Free Speech Through Fences

Election '04

Ladies and gentlemen, please remove your shoes for inspection." The command booms out over the thousands of people queued up on Causeway Street, waiting to enter the FleetCenter for the first session of the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

"Ladies and gentlemen, please be prepared to present your dental records."

Vermin Supreme, long-time political-protest gadfly, pauses for a moment, then brings the bullhorn back to his lips.

"Please be prepared for a full-body-cavity rectal search. Remember, it is in the name of national security, and is part of your Patriot Act."

"Oh my God!" squeals a pleasingly pump young woman in a lavender pantsuit, as dawn – finally – breaks over Marblehead. "And I'm ready to take off my shoes!"

It was the intent of the convention organizers to keep Vermin, with his ratty fake-ocelot fur hood and natty red, white, and blue-sequined vest, firmly caged. And the cage they constructed for that purpose is a fine one, indeed. Cement barriers, eight-foot-tall chain-link fencing, hardware cloth, heavy black monkey netting, and razor wire are all contrived to keep demonstrators "from throwing things" at conventioneers, according to one published report. Delegates leaving the buses and walking into the FleetCenter can hear, but only dimly see, the shadowy figures inside the Cage.

However, convention planners failed to take a few things into account. The exit from the protest-zone Cage opens on to Canal Street, where access is not restricted. And instead of arriving at the FleetCenter on shuttle buses that would have whisked them by the back of the Cage to the main entrance of the FleetCenter, thousands of convention delegates and guests decide to take their own transportation and walk up Causeway Street. The Causeway Street entrance to the FleetCenter was designed as a secondary entrance, and only one person can enter at a time. The line backs up for blocks. So on Monday night, the protesters seize the opportunity to engage the delegates directly and head out the back gate of their Cage for Causeway Street. (Indeed, shortly after seven, the Cage is largely empty, occupied primarily by tourists having their pictures taken with the Is this what democracy looks like? signs pinned to the wire.)

At first, the protesters wait until the attendees pass through the gate and into their own enclosure – not too different from the first layer of the Cage – to engage them. A man on the other side of the enclosure wears a press pass identifying him as Robert Gurley, of Indyradio in Santa Cruz. He yells at those entering the FleetCenter: "Quit posing and stand up for something. Stand up!" Sometimes a protester can be defined simply as someone who has an opinion and no convention credential. "This is how we get to talk to you," he says, his fingers wrapped through the mesh.

Robert O'Brien, a Dean alternate from Maine who is attending his third convention, stops and talks with Gurley. Afterward he explains, "I just feel that these are people who are passionate. They're behind a fence." But their sense of disproportion concerns O'Brien. "What I am worried about is we're talking about fixing the kitchen when the freaking roof's on fire. We've got to make sure that George Bush doesn't have the chance to appoint three Supreme Court justices."

As time passes, and the few cops on hand do nothing, the protesters grow bolder, come closer. They jam the intersection of Canal and Causeway, spilling for several blocks down Causeway.

Most heckles are generic, although a Free DC protester with a tricorn hat and roller blades targets Washington, DC, mayor Tony Williams for special abuse. Two women dance as they hand out Planned Parenthood's STAND UP FOR CHOICE stickers. The supporters of Lyndon LaRouche, now specializing in streetside a cappella music, sing the Freedom Riders' anthem "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody (Turn Me Round)." Several movement veterans burst into laughter. "Not bad, not bad at all," says one as he holds up his credential for inspection.

An agitated young Kerry supporter walks up and down, armed with a campaign sign and a lot of frustration. "The hard left continues to be hostile to me," he complains. "Think about it. The people on the far left do not understand that if we do not unite together it will be a hard fight." A Free DC supporter bangs a drum in his ear. Chain-smoking National Lawyers Guild observers in fluorescent-green T-shirts watch quietly. Another young man, demonstrating there is an imperceptible line between half drunk and half-wit, keeps screaming "V-Tek for president! He beat A-Rod!" "Enough already," snaps the cop, in one of the evening's few displays of official temper.

Finally, a few minutes after nine, police reinforcements show up with barricades. It's growing dark, and some of convention-goers still in the creeping line are growing a bit nervous. A cop asks Vermin to step back behind the barricade. Vermin, in a routine he and the cop know well, asks what happens if he doesn't. The cop cheerfully explains that he will have to call a wagon and have him arrested. That's okay by Vermin; he just wants to make sure the cop is playing by the rules. He steps behind the barricade, and shortly thereafter decides to call it a night.

Professor Don Mitchell of Syracuse University's Maxwell School calls the growing trend of creating demonstration zones at political events the "ghettoization" of protest. Indeed, where once protesters were rigidly segregated only at major events and where not too many years before that, they were barely segregated at all, the confinement of protesters has now become commonplace. It is now routine at Bush-administration political events for police and Secret Service agents to create special protest areas, typically located beyond viewing distance from the actual event. The policy applies only to protesters with dissenting views. Recently, the ACLU sued the Secret Service over allegations that anti-Bush protesters were removed from locations where the president would be speaking while Bush supporters were allowed to remain. That case was dismissed after the Secret Service, which never admitted to the segregation policy in the first place, said it would not differentiate in the future.

During convention week, however, it's hard to avoid the impression that free speech is breaking out all over. Despite Democratic organizers' best-laid plans, these protesters managed to get closer to convention attendees than had any protester in recent memory. Indeed, during Teresa Heinz Kerry's speech at the FleetCenter Tuesday night, Medea Benjamin of Code Pink, a women's peace group whose members are easily identified by the fact that they wear bright-pink slips with the slogan PINK SLIP BUSH stamped on them, wangled a press pass to get onto the convention floor. She held aloft a US OUT OF IRAQ sign, but was immediately surrounded by delegates from Colorado who tried to hide the anti-war slogan from view. As she was jostled by Democrats from the Rocky Mountain State, a Dennis Kucinich delegate from Alaska came to her rescue ("We're supposed to be better than the Republicans," he explained) before she was whisked out of the convention hall (shouting "US out of Iraq" as she went) by convention security officers and Secret Service agents.

