New York chapter. "I have no concerns at all that a peaceful vigil could be framed as a radical or disrespectful act."

Greenpeace's Passacantando hopes other protesters will be as mindful of keeping the peace. He cowrote an editorial in the current issue of The Nation cautioning activists against engaging in any activities that could be spun by the GOP or the media as inappropriate. He says his concern was not the activities of mainstream groups, but rather anarchist groups – or even Bush campaign strategists, who might plant agents provocateurs in the streets to stir up turmoil and create a photo op to shame the Dems.

"After the 1968 riots in Chicago, they found evidence that the Nixon campaign had actually planted violent protesters in the crowd to spur on the uprisings," Passacantando said. "Clearly such tactics are not above Karl Rove. In fact, I'd be shocked if he didn't stoop to this kind of tactic."

We tried to track down a spokesperson for the Earth Liberation Front to tell us what sort of mischief this notoriously anarchic group might be up to in New York next week, but to no avail. On the other end of the notoriety spectrum, Bush campaign spokespeople also failed to respond to queries about the possibility of Bush supporters going undercover to foment trouble outside the convention hall.

Even if the streets erupt in mutiny, the media would do well to remember the establishment-sanctioned high-jinks going on indoors. Consider the unofficial parties to be thrown for GOP bigwigs by industry groups, like the Texas Honky-Tonk Salute on Tuesday, hosted by the American Gas Association, Edison Electric Institute, National Mining Association, and Nuclear Energy Institute, and featuring Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Or the Wildcatters Ball at Rockefeller Plaza, put on by many of the same characters and featuring Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

While these events will be quieter, with fewer banners and black ski masks, many enviros think these bashes are likely to be the site of the real trouble.
Amanda Griscom writes the Muckraker column for Grist Magazine.
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