Anti-War March at the DNC: But Where Were the People?

August 27, 2008

I happen to live in Denver, and recently was tapped by a local community radio station to report on the news during the Democratic National Convention (DNC) (For an audio version of this post, see here ). This position means that for the past weeks, and all during the DNC itself, I have been attending community meetings, reporting on demonstrations, interviewing delegates, and witnessing the DNC program at Denver’s various convention sites.

But if the street demonstrators had their way, none of the thousands of journalists in Denver for the DNC would be covering the events inside the staged convention hall at all—rather we would all be covering the drama in the street as tens of thousands of demonstrators showed up in Denver to shut the whole show down.

Protestors Call For Action

On the website of, the street activists issued their call to action.

Unconventional Action’s strategy at the Democratic National Convention will hold the Democratic Party accountable for promoting unjust policies: environmental degradation, the enforcement of arbitrary borders, attacks on the poor, complacency in war, and racist policing.

We will expose to the nation that the Democrats and Republicans are two sides of the same coin, both parties funded by the same corporations and upholding the same unjust political system which fails to meet the needs of the vast majority of people. Anarchists and Anti-Authoritarians are urged to engage in a broad variety of tactics to disrupt fundraising events and prevent Democratic delegates from voting for no-choice candidates. Unconventional Action will honor and support autonomous actions while coordinating a highly publicized assault on the pageantry, violence, and abuses of the Democrats and the two-party capitalist system.

Unconventional Action will target a variety of the 1,500 proposed fundraisers, countless delegate hotels, and designated institutions perpetuating global injustice. Using space reclamation, street theatre, direct confrontation, positive action, and a broad array of other tactics, we will force the national media to question the Democratic Party’s failures, hold Democratic candidates accountable for their abuses of power, and engage in
direct actions that reflect our ultimate goals of joy and liberation through creativity and confrontation.

As demonstrators organized throughout the summer of 2008, preparing for the coming convention, they predicted that 25,000-50,000 demonstrators would descend on Denver, committed to public demonstrations on the scale of the 1960s , to force the Democratic party to recognize the anti-war community in America, the crisis of global warming, the shame of sweatshops.

Bad Portents and Dismal Protests

But as I talked to delegates arriving in Denver for the DNC, I heard bad portents for the upcoming protests. On Saturday, I asked a superdelegate from Wisconsin , chairman of the DNC youth council, about his thoughts on demonstrations by groups such as recreate 68, and he answered bluntly: “never heard of them.”

Here in Denver we’ve heard plenty about such groups, and their plans to disupt the convention. Some of the demonstration leaders estimated 50,000 people would show up for Sunday’s anti-war march. The local dailies predicted 10,000 would show.

But come Sunday morning of the march, the anti-war crowd simply didn’t show. Only about 1000 showed —at least 10 times smaller than predicted. The anti-war demonstrators called for the voice of the people, but only found the voice of a few friends.

Where Were the People?

What can account for such a result? Where were the people?

As I wandered throughout the crowd of demonstrators, the answer was almost always the same—it was the paranoid fear-mongering of Denver city officials, and overblown police presence: the officials made people scared to come downtown (see reports of the action here (click link for Monday 08/25) and at Or just watch these clips and look for the police…

Others suggested that the low turnout reflected the fact that the Iraq War has lost its urgency. Both parties now talk about timelines for withdrawal, fatalities are down, and domestic economic crisis has trumped other concerns. People just aren’t paying attention to the war.

Both of these reasons play a part in accounting for Sunday’s surprisingly low turnout—but the most important reason why demonstrators did not “Recreate 68”— is simply because it is NOT, any longer, 1968.

2008 is not 1968

In 1968, the Democratic nomination was entirely decided by Superdelegates—the popular vote in the primary was meaningless—and when the anti-war votes of millions in the primary were ignored by insider Democrats committed to the Humphrey, the war candidate—you can bet it catalyzed a street anger that can’t be matched today, when the popular vote is decisive in choosing the Democratic nominee.

