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Idealism Without Illusions

 

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Issue No. 17 (September 2000) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Futility, fury and hope outside the Republican national convention

As soon as the New Protest Movement began planning its assault on the Republican National Convention, just up the road from me July 26 - August 3 in Philadelphia, I knew I had to go.

I didn’t believe a word I’d read about the New Protest Movement. The mainstream press had been condescending or hostile, and the “alternative” press, God bless it, was playing its usual cheerleader role. I needed to see for myself what was going on.

I also wanted to confront my radical past. As a young man, I’d tossed away my plans for a professional career to become a movement “lifer” -- in the end, of course, a movement half-lifer -- and I couldn’t help seeing myself in the kids on the streets. What would I say to 19-year-old Mark now, if I could go back and speak with him a while? It’s all there between the lines below.

Above all, I wanted to go to Philly to ask one of the most important questions that can be asked today: How can we (and especially our young people) best position ourselves to change the world? As you’ll see, I am not shy about suggesting an answer.

I didn’t start out intending to write another newsletter-length article, sans conference reports, sans book reviews, sans everything but passion and old-fashioned reporting. And it will not happen again! But I hope, and trust, you’ll find some riches here.
______________________

The girl leaned back on the couch and stared vaguely at the TV. She’d been demonstrating all day and hoped to see herself and her friends on the 10 o’clock news. She was wearing one of those low-neck T-shirts and a pair of loose-fitting jeans. She couldn’t have been more than 19.

“Why are you watching the Fox channel?” I said. “It’s the most conservative one by far.”

She glared at me without answering.

We were together that night because we were both staying in an old radical couple’s house in the Germantown neighborhood of Philly (a neighborhood featured in sociologist Elijah Anderson’s fine study of the culture of black violence, Code of the Street, 1999). A poster supporting Mumia Abu-Jamal partially blocked the view from the front window. So did a layer of dust and dirt.

All over Philly, demonstrators were being put up by old radicals. At our house, at least 10 other demonstrators were expected to arrive that night, and a woman in her 70s who’d come out from California for a piece of the action was already upstairs.

A second young demonstrator came in from the back and stretched out on one of the mats and mattresses on the living room floor.

Suddenly Christie Todd Whitman -- the governor of New Jersey -- appeared on the TV screen.

“Go away!” the girl on the couch said to Christie Todd Whitman.

“What’s the problem?” said the guy on the mat, who’d just arrived from Michigan.

“Christie’s famous in these parts -- she’d gone out with the police to see what a pat-down of a suspect was like,” I began.

“She did it for the publicity!” the girl shouted.

“How do you know?” I said. “Maybe she did it because she felt some obligation to understand police work. Maybe she did it because she wants to be a better governor.”

The girl drew her feet under her thighs, looked at me like I was the enemy. “She -- did -- it -- for -- the -- P.R.,” she said, with all the wisdom of her 19 years.

Innocence, not

About 10 protesters-to-be are sitting in a circle inside a hot and stuffy room, and Andrew Rose of the Philadelphia Direct Action Group (P-DAG), their handsome young trainer, with his long hair and South American shirt, is instructing them on the finer points of going to jail.

(From all over the U.S., for the entire week leading up to the convention, protesters had poured into the city for similar “training sessions” on subjects ranging from media relations, to non-violent direct action, to freeing Mumia Abu-Jamal, and Rose’s session was one of the few that was open to the media.)

You can bet that the police will treat blacks, women and gays a lot worse than they’ll treat “people of privilege,” Rose tells his sweltering audience, pointing to his white male self.

But if you’re willing to risk arrest, he continues, try to make yourself as big a burden to the cops as you can.

Make them carry you onto the bus or paddy wagon. After you’re on the bus, refuse to sit down. Once they get you to the jailhouse, refuse to leave the bus.

And after those horrible oppressive police finally get you behind bars, continue to resist. Smudge your fingerprints. Make funny faces when they try to take your mug shot. Refuse the food. Refuse to wear your jailhouse clothes (a tactic the Seattle protesters called “nude-ling”).

And every time you engage in an act of “non-compliance,” make a demand.

Remember, Rose says -- every time they appear to jerk you around, you’ll be building solidarity with others in the group . . . and, hopefully, generating sympathy from a wider audience.

Rose’s presentation was thorough. It had historical resonance (you could sense the ghost of Abbie Hoffman in the air). But it was not innocent.

Oppression, not

About the time Andrew Rose was conducting his training session, the Philadelphia police held a press conference outside their hideous 1970s-style concrete headquarters, universally known as the Roundhouse.

Cynical out-of-town reporters expected the worst. Instead, Police Commissioner John Timoney talked about “patience,” “understanding,” making informal spontaneous on-the-spot “deals” with protesters. A local ACLU official was called upon to speak, and freely shared his concerns.

When Timoney responded to a questioner by speaking respectfully of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., you could see jaws drop all across the Roundhouse plaza. (The out-of-town cynics were even more discombobulated a couple of days later, when Timoney declared he shared some of the protesters’ views.)