For the most part, nothing was thrown, and nobody got hurt – even if a few delegates did take off their shoes. Meanwhile, members of the Young Republican Executive Committee dress up in rubber sandals and stomp around Faneuil Hall. Falun Gong has taken over Copley Square. And just across from Boston Common, Libertarian Ian Scott, 26, of Mission Hill, wears a hand-lettered sandwich board that says CONSERVATIVES ORGANIZED TO CRUSH KERRY.

"I just wanted a good reason to walk around with a sign that said 'cock,'" he explains cheerfully. Scott is part of the Free State Project, which is trying to get 20,000 people to move to New Hampshire and take over elected politics. Why New Hampshire? "We had a vote, and the second-place winner was Wyoming."

"Essentially, in layman's terms, we're going up there and vote each other into office," Scott says. "It's not essentially a takeover per se," he adds reassuringly.

Inside the convention hall, interested delegates can view a pictorial history of their nominee's commitment to civil disobedience. When the Vietnam Veterans Against the War marched on Washington, in April 1971, Richard Nixon locked them out of Arlington Cemetery. So they took their "military incursion into the country of Congress" to the Capitol, occupied the steps of the Supreme Court, and camped on the Washington Mall. When the Nixon administration tried to evict them, the federal court ruled they could stay on the Mall, exercising their right to free speech, as long as they stayed awake. The vets voted, and John Kerry announced their decision to ignore the order and sleep. The DC police declined to arrest the dozing vets.

Under the Patriot Act, of course, Nixon would have no need to seek court intervention, and the DC police would not have to commit an act of civil disobedience. Today, the vets could be simply rounded up and incarcerated indefinitely. It is, after all, a Time of War.

The feel of protest and the spirit of rebellion infuse DNC-related events, even when there's, well, no protest to be found. At Howard Dean's and the Campaign for America's "Take Back America" conference, the fire marshal has locked things down. No one is allowed to go in; outside, an overflow crowd sits on the grass, as scheduled speakers come out on the patio to reprise their talks for the crowd. They are hoping to catch a glimpse of Michael Moore, but the filmmaker's security team isn't sure they want to let him out in the open air. Too easy to target.

Meanwhile, in the lobby, the air is confident. "We're going to win the election, and we're going to push John Kerry," to make good on his health-care promises, says Congressman Jim McDermott, the Shelby Foote of Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. As he waits for a wink from the fire marshal, which will allow him upstairs, the congressman is optimistic about the Democrats' chances of recapturing the Senate, and maybe even the House. "The House is on a knife edge," he says. "Some of these races are going to be won by 100 votes." The Republicans do not have a clue, he says, because they do not poll the right people. "They poll perfect voters, and these kids are not perfect voters. Kids don't vote in three out of the last four elections." However, it is these kids – those engaging in protest at the DNC, those who backed Dean, and those who worship Moore – who will provide the 100-vote margins in 2004.

Over at the Hip-Hop Summit at Roxbury Community College, Leonard C. Alkins, president of the Boston chapter of the NAACP, is thinking about those kids and strategizing for the future. Hundreds of people have turned out for this event, and each one has been asked to fill out a voter-registration card. If they are too young to vote, their names are entered into a database for future follow-up. Inside the Reggie Lewis Track and Field House, Boston election commissioner Michael Chinetti demonstrates the new optical-scanning voting machines, and shows how they create a paper trail. "Anyone who is partisan in any fashion, we are asking them to step back," says Alkins. "This is for our young people, so they think they are not being used."

Outside the summit, a PETA carrot prances, and the LaRouche volunteers, tired of being under the gaze of Nation of Islam security, break for a pizza. Across the street, Mike Yossarian – "I've heard all the jokes" – has set up shop for Volunteers for Nader. Along with Fraeda Scholz and a woman who calls herself simply Emmia, he awaits the return of Nader ballot petitions, for which they are paid per signature. They have been traveling the country in a Honda Accord station wagon for months now. For these former Kucinich supporters, war is the number-one issue. Backing Kerry simply isn't an option, says Scholz. "Why do I have to compromise everything I believe in and he doesn't have to compromise anything?"

There has been a lot of talk during this convention about free speech and civil rights. But in a world where delegates readily take off their shoes for Vermin Supreme, and attendees at a John Edwards party at the Rack happily hand over their IDs for scanning through a "visitor management system" with recorded name, date of birth, and gender checked against the invite database, it seems that many people have adjusted too easily to the creeping loss of civil liberties. And it's much harder to regain liberties lost than it is to hold hard to them in the first place.

Over at St. Paul's Cathedral, at a forum on the Patriot Act, Dennis Kucinich is calling John Kerry the "kind of politician that remembers where America came from."

"We didn't flee an empire to become an empire," Kucinich says. "We have to continue to challenge the status quo.

"We have to rage against the dying of the light," Kucinich cries, and the house roars.

But perhaps there is an English major or two in the audience who aches to put that line in context. It is not a warrior's call. Rather, inspired by what he witnessed at his father's deathbed, Welsh poet Dylan Thomas wrote those lines about surrender to the inevitable. "Old age should burn and rave at close of day," Thomas wrote, and one hopes Kucinich's use of the line is not prescient: "Though wise men at their end know dark is right,/Because their words had forked no lightning they/Do not go gentle into that good night."

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