Squelching Democracy in LA

It's a frightening and ultimately depressing scene. The already cold and forbidding environment around the Staples Center in Los Angeles -- home of the 2000 Democratic Party Convention -- has been turned into an armed camp, with an atmosphere more appropriate to the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.

The Convention headquarters itself is encircled by a double set of tall, heavy-duty fences with concrete bases whose 12-foot sections each weigh 9,700 pounds. The Convention perimeter is cordoned off for blocks around. By Saturday, hundreds of police cars and thousands of cops on motorcycle, foot, bicycle, and horseback -- both LAPD and California Highway Patrol (CHP) -- had blanketed the area, flooding the streets and manning virtually every corner of every block, even before any activities had begun.

One veteran activist noted, "I've been to dozens of protests over many years, but I've never seen such a blatant show of police force." Another observer, a visiting psychologist from Oakland, said: "This is really scary and depressing. This is the Democratic Party, with elected officials who supposedly represent the people, yet they seem terrified of the people. What kind of democracy do we have?"

Local activists speculate that police brass have invoked doomsday scenarios -- fantastic scenes of 50,000-plus protestors rioting in the streets -- to justify huge outlays for security. All police are on 12-hour shifts, for example, costing LA a minimum of $1.5 million a day just for overtime. Yet, it's abundantly clear that without significant union support -- and labor has pretty much coalesced around the Gore candidacy -- the protesters won't begin to approach those numbers.

The enormous use of police force, along with the uninviting environs of the Staples Center, will tend to intimidate all but the hardiest demonstrators. Even then, attorneys have had to work hard to ensure that protesters even have the chance to express themselves without police efforts silencing their voices entirely.

One place where at least some dissenting voices will be heard is at Patriotic Hall, some 6 blocks away from the Staples Center. Here, during the four days of the Democratic Convention, the Shadow Convention will focus its attention on three core issues that seem to have slipped off the Democrats' radar screen: the gap between rich and poor, the failed drug war, and the corrupt politics that result from current campaign financing. Upstairs from the Shadow is the Indy Media Center, a gathering of anti-corporate media activists who will be reporting from the street on protest activities.

Patriotic Hall makes an odd and potentially alienating environment for these activists. Surrounded by car dealers, gas stations, and concrete pillars, one tiny burrito stand offers the only promise of human comfort in view. The site was built to honor veterans of World War I, so it's a thoroughly military environment, though rather seedy and nostalgic. Military regalia, paintings, photos, and murals are proudly, if dustily, displayed throughout the hall. Most strikingly (so to speak), Shadow participants who gather in the "cafe" will encounter a full-sized replica of Raytheon's Patriot missile, along with its slogan: "A Revolution in Air Defense."

So participants face a militaristic atmosphere both inside Patriotic Hall and on the streets outside. A dozen blocks away is Pershing Square, the site of Sunday's rally and march protesting the planned execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal. A number of other protests will be held at the Square during the course of the week. Needless to say, the police presence dominates here as well.

Yet just two blocks from Pershing Square is the newly rebuilt and stunningly beautiful Los Angles Pubic Library. There, unlike on the streets, security is at a minimum. Lots of kids, many of them Latino-, Asian-, and African-American, dash toward the children's section, gape at the murals, read, and study.

Currently at the library, from July 15 to October 15, is an extraordinary photography display. In "The Way Home: Ending Homelessness in America," thirteen prominent photographers have documented the lives of the homeless across the land. Their work also offers encouraging examples of solutions that have helped homeless people in various cities get off the streets.

Famed photographer Annie Leibovitz offers joyful portraits of older women housed in the Time Square Residency, where 652 adults now live, half of whom have been homeless. Jodi Cobb 's brilliant photos of the homeless in Miami are dedicated to the outreach workers, many of whom were once homeless themselves. Joseph Rodriguez displays pictures taken in Minneapolis, where homeless solutions seem far ahead of other U.S cities.

And there is a thirteenth photographer. In one of the greatest ironies of the current downtown LA tableau, this thirteenth photographer is Tipper Gore, the wife of the Democratic presidential nominee. Alongside her photos Tipper says that she made friends with many of the homeless people she came in contact with.

Now, Los Angeles County estimates that 84,000 residents are homeless on any given night, including 12,400 adults and their children. There is only one bed available for every seven homeless people. Los Angeles has the largest number of families and individuals in poverty in the nation. One of the groups protesting in LA is the National Homeless Convention, which has organized a week of vigils, panels and marches at the Dome Village of the Homeless, just a few blocks away from the Staples Center. Perhaps Tipper will visit them and make some more friends.

The steps leading down from the library offer a number of interesting sculptures and displays. One particular fountain caught this writer's eye. Inscribed above the constitutional definitions of citizenship and due process were these words: "'Power concedes nothing without a demand. Never did. Never will.' Frederick Douglass."

When Al Gore stands at the podium on Thursday evening to make his acceptance speech, you can bet that homelessness won't get much of his attention. Nor will he criticize the drug war, which has imprisoned hundreds of thousands of Americans for victimless crimes, devastating thousands and thousands of families in the process. He may mention campaign finance reform, but it's unlikely that he'll have much to say to the protestors outside the convention hall. However sincerely they might represent the struggles of millions of Americans excluded from the political establishment, they don't make campaign contributions or belong to lobbying groups. Many have experienced only the downside of the current "economic miracle" -- the increased gap between the wealthy and the poor.

Imagine if the $50 million used to produce the Democratic convention, or the $5 billion invested in campaign contributions this political year, or even just the tens of millions used to protect convention-goers from the masses were applied to helping the homeless: How many people might climb out of misery? Imagine that the Democrats listened to the protesters rather than walling themselves off from them: What might they discover? Maybe Tipper Gore should suggest to Al that the Democrats revisit Douglass's words and remember the necessity of protest for those without power. Perhaps then the Democrats could begin a process where concern for the realities of life in America could replace the cynicism of realpolitik.

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