Philadelphia’s visitors were just beginning to discover what most Philadelphians had already learned: Their new police commissioner is deeply, viscerally committed to a new kind of policing.

He’d call it old-fashioned policing. It’s getting back on the street and chasing down Bad Guys -- and, in the process, embodying what University of Pennsylvania sociologist Elijah Anderson (above) calls the “decent culture.”

You’ve gotta have both tough policing and dealing with community relations, community concerns, Timoney told one television reporter.

And that’s why, even as P-DAG was putting thousands of protesters through training sessions, Timoney was putting most of his 7,000-member police force through training sessions of its own.

All included refresher courses on the First Amendment. “When they say you’re fat, ugly or stupid, remember: Patience,” police trainer Stephen Smyth told his group of about two dozen officers.

“[And remember to] verbalize your intentions [with phrases like] ‘move back’ [or] ‘clear the street.’ The lawyer in the $600 suit will be there at the end of the day if you don’t!”

Timoney and his top officers worked out a strategy they dubbed “passive offense for passive resistance.” Instead of donning heavy riot gear, shields and helmets and so forth, which Timoney ridiculed as “Ninja Turtle gear,” Philly’s finest would monitor the protesters in their regular uniforms (forming “straight solid lines of blue” when the going got dicey).

Hundreds of officers would go further -- they’d don polo shirts and shorts and monitor the protesters on bicycles. To set the right tone, Timoney himself biked around in shorts.

Thus, even as the protesters struggled to re-invent an oppositional street culture, the Philadelphia police struggled to invent public safety practices that could help build a decent common culture.

A showdown was inevitable.

Diamond in the rough

“Hey, young fella!” a gaudily costumed Ben Franklin shouts at me as soon as I enter the place. “Anything you’d like to know about this great country of ours?”

“Yeah, where’s the bathroom.”

I had no desire to cover the Republican National Convention, but at a moment of weakness I’d gone over to the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where the host committee for the RNC had set up a humongous exhibit called “PoliticalFest 2000” for credulous conventioneers, their neglected families, and the restless media.

It was appalling, an almost 1930s-Germanic display of swaggering nationalism, and the swarms of eager-beaver visitors dressed to the hilt didn’t humanize the place:

“Hey! There’s a life-size replica of the Oval Office (guffaw). . . .”

“Isn’t that a replica of Air Force One? LET’S GET OUR PICTURE TAKEN THERE. . . .”

“Look, Meg -- Ronald Reagan’s stretch limo! Oh, you’d rather go over to where the [100-plus] vendors are? . . .”

I fell into conversation with a life-size replica of a power couple (greatly facilitated by my wearing a suit), and let it be known that I was in town to cover Arianna Huffington’s Shadow Convention and the street protests.

“The demonstrations?” the wife said. “Why? Those demonstrators look like bums!

Just as I was figuring I’d dumped my admission fee down the drain, I spotted her -- a proud- and tough-looking woman in her 50s signing up the overclass for “RNC Visa” cards. I sauntered over at once.

Sometimes you just know there’s something special about a person, and she turned out to be the sister of a former Philly policeman who’d been one of Danny Faulkner’s best friends.

And Danny Faulkner was the cop killed by the protesters’ poster boy, Wesley Cook, aka Mumia Abu-Jamal.

“Some days my brother got back from [police] work and it was so degrading and awful that all he could do was sit there and cry,” the RNC Visa woman told me. “The drugs, the violence, the horrible violence. . . . One guy was biting his kid’s head off when my brother got to him. . . .

“Danny was the godfather at the birth of my brother’s daughter. I remember it like it was yesterday, the call coming in, late at night, ‘They shot Danny!’ . . .

“We were always worried about Danny, he was such a good person. . . . Please, before you write your story, look at the trial transcripts, look at the facts. . . . Please be fair to him.”

Mumia initiation rite

I had to look into the shooting, that’s for sure. Mumia was the offstage star of the protests in the same crazy way Lefty was the star of “Waiting for Lefty.” As the week wore on, police were subjected to dozens, hundreds, thousands of taunts of “Mumia Killers!,” “Stop Racist Cops -- Free Abu-Jamal!,” etc.

Fortunately, it’s easy to research the facts of the case. There’s a long, excellent, quasi-objective “starter article” by Buzz Bissinger in the August 1999 issue of Vanity Fair, available online at the Daniel Faulkner website (Bissinger is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Prayer for the City, 1997, one of the best books on urban politics you’ll ever get a chance to read).

After that, you should turn to websites maintained by supporters of Faulkner (www.danielfaulkner.com) AND supporters of Abu-Jamal (www.mumia2000.org, www.freemumia.com, www.freemumia.org, www.refuseandresist.org).

And whether you like legal documents or not, you should plough through at least parts of the 1982 trial transcript, as well as the 1998 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision reviewing the fairness of the 1982 trial proceedings (both available on the Faulkner website).

If you do all that, as I now have, I’ll be stunned if you don’t conclude that Mumia was fairly tried and committed the crime.

