Reprinted from Get Up (September 2000)
After marching for two hours in the hot Philadelphia sun, we collapsed in the shade. We had gotten as close to the Republican Convention as the police would let us. On the other side of the fence, the police kept a close eye on us, and behind them was the convention hall itself, the famous First Union Center, commonly abbreviated as, well, you know.
The man beside me offered some of his water, which I greedily accepted. “Where are you from?” he asked.
“Michigan,” I answered.
He gave a short laugh. “Really? What militia are you part of?”
I gently reminded him that Michigan was the home to John Sinclair, Michael Moore, the Port Huron Statement, the founding meeting of the Weathermen, and the Michigan State beer riots. (Okay, I left out the part about the beer riots.) He quickly apologized and introduced himself. He said he was a medic and was here to treat people in case of injury by the police. He indicated the officers with his hand. “They’ve been very good boys so far. We’ll see how they react tomorrow though. They’re trying to be on their best behavior because of all the media attention, but they’ve been trained to act aggressively, and if they get nervous tomorrow, that’s what they’ll do.”
It had been an interesting week so far. I had traveled down to Philadelphia with my girlfriend to protest the two party system and corporate control of American politics. We had spent close to twenty-four hours on a Greyhound bus, which was an experience in itself. We met some interesting people on that bus, including another couple heading to protest the convention. I asked them why they were coming to the protest, and one of them answered, “well, I was at a Pink Floyd Laser light show, and I was tripping on mushrooms, and when I left the show a tree told me that it was my job to fight for justice everywhere.” Not exactly the same reason I was going, but a strong movement draws people with different causes together.
We slept on the gym floor of the YWCA, and used our book bags for pillows. Because we had to carry everything with us at all times, we traveled as light as we could. The only clothes I took were the ones I had on me. (My girlfriend began to question the wisdom of this choice as the week went on.) We saw ourselves as a contrast to the Republican delegates, most of whom flew into the city of Philadelphia, stayed in nice hotels, and some of whom we saw traveling around n limousines. The GOP chose not to advertise that one fifth of their delegates were millionaires.
For a few days we marched through the streets of Philadelphia and rubbed elbows with the superstars of the left. Monica Moorehead, Ralph Nader, Patricia Ireland, and David McReynolds all were a visible presence. It was the largest crowd ever assembled to protest the republican Convention and the crowds outside the First Union Center dwarfed the crowd inside.
Tuesday was planned as a day of direct action. The protest was organized in true democratic fashion, which was meant to stand as an alternative to the mockery of democratic process that was taking place outside the convention hall. The broad plans for events were decided in a large meeting hall by spokespeople for different groups. However, since it was generally acknowledged that the larger meetings were almost certainly infiltrated by the police, the smaller groups decided the specifics. This kept the police on their toes a little bit. Since I had arrived without a group, it was slightly more difficult to get involved.
Although there were ample opportunities to join up with groups, I waited till Monday night before trying to get involved. Ideally, I wanted to join a group that would let me be part of the action on the streets, and yet at the end of the day not end up in a jail cell somewhere. I tried to find a group that met these specifications. Somehow, I managed to get myself into a group with three undercover cops in it.
Most of our group was arrested before the direct actions even began. Those of us lucky enough not to be in the building at the time of the raid were cut loose, wandering the streets looking for something to join up with. It was a disheartening experience, and police presence on the street was certainly much greater than the protesters. The police quickly wiped out the barricades we took part in.
So, I was overjoyed when I saw thousands of people marching through the streets in numbers too big for the police to overwhelm. I quickly joined in, but once I was part of the march I had second thoughts. The march was unorganized and out of hand, and some people will tell you that smashing police car windshields isn’t covered under some of the more narrow definitions of non-violence. However, since the police were arresting anyone who strayed from the main part of the march, that was motivation enough for me to make sure I was always in the center of things.
The march eventually ended up at the legal rally, and we all dispersed into the legal crowd. The police decided not to try and pursue everyone who had taken part in the march, however they did block us all in so we couldn’t leave the rally. From our position, all we could do was watch as the police, frustrated from the destructive protestors that ran away, took out their anger on the peaceful protestors who didn’t. As we saw the police club people who were non-violently sitting in the street, we chanted, “the whole world is watching,” to try to shame them into stopping.
As it turned out though, the whole world wasn’t watching. The protests, which were front-page news in Philadelphia, were barely covered in the national news, and not at all in some newspapers. It made me wonder how often things like this happen, and I don’t even hear about it.
I guess I’m not sure why I’m writing this story. Part of me wants to rant and rage about a police department that acted brutally towards non-violent protestors, and whose officers were praised rather than punished. But that’s a story that’s as old as protesting itself, from the labor movements to the peace movements to Seattle or DC. Anyone who’s remotely involved in protesting will not be surprised by this. I am also upset by the way the corporate media distorted our message, and implied that we didn’t have a cause. However, again this is no surprise to anyone. Did anyone really expect the corporate media to treat seriously the issue of corporate control of politics? The very fact that we forced them to pay attention to us at all is a victory. And as the movement grows, maybe next time they’ll take us a little more seriously.