Activists Regroup for Long Haul

As the Republican National Convention started whipping itself into a masturbatory frenzy yesterday, thousands of activists spent the afternoon regrouping, recuperating, and reflecting.

It was a busy morning, during which over five thousand protesters joined the Kensington Welfare Rights Union's march for Economic Human Rights. Their peaceful march from City Hall to the convention center was marred only by a few tense confrontations with the police, and the inexplicably bizarre appearance of Newt Gingrich outside a White Castle along the route. After reaching the convention center under intense midday heat, people dispersed around Philadelphia to rest and strategize.

At the William Way Community Center, a gay and lesbian community center that has opened its facilities to visiting activists, twenty young participants in Philadelphia Freedom Summer, an annual program of the local chapter of Refuse and Resist, sat on the floor with the day's newspapers sprawled out in front of them.

"Hey look, that's me!" one yelled, pointing to a photograph as they all leaned in for a closer look. Barucha Peller, 17, said that this is her third summer traveling up from Washington D.C. to participate in Freedom Summer. Although she had fun jumping into a city fountain with 200 others during the Unity 2000 march on Sunday ("I thought, this is what it will be like after the revolution!") and relished breaking up the anti-choice "Chain of Life" demonstration the same day ("Yeah, we messed with them,") she wondered about the effectiveness of this bevy of protests.

"There's so much going on here, but I think that we have to keep in mind that all our protests are really not going to affect the Republicans," she said. "The government has never willingly changed to compromise its own power, it's always had to come from the people, from the grassroots."

A few miles away at another convergence site, the Community Education Center on Lancaster Road, activists rested in the shade, fixed punctured bike tires and perused a table of information on genetic engineering. Ronald Coleman, 30, works at the local anarchist bookstore Wooden Shoe, and echoed Peller's desire to maintain an accurate gauge of the protests' effectiveness.

"I was at the the April 16th demonstration against the IMF and World Bank in Washington, and I feel here the same way I did there," he said. "This movement doesn't seem to have any central organization. We need to ask ourselves, Where do we go from here? What exactly do we want? At the end of this tunnel what kind of society do we want to see?" Coleman has so far steered clear of the big protests, instead choosing to do volunteer security at the convergence site during its full schedule of legal trainings, direct action classes and planning meetings.

On an empty grass lot tucked in a poor residential area of West Philadelphia, some people demonstrated exactly what kind of society they want to see at the end of the activist tunnel. From a yellow schoolbus equipped with a full restaurant-capacity kitchen, a colorful band of people who identified themselves as "Everybody's Kitchen" ladeled out split pea soup and loaded plates with fresh salad, grilled tomatoes, corn-on-the-cob and cinnamon buns for a grateful mix of protesters and locals. Harold James, 69, is an elderly resident of West Philadelphia who declared that Everybody's Kitchen trumped the RNC hands down.

"They might have brought some money into the city, but the Republicans is against poor people. They're all about business," he said, enjoying a bowl of soup. "But I think this bus is a darn good idea, and let me tell you, the food is swell."

Everybody's Kitchen set up its operation in Philadelphia a week ago, and on its first day five patrol cars showed up to harass them. Once the police officers saw that they were just feeding people and cleaning up the lot, however, they left and haven't returned. Since then, Everybody's Kitchen has been serving up free vegetarian meals from morning to night, creating positive relationships with the surrounding neighbors (who incidentally love their food), and preparing the ground for a community garden on a corner of the lot.

One kitchen helper who wanted to remain anonymous while serving salad said, smiling, "we're not political, we just feed people. This is our protest." As the convention churns on, protesters are remembering that it's not just about demonstrating against the Republican National Convention, but also demonstrating how a society committed to freedom, justice and cooperation would actually look.

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