The evidence against him is overwhelming.

For starters, Mumia was found with a bullet wound in his chest from Faulkner’s gun. He was sitting in close proximity to Faulkner, who’d been shot dead. Mumia’s own gun was within a foot of Mumia’s hand. It contained five spent cartridges. The bullet’s markings in Faulkner’s skull (eight grooves with a twist to the right) were consistent with the type of gun Mumia had. . . .

When kids join gangs, they’re often made to participate in “initiation rites” that enhance group solidarity and increase members’ sense of alienation from the larger society.

Could it be that the New Protest Movement’s initiation rite is insisting that its members believe -- in the teeth of compelling evidence (and 18 years’ worth of court rulings) -- that Mumia was railroaded by the Evil System?

(Actually, there appear to be two “rungs” of initiation. All protesters must firmly believe that Mumia was railroaded, but the truly noble and “phat” protesters must further believe that Mumia is innocent.

(A leaflet I saw illuminated those two rungs perfectly when it said, “[While e]very fair-minded person who investigates this case can see that [Mumia’s trial was unfair, e]very activist . . . knows that Mumia is innocent.”)

One function of initiation rites is to make cruelty toward the out-group more acceptable. Just so, in the midst of the demos Clark Kissinger -- co-founder of the important protest group Refuse and Resist -- described Maureen Faulkner, widow of Danny Faulkner, as the “Prom Queen of the Executioner’s Ball.”

What’s really depressing is we should be done with this by now.

The radical movement of the Sixties had “initiation rites” too. Their primary effect was to push thinking people away in droves.

For example, although information about the brutal and economically ruinous course of the Chinese Cultural Revolution was abundant from the start, we created group solidarity by pledging allegiance to fawning tomes like Felix Greene’s Awakened China, not to mention (blush, choke) Mao’s Little Red Book itself -- remember?

When our movement finally collapsed, nobody waved goodbye.

"Unity day"

The crowd surged ahead -- we were off! And we flashed our placards to each other (there were no onlookers) as if it made all the difference in the world:

“Bring down MTV!”

“89.5% of Dykes say Lick Bush in 2000!”

“Governor Ridge -- Executor of Mumia!”

It was Sunday, the day before the Republican Convention, and I was in the middle of “Unity 2000,” billed as the biggest (and broadest-based) demo to hit Philadelphia in years -- 8,000 people marching down Benjamin Franklin Parkway to a giant stage (the organizers had been hoping for 20,000) -- unionists and abortion rights activists hand in glove with Greens and animal rights activists.

And who said the new protest movement didn’t stand for anything?:

“Meat is Murder!”

“Abolish the Death Penalty!”

“Be Noticed!”

We were colorful -- papier-mache puppets all around. We were loud. Most of all, we were young. Even at this consciously broad-based, semi-respectable event, by far the biggest age demographic was 18-29. (Second biggest was -- surprise, surprise -- the Sixties crowd.)

Soon, too soon, we got to the stage, where most of the speeches were eminently forgettable -- angry rants that scarcely said more than the picket signs -- and by early afternoon only the most ardently committed protesters were left munching overpriced food in the hot sun.

One young woman at the foot of the stage took off her T-shirt and bra -- a protest against oppressive clothing strictures, I guess.

Alanna, an activist from central Pennsylvania, handed me a carefully crafted pamphlet called “The Earth Belongs to Everyone,” an update of the Henry George philosophy .

A serious-looking young man handed me a radical newspaper with a drawing of a buried pig on the cover (snout and cloven feet protruding from the earth); above it was a gravestone reading “PIG SYSTEM: Land of the Greed, Home of the Grave.”

Joy, an older demonstrator who’d come out from the West Coast and was flying back to catch the action in L.A., informed me that the ruling class had worked out a long-term plan to “pacify” the U.S. public. It had been hatched at meetings of the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, and -- especially -- the Bilderburgers. (Sidebar for Web viewers: The memberships of these entities and others like them are available at www.biblebelievers.org.au -- just click on the "Conspiracy Scholars" section there and fume away happily. . . .) 

By prearrangement with the city, the electrical power to the stage was to be cut off at 4 p.m. At about 3:40 p.m., a kick-ass multiethnic hip-hop group took the stage (to vehement shouts of “Free Mumia! and “Fuck the police!”), and just as they were getting into the swing of things the power was shut off.

It was their big chance. A black guy with dreadlocks ran back and forth like he was under siege.

Another performer shrieked, “PEOPLE CAME FROM FUCKING HAITI!” [presumably, to perform].

A third performer cried out, “It’s so the REPUBLICANS can have more power!”

But the sparse and sun-baked crowd was too savvy, or dehydrated, to run riot. Within minutes we were all pouring back down the Parkway. At Logan Circle, a couple of young demonstrators stripped off most of their clothes, jumped into the fountain, and dry-humped for the locals -- “making paste of the bourgeoisie” just as we’d done in the Sixties.

We made the news today, oh boy.

