Eugene Weekly : Analysis : 9.11.08

A Tale of Two Conventions
One was a block party. One was an angry country club. Neither was great for free speech
by Jeff Shaw

Saundra Crump has been all over the world during her time with the U.S. military, to 13 countries. But she calls Denver the most important trip she’s ever made. 

Courtesy Santa Cruz Indymedia

The African-American native of Pine Bluff, Ark., remembers all too vividly the struggle for school integration in the South. Now 60, “I’ve just gotta be here,” she says, standing outside the facility where the Democrats are inside busily nominating Barack Obama.

Crump isn’t a delegate. She’s an American, though, and thousands like her came to Colorado for the first political convention in memory that felt simultaneously like a celebration and a historic event. On the “historic event” side of the ledger? The greatest proportion of delegates of color in convention history. (“This place has a great vibe,” one veteran political journalist told me. “Lots of happy black folks everywhere.”) On the “celebration” side? A host of youth organizations, young delegates and people famous outside of Washington, D.C.’s cozy confines. 

The place attracted Cyndi Lauper, Method Man and Oprah. There was a buzz in the streets every night, and that was before people waited — some more than four hours — to see the nominee speak in front of 84,000 at Denver’s Invesco Field. 

I don’t know what I expected when I came to Denver, but I didn’t expect the special kind of lovefest I found there. When I caught a bus to the hotel, I saw liberal Democrat delegates thanking a cop. Then they tried to get him to vote. Even radicals, while furious with the “freedom cage” Denver had set up as a protest zone, projected most of their anger outside of Colorado and at the administration. Denver was the block party where everyone you invite shows up, and to your surprise, the ostensibly incongruous mix works, from Cyndi Lauper to Saundra Crump.

If Denver’s convention was a block party, its counterpart in Minneapolis-St. Paul was the world’s angriest country club. A two-block perimeter around St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center was secured by high fences, leaving the immediate vicinity of the convention with the feel of a ghost town — or a zombie movie. No one got in without a pass, and passes were scarce. The lively, packed Denver light rail and downtown corridor melted into a cyclone-fence-surrounded boxy stadium devoid of festivity.

Inside, Cindy McCain took the stage wearing an outfit that cost more than twice the purchase price of my first house and then called the Democratic nominee an elitist. Debutante Sarah Palin whipped the crowd into a red-meat frenzy, attacking such noted anti-American specimens as the “community organizer.”

For all the talk of unity being a problem for the Dems, the PUMA appeared to be an endangered species even prior to Hillary Clinton’s speech. There were many times more 9/11 Truthers out in the streets than pro-Clinton, anti-Obama voices. To their credit and shame, both parties put on a good show for the base, however cloying it came off to the forced observer. 

Sometimes, this had amusing results that didn’t make T.V. Rudy Giuliani used every second of his allotted time, delighting in call-and-response chants. Sarah Palin, he told the throng, had much more executive experience than Barack Obama or Joe Biden. “How much experience do they have? Zero!” Saint Rudy said. “ZE-RO!” the crowd roared back. “ZE-RO!” Later, Rudy accused Obama of flip-flopping. How many times, Rudy mused, would Obama go back on his convictions? An enthusiastic but misguided lemming near me, who had perhaps dozed off for a few minutes, shrieked “ZE-RO!” 

After a few hours of these speeches, I’d had enough political theater. A freelance writer named Andy Mannix and I headed out to cover the street protests. As in Denver, there were limits on free expression in St. Paul. Marchers weren’t permitted to even approach the Xcel Center. But Thursday, the night of John McCain’s address, hundreds were going to try. 

But every way they tried was blocked by cops on horseback, in turtle suits, or on bicycles. After a few fits and starts, three dozen people elected to sit, block an intersection and wait to be arrested. Mannix and I stood by the protesters, waiting to photograph the arrests, when several police in riot gear approached us. I’ve been through this before: Be sure to show ‘em your media credentials, I told him. One cop in riot gear told us to leave.

“We’re the press,” I said, and barely had time to utter the words before the black-clad officer in unmarked helmet threw me backward, over a curb. I hit the ground. A forest of arms and a few clubs first pushed me down, then dragged me to my feet. While I was being buffeted with blows — and subsequently thrown into the street — Mannix was ordered to get down on the ground. He complied, putting his hands behind his head.

Then they hit him with mass quantities of Mace, first in the face and then inexplicably on his back, using enough spray to soak through three layers of clothing. We hit the pavement within about five seconds of each other, thrown.

The streets quickly got out of control. Police sweeps were rounding up everyone, even neighborhood residents, or one guy who stepped out of a bar to have a cigarette. Amidst the sounds of concussion grenades, I took Mannix — still reeling from the spray — toward a line of police cutting off a bridge, our only line of escape. We were five minutes ahead of the approaching marchers, and I managed to talk the police into letting us through.

Minutes later, the veteran political journalist I’d spoken with in Denver would be under arrest in St. Paul. Another colleague from my newspaper would spend the night in jail as one of about 800 arrested. He showed them his credentials, too. A cop verified them as valid, but an order had come down that the press was spending the night in lock-up anyway. 

We looked back at St. Paul. The haze from smoke grenades rose into the night, and I could smell burning somewhere. Andy’s face and body were still burning from the Mace. 

I thought about how this moment might be emblematic of the differences between the two conventions. I thought about freedom of the press. And most of all, I thought that I’d rather get Maced and roughed up again than listen to another of those speeches any

Jeff Shaw of Minneapolis is a blogger for City Pages. 



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