In 1968, 18-20 year olds couldn’t even vote, though they were being drafted to fight and die in Vietnam. A lot of those young people showed up in Chicago—and registered their discontent in the streets, as the ballot-box was off limits.

In 2008, 18 year olds can vote, and they turned out in record numbers during the primaries—voting for Obama 4-1 over Clinton. Now that he’s the nominee, on the strength of the youth vote—it’s no surprise that young energy has been diverted from the streets, into the party.

And speaking of the draft. In 1968 they had one; in 2008 we don’t.

In 1968, King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated and the party fell apart while the street exploded. In 2008, the Kennedy of our day is leading the party, while the street seeks direction.

Is 2000 1960?

In fact, 2008 looks more like the hopeful 1960 than like the angry 1968. In 1960 as in 2008, the progressive hopes and youthful energy of a nation centered on the Democratic Party and its charismatic leader, and the party had not yet proved bankrupt.

Barack will likely win this election as Kennedy did, as the hopes of the left wrap themselves into the Democratic party rather than into the passion of the street. If Obama wins, he and his party will have their chance to respond to the national call for change. Will Obama fail? Will the party that captured the hopes of a record number of primary voters prove bankrupt? Will the hopeful “yes we can” of 2008 become the disastrous Democratic disintegration of 1968? Obama will likely win this election–And then we, and the street, will see.


Convention Choreography and Street Disruption

August 25, 2008

In 1972, it was a bit of a scandal when a secret script for the upcoming Republican National Convention was discovered. In The Boys on the Bus, author Timothy Crouse reported on the details of the script—calling it a “stage-managed coronation of Richard Nixon.”

“Spontaneous cheers will interrupt the convention secretary in mid-sentence and at 10:33 the President will be nominated and there will be a ten minute spontaneous demonstration with balloons..”

The Republicans were planning their convention rather than just letting events unfold unpredictably, and this shocked the establishment! Back then conventions were a raucous affair, where it was often the case that delegates didn’t know who would win the nomination when they went into convention, and where serious and divisive debates about platform planks (should the Democrats stand for civil rights in the South, for example) would tear the party to pieces. The fact that the Republicans were working to remove any division or unpredictability from their convention was a surprising new development in 1972—but this strategy was quickly adopted by both political parties.

Today, the primary election process insures that the presidential and vice-presidential nominees are already chosen, debates over the platform have all been worked out , and all other sources of party division are almost always resolved before the convention ever begins. The line-up of speakers has been carefully vetted and planned to the last detail .

So what’s the point? Why do the parties even continue to hold a convention and why do so many voters watch?

Conventions continue to play several roles for political parties, including serving as a single place where thousands of delegates representing different factions of a party can gather to build solidarity and excitement for the hard work ahead in winning an election and serving as a star-studded occasion where lot of big-money donors gather for fund-raising dinners, invite-only parties and other special events to raise necessary millions of dollars for the party.

One of the key functions of a political convention is to serve as a carefully choreographed advertisement to share the values of the party and image of its presidential nominee with the voters.

“Contemporary conventions are staged primarily as mega-media events designed to electrify the party faithful and to woo undecided voters by dazzling them. Scholars have demonstrated that support for the party’s nominee is boosted immediately after the convention, and the prevailing nostrum seems to be: the better the convention, the bigger the boost. Elaborate effort—and resources—are now lavished on the conventions by party leaders to orchestrate, anticipate, plan, schedule, rehearse, time, and script every detail of every minute of the convention—especially those proceedings that will be aired during prime time.”

— Costas Panagopoulos, 2008

For four days, the Democratic and Republican conventions will feature long lines of speeches, tributes and video presentations revealing what exactly the party stands for, what kinds of people associate with the party, and what the party intends to do once in power. It is a rare moment for voters to truly watch the party present itself—and this serves a vital purpose for American democracy.