The oppressed

When I finally staggered back to my Germantown dive, I couldn’t believe it -- a group of young Mumiacs, exuberant after the day’s march and protests, was about to go out on the town.

I envied the energy they had. How I missed -- for one brief moment -- being 19 again.

They’d dressed in their after-hours best, message T-shirts, soiled blue jeans, ratty sneakers. Although virtually all of them were college students, they made sure to let you see they were solid with The Oppressed.

“Be careful going out tonight,” a fragile-looking young guy in a wispy beard told them in all seriousness. “There’s cops all over the place.”

Thank God for that, I thought to myself. There’s drug dealers and worse all over this neighborhood.

I went to the tiny bedroom my hosts had set aside for me. Like most of the rest of the house, it was filthy -- incontrovertible evidence that my hosts, too, identified with The Oppressed and had contempt for the Bourgeois.

I spread my own sheet and pillowcase over the unclean linen on the bed. I’m no prince, but I wouldn’t have been able to fall asleep otherwise.

I eyed the bedsheet that had been nailed over the window, the dirty lime-green walls, the indescribably foul red-and-orange shag rug.

I was too repelled to cut the light (a bare bulb hanging from a wire), so I walked over to the bookshelves, barely clinging to the walls on their ancient L-squares.

There were few books on them. The biggest section consisted of old cassette tapes coated with dust -- here a tape from W. Brugh Joy, M.D., the New Age healer, there a tape from Noam Chomsky -- detritus of the protest movements from my younger days.

Most of the books were moldering, victims of humidity or worse. One was on communal living, another was titled At One With All Life.

I lay down in bed, unbearably sad, and turned out the light. Was it for this the clay grew tall? I thought, a line from Wilfred Owen’s war poem “Futility.”

I still couldn’t sleep, so I turned the light back on -- just in time to see a huge insect making its way across the rug.

The shadow falls

It wasn’t going to be automatic for us press types to get into Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington’s Shadow Convention, aka the “Real People’s Convention” (www.shadowconventions.com). I was told that press would be confined to the balcony of the University of Pennsylvania’s 971-seat Annenberg Hall, that over 800 press registrations had been approved, and that every day would be first come, first served.

Hey, no problem. I was more excited by Arianna’s initiative than any other event this election season. I’d do whatever it took to get in.

Over the last two years the former conservative commentator had transformed herself into a champion of what she’d begun calling the “Radical Center,” and she was hosting Shadow Conventions in Philadelphia and L.A. to highlight three issues the major parties were “afraid to touch” -- campaign finance reform, the gap between rich and poor, and the “failed drug war.”

On the first day, the place was packed, but I got up bright and early and managed to land a coveted front seat in the balcony. My press companions were basically world-weary twenty- and thirtysomethings (one L.A. Times reporter poked listlessly at her $12 lunch while I ate a roll), but the crowd below was enthusiastic. It didn’t appear to bother them that they were sitting among incredibly condescending stanchions meant to transmit their “states” of mind to the C-SPAN audience:

“Not a CEO”

“Not a PAC Donor”

“2 Poor for Access”

“Disrespected”

“No Stock Options”

“The Rest of Us”

Arianna opened with a talk designed to set the tone for the whole event. She said we were becoming two nations -- one that contributes money to political campaigns and one that feels excluded. She spoke of a “collective longing” to fix the political system.

Then John McCain took the stage, said a few kind words about W. (while barely suppressing a grimace), and launched into a prepared speech about campaign finance reform. But many Shadow Conventioneers had no desire to listen.

From every part of the auditorium, after every sentence or two from the imperfect Senator, the Real People began to shout:

“Save Black Mesa!”

“Stop the genocide!”

“Ask the Hopi-Navaho what they think of him!”

“All middle-class whites here!”

“FREE MUMIA ABU-JAMAL!”

One old guy pulled up a stanchion -- I almost cheered at that! -- and banged it on the floor.

Finally McCain looked up from his text and offered to stop speaking, but Arianna -- smooth as silk -- ran back on stage and saved the day. This is a convention where we can hear everything with respect!, she cried.

And after McCain was through, she lectured her charges some more. This is a convention not meant to stifle debate but to open it up, she roared. This is a convention not of the left or right, but in front!

Fossils

Sadly, it wasn’t anything of the sort.

As the response to McCain accurately telegraphed, the convention would be dominated by the far left.

While Arianna herself said all the right things, the speakers she’d invited turned out to consist of a couple of Republican politicians -- and a galaxy of long-time far-left activists and policy analysts. The Radical Center was conspicuous by its absence.

Chuck Collins of United for a Fair Economy took such a politically correct approach to closing the Wealth Gap that most socioeconomic problems got shoved under the rug -- a fun way to do public policy!

Ellen Miller of Public Campaign called for government financing of political campaigns at every level. Of course, that wouldn’t begin to neutralize the First Amendment-protected “issue ads” that are the monied interests’ last and strongest line of defense.

William Greider led the inevitable attack on globalization and bioengineering. At Greider’s panel, there wasn’t one dissenting voice.

