Protesters Prepare For GOP, Democratic Conventions

National political conventions always have attracted political protestors like moths to a flame. At this summer's conventions, the most disparate groups of activists since the 1970s are joining together to advance their causes.

Dozens of groups based on the East Coast are preparing for Unity 2000, a rally planned for July 30, the day before the Republican Convention begins. Organizers have invited over 100 groups to participate.

Although no one issue has emerged as the dominant Unity 2000 message, "We have a common bond," said 17-year-old Kristen Bricker, an activist from Wilmington, Delaware. "We feel that something isn't right. There are things that need to be changed and we need to act."

On the other side of the country, an umbrella group called the D2K Network is organizing protests at the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles this August.

"Nothing just happens. It's all organized," according to Lisa Fithian, 39, a longtime activist and organizer for D2K. "Some of it is basic, and some of it is quite sophisticated. It starts with people talking to each other and learning."

Bricker is involved in efforts to organize youth activists and bring people to Washington for Unity 2000. She began by contacting and talking to people on the Internet. Her efforts appear to be bearing fruit - given responses so far, organizers anticipate between 40,000 and 100,000 protestors in town for the Republican Convention.

Huge turnouts for demonstrations in recent months have been encouraging Bricker and other activists. Labor union and environmental protestors joined together in Seattle and severely disrupted the World Trade Organization's meetings. Then last month, demonstrators again descended, this time on Washington, D.C. And although they didn't stop the meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, protesters captured acres of coverage from the mass media and were able to change the agenda at some of the international organization's meetings.

Organizing, Training and Legal Battles

With the conventions still a couple of months away, organizers are already fighting legal battles and running training sessions to make sure the protests go as smoothly as possible.

A group of Bay Area activists, for example, will conduct a training session for protestors in anticipation of the Democratic Convention. Nearly 200 demonstrators are expected to attend a camp outside San Francisco, where they will learn the basics of nonviolent street demonstrating, including how to deal with pepper spray and tear gas, how to link arms, scale walls and trees - and produce sound bites for the mainstream media.

At least as important as training is determination. D2K activists planning for the Democratic Convention have said they will not be confined in "protest pits," block-sized areas cordoned off by police for use by activists. The Los Angeles Police Department has already secured such an area near the Staples Center, the site of the Democratic Convention.

Faced with all sorts of hurdles, the disparate groups in California have secured two sets of attorneys, started training for "direct action" protests and collecting bail money for the inevitable arrests. They have formed committees on providing food and shelter in friendly churches, public parks, schools, vacant lot encampments and private homes for thousands of demonstrators.

And in Philadelphia, protestors recently dropped a First Amendment lawsuit after authorities agreed to let them march down a main thoroughfare.

The Ruckus Society, which trains activists to use civil protest to push for social change, plans a three-day training session in June in Philadelphia.

"I think that there has been a synergy that is happened among different movements," said John Sellers of the California-based Ruckus Society. "I think that once a movement starts to build and the different struggles come together, it creates a critical mass of its own."

The Message

But what is this critical mass aimed at accomplishing? Like earlier protests in Seattle and Washington, D.C., the convention demos will attract mostly labor and environmental activists concerned about jobs and pollution in a globalizing economy. Convention protesters haven't united behind such shared causes since 1972 when anti-Vietnam War demonstrations rocked both parties' meetings in Miami.

This year, plenty of issues are being talked about: from traditional labor and environmental causes to anti-capitalism, women's rights, gay rights, animal rights, human rights in China, campaign finance reform.

Ilyse Hogue, an environmentalist with the San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network who plans to protest along with labor activists at the Republican Convention, said both groups plan to "expose our political system as being set up for the benefit of international corporations."

While Rod O'Connor, chief of staff for the Democratic convention, insisted the party's relationship with labor remains strong and predicted it will be strengthened even more as the convention nears, party officials have said that they do not want labor unions to participate in the protests. Party officials are talking with labor leaders to head off any possible confrontations outside the Staples Center.

"I think the Democratic Party has a long history of supporting the rights of working families," O'Connor told the Associated Press earlier this month. "If there are events around the convention that are sponsored by labor, I believe ... they will be done in coordination with the convention."

Another group of protesters will be raising hell against what they call the "prison-industrial" complex. They note that the prison population in America has gone from 800,000 at the end of Ronald Reagan's first term to fast approaching 1.9 million now.

AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power - ACTUP - will also be there. They want the federal government to spend more money on treating and finding a cure for AIDS.

"I think we're at particular moment, an historical moment," Jai Ching Chen, 27, an organizer with the nonprofit Youth Action for Global Justice told the San Francisco Examiner earlier this month.

Don Kegley, labor chair of the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment, has a message which he wants heard at the Democratic Convention.

"The idea is to say to both parties, 'you don't represent the mainstream of America,'" he said.

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