We certainly can’t rely on the mainstream media to help voters learn about core values of a party. Studies show that the average amount of time that a candidate or official is allowed to actually speak, in their own words, on the television news is about 7 seconds. Seven second sound-bites are hardly enough time for parties to present their ideas or values in any kind of nuanced ways.

But at a convention, candidates can give lengthy speeches, and they aired in their entirely o various news stations. Video tributes to party achievements and great party leaders are aired for the voters to experience and learn from . Some people call it a useless advertisement, and there are even some in the mainstream media who suggest that none of the convention should even be covered (in favor of what? 8 second soundbites?)—but the convention experience is not so much a useless advertisement as it is a multi-media classroom that voters can enter to learn about the party and its nominee.

Voters are certainly interested in what goes on in that classroom. Although viewership has dropped in recent decades (although there have been few studies of alternative ways of following a convention such as on-line or through casual conversation with friends), at any given moment, 15% of all television viewers are watching the convention—no small number. And the number jumps during the big speech by the nominee. 15% of all voters also make up their actual election decision while watching the convention—a number matched only by the presidential debates.

Conventions are a way to convey the party and its values to the voters—but the choreography of a convention is always threatened by events in the street organized by demonstrators who are intent on challenging a party, confronting it with opposing ideas, and thrusting an alternative narrative of grass-roots priorities upon the national stage. In 1968, convention demonstrators in Chicago were so numerous and so unruly (as were violent police, intent on squashing grass-roots demonstrations in the city) that the Democratic party looked out of control to voters who saw it all unfold on television. They responded by voting in a Republican president.

To this day, demonstrators seek to recreate the energy and drama of the 1968 anti-Vietnam protests, and party officials try to minimize and silence such street demonstrations that distract from the party’s message.

This year in Denver, party leaders worked with the city of Denver to create a carefully planned parade route for demonstrations that would go nowhere near the convention itself, and passed a rule that all parades had to end before the convention events started for the evening. They designed a “freedom cage” (see previous post on the subject) where other protestors could go to speak out at the convention, also out of sight of delegates and hidden behind a large white tent.

But Denver organizers have threatened to tear it all down. Groups in Denver have named themselves such things as Recreate 68, Unconventional Denver , Disrupt DNC 08 , and Tent State University—and they have claimed that up to 50,000 protestors will be descending on Denver to march in the streets, ignore the rules relegating protestors to small cages, and push the Democratic party to take more strong stands against the Iraq War, against poverty, and against global warming (for example).

Will the demonstrators be able to steal the stage from the Democrats? Do convention demonstrations have a role to play, similar to the Convention choreography itself, in teaching the nation about the political lay of the land? In Denver and in St. Paul over the next few weeks, we will see who truly has the upper hand—the party in the halls of power or the movement in the street.

Free Speech: RIP

July 22, 2008


“We can change the world!

Won’t you please come up to Denver.

Somehow people must be free.

Won’t you please come up to Denver; show your face.

Won’t you please come up to Denver, no one else can take your place

If you believe in Freedom,

If you believe in justice,

Let a man live in freedom.

Rules and Regulations, who needs them?”

— Lyrics, “Please Come Up to Denver”

(an invitation to Americans \to show up and demonstrate at the DNC in Denver, 2008)

View the “Please Come Up to Denver” Invitation Here!

The Festival of Democracy

Across the blogosphere, in the newspapers, in the coffee houses, dorm rooms, television screens and community meetings—the word has went out: Come up to Denver during the 2008 Democratic National Convention, speak your mind and join the festival of democracy.

Political conventions in America are singular events. All the leadership of the Democratic or Republican Party will gather together in one place for several days, to confirm their party’s policy directions and leadership team for the next four years. Media coverage is intense, as thousands of reporters from across the world descend on the convention-hosting city. Millions of Americans follow the events on TV, the newspapers and on the internet—a degree of public attention to a political event that is unusual in American politics.