Ethan Nadelmann of the Lindesmith Center led the charge for what he’d rather not call drug legalization. He didn’t explain to my satisfaction how we’d cope with the ensuing rise in drug addiction and social breakdown (the U.S. isn’t exactly the Netherlands), but he did seem like a nice guy.

By early afternoon of the first day, half the seats in the auditorium were empty -- and few new people were arriving. In the lobby I met many who felt cheated by the event.

There’s nothing new here, said a high school teacher from Buffalo. He suspected there were fresher ideas in the audience than there were on stage.

There’s no attempt to develop common ground here, said a mediator from Milwaukee who was on his way out -- for good -- with his wife.

A student from Penn told me she felt like a “prop in Arianna’s show.”

I thought that was a little extreme. But back in the now nearly empty balcony, a Convention organizer tapped my shoulder and asked me to move downstairs “for the television cameras.” (Only a couple of hundred people were left there -- wouldn’t look good on C-SPAN.) She had a Greek accent and wore a pricey mint-colored pantsuit.

Calm before the storm

After I’d experienced the Shadow Con, I was a lot more enthusiastic about hanging out with the protesters (www.r2kphilly.org).

From Monday through Thursday, the days of the Republican Convention, a couple of formal marches were planned. But the real action -- what Andrew Rose and his friends had been prepping folks for -- were the unauthorized, unannounced demos that everyone knew were coming.

They’d be telegraphed at the last minute over protest leaders’ walkie-talkies and cell phones.

Monday was relatively quiet. A planned, three-mile march to the Republican Convention just sort of petered out at the end, victim of the pitiless heat and humidity . . . and the disorienting sight of police officers in polo shirts and shorts cruising along on bicycles.

But every street-wise protester knew that Tuesday would be different.

It HAD to be different. Tuesday was, after all, the day they’d dedicated to publicizing the “criminal injustice system” and freeing Mumia. Their anti-racist identities were on the line, and the whole world would be watching.

Fun, fun, fun

I’m hustling toward the on-ramp of I-676, a major cross-town artery a couple of blocks from downtown, and at least 10 protesters are with me! Nearly all of them are in their teens or 20s and some have bandannas over their faces just like we did when we used to play cops and robbers!

For the last few hours the protesters have been itching for a fight, and now, finally, it’s at hand. Thanks to mobile phones, we found out about the I-676 gig. And other protest “events” will be happening soon all over downtown Philly!

When we finally get to the on-ramp, helicopters are buzzing, sirens blaring -- but that’s nothing compared to the scene on the ground.

A gaggle of kids calling themselves Billionaires for Bush or Gore (and dressed to the hilt in moldy-looking tuxedos, top hats, etc.) are chanting, “They say billy clubs -- we say yacht clubs!”

Clowns, real clowns, are bopping around crazily.

At least 50 protesters have linked arms and are blocking the ramp. Many have bandannas over their faces (it gives the whole scene a ominous, scary tone), and some have linked themselves together with jerry-rigged little devices called “sleeping dragons” that the police won’t enjoy taking apart.

Others -- many others -- are dancing to the beat of bongo drums!

Maybe 40 of Timoney’s finest stand shoulder to shoulder, facing the human highway blockade. They issue several verbal warnings . . . just like they were told to do in their training sessions. Then they start carting the blockaders away.

A wave of nostalgia sweeps over me. Some of the kids are going limp, just like I did once in front of the White House 35 years before. . . . But journalistic duty calls and I run back downtown, looking for more confrontations.

And it doesn’t take long! At LOVE Park, hundreds of protesters begin running riot up and down the streets. Drivers are panicking! It’s rush hour but traffic can barely move!

One masked kid jumps up and down on the hood of a parked police car (I’d never done that before), while another masked guy -- a lot closer to my age -- shatters the window with a small steel rod.

Out on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, they’re slashing tires on parked police cars and breaking more windows.

In the heart of downtown, they spray-paint a bus that’s stuck in the traffic! They spray-paint the Municipal Services Building with “Free Mumia” signs!

They shove dumpsters into the street! They set one dumpster on fire!

They grab a police officer by the collar from behind, then kick and punch him and run screaming away!

They scream all afternoon, as a matter of fact:

“Whose streets? Our streets!”

“Fuck the police!”

“This is what democracy looks like!”

“Brick by brick, wall by wall / We’re gonna free Mumia Abu-Jamal!”

They toss a rock against the windshield of a parked limousine . . . with a driver sitting behind the wheel!

They break into a high-rise construction site and hurl debris down to the ground!

Through it all, the police -- in their shorts, on their bicycles -- try to chase down the rioters and arrest them. It isn’t easy.

I’m hot and exhausted, panting for breath. When I look at my watch, it’s about 7 p.m. Three hours have gone by since the confrontation at the on-ramp. And the protesters aren’t done yet.

Hundreds of them gather outside City Hall to taunt and bait police (“No justice, no peace, / No mur-der-ing police!,” etc.). They spill out onto the street -- traffic can’t move. After the police finally herd everyone off the street, a gaggle of protesters marches back onto the street and sits down.

They link arms. They’ve got their bandannas on. The mounted police are finally called in, backed up by a row of bike cops.

Somebody begins to chant, “This is what a police state looks like! This is what a police state looks like!”

For the first time in my life, I begin to appreciate, I mean really appreciate, what it must take to be a good police officer. If I were a cop now, I’d want to beat the protesters to a pulp.

Us? Violent?

Ever since Seattle, protesters have been claiming that any violence “not caused by the police” has been the result of bad apples or weird anarchists.

After the violence in Philly, John Sellers, head of the important Ruckus Society, came out with the same song-and-dance: “Ruckus condemns the use of violence. . . . We’ve never advocated the use of vandalism. . . .”

When you watch what goes on at street level, though, you get a very different perspective on things.

True, probably fewer than 500 protesters in Philly were smashing windows, punching cops, overturning dumpsters, etc.

But the violent protesters were never stopped or even verbally discouraged by the thousands of other protesters. On the contrary -- whenever violence was being wrought, the norm was for the “nicer” protesters to conduct support activities, such as chanting, cheering, and running amok so the police couldn’t easily give chase.

Besides, the theoretically neat distinction between “violence” and “nonviolence” becomes much less neat at street level. Is it not violent to spray-paint taxpayer-supported buses and buildings?

Is it not violent to shout endless insults at police officers -- or to constantly harangue them about the “martyrdom” of a guy (Mumia) convicted of killing a police officer?

Is it not violent to keep working-class Philadelphians from being able to drive home at night because you and your friends have contempt for normal political channels?

There weren’t “good” and “bad” protesters in Philly. The protesters were an organic whole. They may have done different things on the street, but their separate acts were as connected as fingers on a hand.

And when you looked closely at that hand, it was really ugly.

Protesters' sensibilities

“I want a society that’s more open-minded and open-hearted,” Sylys is saying. “I mean, why shouldn’t we guarantee the basic things a person needs to live -- food, shelter, health care? . . .”

It’s the morning after Tuesday’s violence, and Sylys and I are talking at a perfectly vanilla demonstration against Citibank, a demonstration that would have instantly reminded you of the mid-60s (serious-looking women handing out leaflets full of half-truths; exhausted-looking demonstrators holding posters high; bitterly ironic message T-shirts saying things like “What kind of worm would you rather have in your neighborhood?,” and then picturing (a) an earthworm, and (b) a man in a suit).

I’d spent a good part of the week talking with protesters like Sylys, and found that they shared three assumptions:

1. Big corporations are evil by nature;

2. If you don’t have money, you can’t make a difference; and

3. Young people don’t count.

Sylys was one of the most articulate protesters I’d met, and one of the most committed. Tall, gaunt and 26, he’d been involved in the protest movement ever since Seattle (where he lived) and he’d come to Philly specifically to take part in the protests. He supports himself by building databases for companies like Boeing and Microsoft.

“Our generation is techno-literate,” he explains, “so [the world] needs us! And there’s a lot of money to be made out there.” But the work he does is by its nature sporadic, so “between contracts” he gets to spend a lot of his time on politics. And he makes enough money so he can “contribute a lot.” According to Sylys, many of the most committed protesters are able to survive (and even flourish) because of their computer skills.

“My parents were hippie types, kind of,” so he didn’t have the fierce debilitating conflicts with them that many in my generation did. “Me and my father build sheds -- we do stuff together. [My parents] are my best friends, they’ve always been there [for me].” On the other hand, he’s noticed that “my dad and my grandfather don’t talk -- oh, they talk, [but they have no real] relationship.”

I ask Sylys if he can give a benign explanation for the violence.

“A lot of people don’t know what they want,” he replies. “But they feel something is deeply wrong. . . .

“A lot of it is emotional. I mean, when you run through parts of a city turning over dumpsters, [you’re telegraphing that] something’s wrong [out there], even if you can’t articulate it [very well]. . . .”

Right-hearted, wrong-headed

I couldn’t agree more with Sylys and the other protesters I met that there’s something deeply wrong out there (that’s why this newsletter is called RADICAL MIDDLE rather than, e.g., “Jaunty Middle”).

But it’s not enough merely to react to situations. In politics -- as in life -- sometimes sincere but inappropriate reactions can do more harm than good.

Unfortunately for the future of appropriate protest reactions (and actions), the political “debate” within the protest community is between left-socialists and neo-anarchists (see especially Michael Albert’s “Why Protest the Conventions?” (listed on www.lbbs.org/CrisesCurEvts/ Conventions/conventions.cfm), an important left-socialist tract, and Naomi Klein’s “Does Protest Need a Vision?” (www.r2kphilly. org/article_klein1.html), an important neo-anarchist one).

If the protesters are ever going to put themselves in position to break away from yesterday’s ideologies and develop an appropriate politics for the 21st century, they’re going to have to break away from the three paralyzing assumptions mentioned above:

1. Big corporations are evil by nature. While protesters are dreaming of breaking up the big corporations (Medea Benjamin of the California Greens even proposed this at the Shadow Con), thousands of other young people are going to business school to devise practical, “all-win” ways of running transnationals better.