So it is not surprising that thousands of citizens also show up during a political convention, intent on sharing their point of view, and participating in the democratic process with demonstrations, marches, disruptions and similar events meant to get the attention of party leaders and the voters. This year, in Denver, demonstrations against the war in Iraq, against recent trends eroding constitutional rights, and in favor of immigration rights can be expected to fill the streets. Organizers are calling it a “festival of democracy,” an unpredictable explosion of street energy and direct civic action that will look very different than the carefully scripted political speeches in the convention hall itself.

The Free Speech Cages

In response to the coming “festival of democracy,” Denver officials have decided to follow the example of Boston during the 2004 Democratic National Convention: protestors and others wishing to speak out on the street will be put in chain link cages behind razor wire, police will search and supervise all protestors possible, and demonstrators will not be allowed to speak anywhere near the actual democratic convention events. The city has declared a “free speech zone” to consist only of a metal cage located 700 feet from the convention itself; all other locations near the area will be a free speech graveyard, with protestors arrested and moved off in paddy wagons.

A Vision of Denver’s “Free Speech Zone”:

Will Protestors Have to Endure Conditions Similar to this Boston 2004 Free Speech Zone?

But the First Amendment to the Constitution is clear, stating that officials

shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Considering the clear language of the First Amendment, how is it that cities like Denver and Boston get away with ordering all citizens who wish to speak out into tiny, guarded, metal cages, hidden away far away from political leaders? How is this not an abridgement of free speech?

Who Wants to Speak?

Justifying restrictions on free speech has a good deal to do with official interpretations of the intentions of the speakers to create a public disruption. Yes, people have a right to speak, officials will agree—but not when that speech can create public disorder or foster violence. And that’s just what many officials think demonstrations and public speech during the national convention is likely to do—foster disorder.

In drawing this conclusion, officials point to the provocative language of (some of) the demonstration organizers themselves, and point out that tens of thousands of people descending on Denver to speak out during a national convention is a recipe for disorder that calls out for the careful regulation of where people can and cannot demonstrate. Indeed, it’s very clear that many people are expressing an interest in speaking out during the Democratic National Convention. Any quick search of the web will turn out hundreds of leads on protest groups, planned events, advocacy for direct action of all sorts, etc. As just one example, here is some information posted on the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) website, advertising the Denver events to come (it is interesting to note that SDS originally hails from the 1960s, when it served as a leading group organizing protests and demonstrations across America at the time).

On the SDS website, viewers can see that the range of issues that will be covered by demonstrators during the DNC are immense, while the range of tactics (‘over the top theatrics,” “disrupting the flow of delegates to the DNC,” “shutting down traffic intersections”) sometimes goes beyond mere speech and borders on what officials might call disorderly conduct and incitements to violence.

[We seek] a clear victory against the Democratic Party and Republican Party, in these uncertain times, gives radical communities a unique opportunity for exposure as a clear alternative to the two party system and the liberal left.

If we, as a radical movement, are going to attempt to pressure the Democratic Party candidates, the time to do so is before they are elected. We can’t roll over and wait until they are in office….

Across the country, groups have been talking–and talking seriously–about disrupting the DNC by means of direct action…In the face of the last eight years, let us not forget the prior eight year Democratic presidency of Bill Clinton, which brought us NAFTA, 500,000 dead Iraqis, welfare reform, militarization of the US-Mexico border, etc.

For SDS, the call to disrupt the DNC (as well as the RNC) offers a tremendous opportunity to plug into what will likely be a major mobilization…The direct action framework will allow SDS chapters to work with those engaging in similar tactics, both within and outside SDS. Finally, chapters are free to theme their actions how they see fit and there could conceivably be SDS actions highlighting everything from the role and complicity of the Democratic Party in the occupation of Iraq, to immigration and poverty, to the rising cost of tuition. Regardless of the themes and tactics chosen, imagine the excitement that we would all feel if SDS held down a few intersections and played a key role in shutting down the DNC… *

[Some of the planned actions are]


March Against Occupations and Militarization! Begin the day with a massive anti-war march. We’ll be in the streets in solidarity with all who oppose imperialism and its tools of war & occupation.