Many of the top business schools are now actively recruiting visionary students. “The [Eighties] kids were smart at crunching numbers, but they were not the kind of citizens we wanted to see,” explains the dean of Boston College’s School of Management.

Now every B-school worth its salt offers courses in, e.g., entrepreneurship, nonprofit management, global citizenship, community service, business ethics, and business and the environment. Even more important, the content of many core courses has been humanized (see, e.g., Richard Daft's popular text,  Management (5th ed., 2000), or Ricky Griffin's popular text of the same title (6th ed., 1999)).

Ironically, even as the protesters in Philly were passing out anti-corporate leaflets that could have been written in the Sixties, or even the Thirties, the editors at Business Week were putting the finishing touches on an extraordinary double issue called “The 21st Century Corporation” (August 21/28, 2000).

The magazine pinpoints dozens of cutting-edge issues. How can corporations move from “delivering products” to “serving customers”? How can customers be brought further into companies? How can corporations disperse their work across the globe so no country remains merely a hewer of wood and drawer of water?

How can corporations best handle the ongoing blurring of the boundaries among the corporate, governmental, and educational ecosystems? How can corporations make sure that they attract and retain good people? . . .

The protesters have little or nothing to say about any of these issues. They’ve chosen to operate out of a different paradigm -- one that bears only a tangential relationship to our actually existing problems and possibilities.

2. If you don’t have money, you can’t make a difference. If the protesters weren’t so prejudiced against the police, they might have noticed that Philadelphia Police Commissioner John Timoney (b. 1948) is living proof that one non-monied person can turn The System around.

He came to New York City from Dublin, Ireland, at the age of 13; soon both his mother and father had dropped dead, but he raised his little brother by himself in a slummy apartment in upper Manhattan, washing dishes and loading trucks to get by.

He took the police test as a lark -- but as soon as he put the uniform on he fell in love with being a cop. He won 65 medals for service or valor (meanwhile earning a master’s degree in urban planning), and when Mayor Giuliani brought Bill Bratton in to try to do something about the skyrocketing New York crime rate, Bratton made Timoney the youngest police chief in the history of the NYPD.

Giuliani eased Timoney out along with Bratton (they were both too independent for Giuliani’s taste); even so, when Timoney ended up as the top cop in Philly, in 1998, he was greeted with huge skepticism. He was a New Yorker, after all; and he was white in a majority-minority city; and when had Philadelphia ever had anything resembling an honest, let alone competent, let alone innovative top cop?

Timoney hit the ground running. He didn’t meet with top commanders at first; instead, he went to roll calls at all 23 police districts, three shifts a day. No Philadelphia police commissioner had ever done anything like that before, and word among the patrol cops spread -- hey, maybe we’ve got something here. Maybe real, gritty, neighborhood police work is going to get some respect.

Then Timoney decentralized the department, putting most crime-fighting decisions in the hands of the commanders. Morale shot up among them too.

And Timoney was just getting started. Soon he revealed that crime statistics under his predecessors had been cooked to look good. He instituted innovative crime mapping and tracking techniques that pulled most crime stats up during his first year. They’ve been declining steadily since.

When a teenager was released on DNA evidence after spending a year in jail, Timoney informed the public that the police had made terrible mistakes in the case. That was almost too much for Philadelphians to take in. The top cop had acknowledged -- and apologized for -- police wrongdoing?

The Philadelphia police department still has a long way to go. But nobody imagined things could have been turned around as quickly as they were.

And one person is responsible for that. Not a change in political “isms” -- not an oppositional political culture.

And that one person started out with nothing (www.johntimoney.com).

3. Young people don’t count. The most inspiring person I saw at the Shadow Con was a 23-year-old Republican named Jonathan Freimann. He wasn’t speaking there or anything; I ran into him in the aisle.

He’d come to the Shadow because he wanted to hear McCain. During the primaries, he’d been McCain’s Massachusetts youth coordinator, and now he was a delegate to the Republican National Convention.

But that doesn’t begin to describe this young person’s political involvement. “I went to college at Emory, in Atlanta,” he told me, “and the people I did politics with weren’t your win-at-all-costs College Republicans.

“They were, for the most part, Republicans -- and they were very savvy about politics -- but there were things we were very critical about, like the need to be more inclusive, and the need to do outreach [to more diverse segments of the population], and the need to push for [corporate and campaign] reform. . . .”

After Jonathan left for law school in Massachusetts, “we kept in touch, we all individually got involved in the McCain campaign -- and then afterwards, when we wanted to figure out a way to continue his reform message, one guy visited me, and at this bar in Boston, on this napkin, we took down all these notes about how we could start . . . a group called the Bull Moose Republicans [in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt that would] build an inclusive and reform-minded Republican Party. . . .

“We talked to a couple of people in D.C., and then there were conference calls, and then it just so quickly [began to take off] -- people just gravitated to the message!