Space Reclamation: Following the march, we’ll reclaim space somewhere in Denver. In a city under police occupation, we’ll take space back from the capitalist elite and create our own autonomous space, highlighting our ability to create horizontal systems of organization. While celebrating, we’ll get to know each other and our community. We’ll tell stories, party, and conspire. Not forgetting that profiteers of imperialism use Denver as a headquarters, affinity groups are encouraged to autonomously target these corporations.


March Against Prisons: Free All Political Prisoners! A morning Freedom March demanding an end to the prison industrial complex and freedom for the many political prisoners currently incarcerated for their acts in defense of the earth, animals, and fellow human beings.

No Business As Usual: In the evening, clusters, affinity groups and individuals take direct action against major fundraisers, delegate parties, restaurant outings and corporations using the DNC to sweeten their position with the party. Picture restaurants, hotel lobbies, theatres, and other mid-sized venues: Opportunities abound for subversive pranks, over-the-top theatrics, anti-capitalist extravaganzas, and whatever else you can think of.


March Against Walls and Borders: No One Is Illegal! A historic convergence of Latino and Chicano communities, Immigrants and their Allies will be taking place in the morning. We will be in the streets making connections between the walls that separate nations, people, genders.

Blockade the Spectacle: We Vote NO! Delegates will be meeting in the afternoon to finalize their platform and we will be standing in their path. Coordinated technical blockades, street theater, and other diverse actions will shut down the flow of delegates to the Pepsi Center while supporting those trying to infiltrate their messages inside. As the DNC reaffirms its agenda of co-optation, subverting democracy and protecting corporate and imperialist powers, we will bring their party to a halt.


Actions and Alternatives: No Warming! All day creative direct action to stop the direct causes of global warming and the corporations profiting from environmental destruction. Let’s demonstrate alternatives so that people can see another way of living opposed to our consumer lifestyles which are destroying the planet. Possibilities include: shutting down polluters, targeting corporations in Denver funding Democrats and destroying the planet, bike blocs, guerrilla gardening, simplicity enforcement, consumer re-education, and anything your creative little hearts can think of to show the world another way to live.


Media Savvy Actions: End White Supremacy! Today we will engage in visually stunning, media attracting actions targeting the Democrats’ complicity in racism in Denver and nationally through gentrification, police brutality, criminal injustice, the prison industrial complex, etc. We will target institutions and corporations that force US imperialism and racism on the rest of the world, as well as those that inflict it upon us.

Tonight we will party, sleep, and support our comrades before heading to Minneapolis to disrupt the RNC…

The Supreme Court On Restricting Free Speech

Can Denver officials take preemptive action to stop many of these planned demonstrations from occurring? Can they make street protest during the DNC illegal and demand that all such events occur only at pre-approved times, along city authorized parade routes, and in city-authorized free speech cages?

Today, the courts have said that city officials can indeed do all this. Becauses the courts have recognized that speech is sometimes directly connected to public disorder and even violence that they have allowed officials to restrict many forms of speech over the years—even though the Constitution clearly says “NO” law shall be allowed to abridge freedom of speech or assembly.

Almost a hundred years ago, the Supreme Court issued its famous Schenk decision (1919), upholding the conviction of a socialist war dissenter who handed out leaflets urging young men to resist the draft. The Court held that some forms of speech are so disruptive to public order and safety (such as urging people to undermine a national war effort) that they can be restricted and regulated. Justice Holmes issued the famous criteria that when speech constituted a “clear and present danger” of substantive evils—it could be regulated.

The Schenk standard continues to be good law, and it has been built on over the years as localities have learned that they can indeed regulate the time, place and manner of free speech, in the interests of protecting public order and preventing substantive evils. In general, courts have allowed localities to regulate the time, place and manner of free speech, as long as the regulations:

  • Are content neutral—that is, as long as everyone is prevented from speaking out in certain times, places and manners, and not just people with unpopular things to say. For example, NO ONE can protest close to the DNC in Denver; Denver’s proposed rules don’t just target anti-war protestors.
  • Are narrowly tailored to serve an important state interest. That is, there must be an important reason for the regulation (such as protecting the city of Denver from general violence and disruption, and protecting convention goers from possible violence)
  • Provide ample alternatives for communication (that is, protestors can speak out somewhere in the city—even if they can’t speak where they want).

Under these standards, cities like Boston and Denver are indeed free to regulate where and how DNC protestors can speak out, to establish approved parade routes and to establish “zones” where free speech will be allowed (so as to minimize disruption on other city residents, and maximize the police ability to supervise protestors and protect convention goers).

On the face of it, such time, place and manner restrictions are hard to argue against. After all, as Justice Holmes famously wrote in the Schenk case, free speech rights do not mean that someone can stand up and yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

The problem is that courts have been very deferential to localities efforts to craft such restrictions, a deference which only works if local city officials are truly committed to free speech and are truly interested in only crafting absolutely necessary and fair-minded restrictions on disruptive and dangerous speech. When local officials forget about the constitutional rights of free speech, however, and instead become obsessed with goals such as keeping a city peaceful while the media is in town, promoting local business success, and silencing the speech of unpopular groups—then their speech restrictions become less about protecting society from immediate and significant evils, and more about stamping out free speech altogether.

That’s exactly the path Boston and Denver officials have taken in the last four years—and unfortunately the courts are allowing them to get away with it.

Showcasing a Beautiful and Peaceful City: Denver Restrictions on Free Speech

Consider the fact that in Denver, Mayor Hickenlooper salivates at the possibility of the DNC to lure more business and tourism to Denver—but rarely utters a word about the important role the DNC can plan in actually opening up a democratic dialogue about the future of the city. When Denver was chosen as the host city for the DNC, city officials issued a celebratory press release claiming that

“The Convention will undoubtedly bring with it an unparalleled opportunity for economic development to the Denver metro area and give Denver a unique opportunity to showcase to the nation its natural beauty and the modern, culturally diverse and vibrant city it has become….[the DNC is] expected to draw some 35,000 guests to the region including delegates, politicians and an influx of media and political enthusiasts from around the nation. In addition to the unprecedented media attention on the city, it is estimated that Denver will reap between $150-$200 million in economic benefits.”

What a revealing statement of priorities! The nation is in the midst of a profoundly divisive war, threats of international terrorism abound, the American economy is in a deep recessionary tailspin, poverty and homelessness are deepening, a growing challenge of global warming surrounds us, and our constitutional civil liberties have found themselves eroding. In the midst of such profound challenges, Denver officials do not see the DNC as an opportunity for citizens to join in a democratic discussion about the future of their country, nor as an opportunity for people to rise up and challenge their leaders, but rather as an “unparalleled opportunity for economic development,” giving “Denver a unique opportunity to showcase its natural beauty,” and hoped to bring “unprecedented media attention” and hundreds of millions of dollars economic benefits to the city.

There’s no other way to put it: such sentiments are a pitiful and shriveled view of what party conventions truly could mean to a people. The “media attention” Denver officials seek is not attention to streets filled with activist citizens, nor attention to people using their free speech rights to talk back at officials—no, the attention they want is media cameras focused on a beautiful and sedate city, a nice place to do business and make money. When officials become obsessed with those kinds of goals, we can bet that the level of their commitment to free speech rights is only skin deep.

We would win that bet. Declaring that Denver would remain “open for business” throughout the convention, the Hickenlooper administration has recently announced its restrictions on free speech rights during the convention. Here’s a brief rundown:

1) Marchers will NOT be allowed anywhere near the actual convention itself. A city approved parade route will take protestors nowhere the actual building (about ½ a mile away is as close as marchers will get). Marches will be required to end at an area without any open green space to hold any kind of political rally. And all marches must end by early afternoon—though convention activities take place at night.