“A lot of the groups we’re reaching out to have felt that they’re not welcome in the Republican Party. . . . We have work to do to prove that we’re genuine about this. . . .

“[This year] there are some candidates we’re talking about endorsing. . . . We picture down the line having Bull Moose representatives in Congress, and having a caucus. . . .”

I asked Jonathan what he thought of the protests. “I think it’s great that people are trying to [be] heard,” he replied. “But throwing rocks outside The System is going to have limited effect.

“One of the messages the Bull Moose is trying to get across is, You don’t have to work outside The System. . . . All of us are shocked at how quickly [our organization] has exploded” (www.bullmooserepublicans.com).

To Elizabeth on the West Coast, waiting

I was cowering at the edge of a particularly explosive demonstration when I saw her -- also lurking in the wings, but clearly more curious than frightened, and looking more like a debutante than a demonstrator. And she couldn’t have been more than 19.

Eventually I approached her (or did she approach me?), and some of my assumptions turned out to be true. Elizabeth Hanley is 19, and she was at the Republican National Convention because she’s active in the College Republicans and her parents are big wheels in the Republican Party (her dad is an executive at a Fortune 500 company). She’d been en route from one cocktail party to another when she bailed out of her cab to observe the demo.

But don’t sell Elizabeth short. Other assumptions you might make about her are assuredly false.

“I felt alienated by the RNC and the protests,” she told me after the convention. “I guess I just don’t fit, but I’d like people to see things from this perspective. . . . Sorry, so cynical -- I’ve not slept for several days, and yes I’m cocktail-partied out. . . .

“I don’t like that the Republican Party isn’t as inclusive as it should be, and even though the convention tried to put a different face on the Party, um, I don’t feel that it’s genuine. . . . A lot of the ideas [there were] just kind of a tribute to the heggemoanie or headgeminny -- how do you say that? -- of the U.S. and I was kind of offended by it. . . .

“I don’t think this country is going to have a two-party system much longer. I don’t think my generation can identify with either [party]. . . .

“I was more impressed with the Shadow Convention than the protests on the street. I don’t think they’re all that effective. For me, you have to appeal to me sort of logically. . . .”

While many others her age chose to spend the summer at laid-back jobs, or in the streets, Elizabeth chose to spend it in D.C. writing articles for the Washington File -- the State Department’s international news service. Now she’s going back to the Pacific Northwest where she’s pursuing a college degree in English and economics.

“I just like the contrast in thinking [between those disciplines],” she said. “You need to cultivate every part of your brain!”

“Yeah,” I said. “Like, I was a wrestler in college --.”

“I’m a runner!” she said. “And I’m a musician -- I play the violin and viola. . . .

“I want to always be able to, like, empathize with street protests,” she continued, “and then walk into political conventions right after that and understand their purposes and causes too. I wish all people would do that. This is really sentimental, but it really would make the world a better place if people would just try.”

Elizabeth has already begun thinking about her professional career. She’d like to work in foreign policy (hence her gig at the State Department). But “I don’t think I want to work for the government,” she says. “When you’re working at the U.S. Government you aren’t allowed to see all sides of an issue -- just like when you commit to one political party or another. . . .”

Work at a think tank would be marginally more appealing, “but I like to do stuff, not just analyze it. I could imagine working for [an entity that] implements and monitors policies. . . .”

I wish you all the best, Elizabeth. Because of your thoughtfulness, and balance, and realism, and acceptance of complexity, I suspect the future is in your hands a lot more than it is in the hands of the protesters.

And if millions of young people like you and like Jonathan dedicate yourselves to improving your chosen fields as passionately as Police Commissioner Timoney did, I’m sure all our futures will be bright.

ABOUT THE RADICAL MIDDLE CONCEPT

WHY "Radical Middle"?

WIKIPEDIA Weighs In

50 Thinkers and Activists DESCRIBE the Radical Middle

50 Best Radical Middle BOOKS of the '00s

GREAT RADICAL MIDDLE  GROUPS AND BLOGS:

Over 250 Great Radical Centrist GROUPS and  Organizations

25 Great Radical Centrist BLOGS

SOME PRIOR RADICAL MIDDLE INITIATIVES:

Generational Equity and Communitarian platforms 1990s

First U.S. Green Party gatherings, 1987 - 1990

Green Party's "Ten Key Values" statement, 1984

New World Alliance, 1979 - 1983

PDF of  the Alliance's "Transformation Platform," 1981

SOME PRIOR  WRITINGS BY MARK SATIN:

New Options Newsletter, 1984-1992 (includes back issue PDFs!)

New Age Politics: Healing Self and Society, 1976,  1978 (includes 1976 text PDF!)

OTHER
PRIOR   RADICAL MIDDLE TEXTS:

50 Best "Third Way" Books of the 1990s

25 Best "Transformational" Books of the 1980s

25 Best "New Age Politics" Books of the 1970s

NOT JUST RADICAL MIDDLE:

10 Best U.S. Political NOVELS

50 Current Political IDEOLOGIES

50 Current Political  MANIFESTOS