2) Anyone seeking a stationary protest will have to go to a separate “free speech zone”, which will be non-accessible to people marching. The free speech zone will be 700 feet from the actual convention hall, so that no delegate to the convention will ever have to actually hear or see a demonstrator. Demonstrations will be held inside of a cage, with chain link fence all about, and amble police surveillance and searches.

Boston 2004: Redux

It’s all reminiscent of Boston, back during the 2004 Democratic National Convention, when city officials forced protestors into a tiny “protest pit,” underneath set of railroad tracks. The protest pit was surrounded by concrete slabs and chain link fence, topped off with razor wire all around, and the then the whole structure was covered with black netting. National guardsmen and local police guarded it constantly. In Boston, this was what Americans’ right of free speech and assembly had come to: a walled off black pit, surrounded by razor wire and police.

How did it all come to this?

The Democratic Convention is a significant political event – indeed, one of the most significant political events in the country,”” said Carol Rose, Executive Director of the ACLU of Massachusetts (speaking of the 2004 Boston “protest pit.”

“We are left to ask why, when careful planning and accommodations were made for the news media, for police, for delegate parking, and for the influential supporters of the Democratic Party, no adequate provisions were made for the fundamental right of freedom of speech.”

“”While the ACLU and other groups attempted to find a suitable location, the imprisonment of organized protesters under the railroad tracks, fenced in and shrouded by netting, guarded by armed police and national guardsman, and surrounded by razor wire is not a suitable location for human life, much less freedom of speech and assembly…We agree with the Court that this is an affront to the First Amendment.

Two views of the Boston 2004 “Free Speech Zone”: Photo 1 and 2

An alternative vision of an American “Free Speech Zone”

In fact, demonstrators in Boston did take their case to court, and the federal judge called the conditions in the protest pit ““an affront to free expression” and a “festering boil.” He noted that he was “irretrievably sad” that he had to issue a “deeply disappointing decision [against] freedom of speech and assembly.” But he still decided to allow Boston officials to force demonstrators into the protest pit, explaining that the federal Secret Service agents had met with him several times urging him to defer to the need for Presidential security.

Ghosts of 1968

Today, in Denver, the same “irretrievably sad” affront to free speech is being replayed at the Democratic National Convention. Part of it is driven by officials’ undying fear at repeating another “Chicago 1968” Convention. Back in 1968, thousands of young protestors showed up at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago to protest the war, to protest racism in America, and to protest that fact that 18-21 year olds couldn’t even vote (and that NO ONE could vote in a meaningful way in the primary process, which party officials ignored when decided who they wanted to nominate). The Chicago police reacted angrily to the presence of thousands of young protestors, many of whom were themselves committed to creating tension and unrest in the streets. Several days of violence unfolded, including a well-documented police riot involving shootings and tear gassings. The Democratic National Convention of that year is now remembered as “The Days of Rage,” and few local officials want to repeat those days.

The ghosts of 1968 have haunted convention host cities ever since. No one wants to be “another Chicago.” It probably only exacerbated the deep fears of Denver officials when some local protestors came together under the name of “Recreate 68,” and used their calls for direct action in 2008 to urge people to rediscover the direct action chemistry of the 1960s.

Yelling “Fire” in a Burning Theater

It is interesting that so many of our leaders only remember the negative aspects of 1968, and can only recall the excesses of free speech, associating free speech with the street disruptions of that time. “You can’t yell ‘Fire’ in a crowded theater,” such officials note, arguing that protestors shouldn’t be allowed to instigate disorder and disruption in the streets.

But what if the theater is actually on fire? What if the building is actually burning down, what if the nation is actually in the midst of an ill-thought out war, what if the economy is crashing, what if the Constitution itself has been ignored by governing leaders? In those kinds of cases, isn’t it proper for someone to stand up and yell “Fire!” , to yell “Enough!” to shout back at their leaders?

That’s exactly what happened in 1968, and it’s what many of the Denver protestors want to recreate on the streets in Denver. It was the free speech activists of 1968 that created the climate of national turmoil that ultimately ended the war in Vietnam, earned 18 year olds the right to vote, and arguably toppled a corrupt presidency (Nixon). The nation WAS on fire in 1968, and the disruptive direct action/speech of activists ultimately changed the world.

That’s exactly why free speech deserves protection, no matter how unpopular or potentially disruptive. In his classic defense of free speech several hundred years ago, John Stuart Mill noted that one very important reason to protect the speech of those you don’t like and even those who are a festering boil on public order is because they may, after all, be right.

If we persist in caging these speakers ,and in forcing them to speak only in hidden locations far away from any actual policy makers and in venues purposely designed to minimize the impact of their speech, we not only shrivel and encage the First Amendment itself—we may also be dooming ourselves to sitting oblivious in a blazing theater, to fiddling while Rome burns.

Call and Response: The President and the People

July 11, 2008

During my hiatus of a summer teaching engagement in Berlin, Barack Obama secured the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. I took the occasion to send an email to an old friend, who now worked training dogs to work with immigration control agents.

Here’s what I wrote: “How about Obama? These are wondrous political times to be living through. America is possibly on the verge of a Black president, who seems a bit like the second coming of JFK?! We are in for a hell of a ride, I tell you.”

My dog-training friend responded as follows: I am afraid I cannot share your enthusiasm regarding politics. I wouldn’t call it wondrous, more like something I stepped in at the Canine Center. Don’t put Obama on such a high pedestal, the fall hurts more.”

The Political Times Versus the Political Candidate

I have thought a lot about that email exchange in the last few days, as it gets to the very core of what Obama’s presidency might mean for America. It is vital to begin by clearly stating that my friend’s response missed the fundamental point that I was trying to make in my email. My email was not meant to suggest that Obama himself, nor his politics, were wonderful and energizing. Rather I was trying to say that the political times seemed to be wondrous and full of portent. My email was not praising person, Obama, nor putting him on a pedestal, but rather was celebrating the current mood of the country, and the way that Obama seems somehow connected to a deeper force moving through the people. There is a distinction between

1) the goals and ideas of a specific candidate, and

2) the deeper mood and desires of the people themselves who become inspired by a candidate,

It is that distinction that raises some interesting points about the role of a President is, and about the relationship between a democratic president and the people he ostensibly “leads.”

America’s Political Times: 1960s Redux?

Now this may all seem rather mysterious, so let me be more clear about what I call “a deeper force moving through the people.” Here are some facts about today’s deeper force. About 4 million new voters have already voted for their first time in the 2008 Democratic primaries—a record-shattering number. Hillary Clinton, the clear front-running establishment candidate in the Democratic primaries, was upended by a completely unpredicted surge of anti-establishment and passionate Democratic voters. These activists exploded onto the political scene in a cacophony of “new voter” projects and similar innovations across the blogosphere that are redefining how Americans communicate and network. Many of these new voters and blogosphere dwellers are young—part of the surging generation of “Millenials” (18-29 year olds) who are now the largest demographic in American history and who are just now coming into their own politically (see previous posts of “The Obama Generation” and “Millenials Rising”). With the rise of this demographic, the center of gravity in American politics has shifted downwards—towards a younger, fresher, more energized electorate than we have seen in decades.

It is the convergence of these varied new forces that have upended American politics and put the nation on the verge of electing not only its first Black president, but also one of its youngest presidents, and one who hails from a grass-roots community organizing background to boot. Something unusual and dramatic is brewing, and one cannot deny the powerful youthful energies surging through the country, whether or not one supports the Obama candidacy. Support it or not—it represents something real and meaningful moving through the American electorate.

What may be happening is perhaps not so different than what happened in America in the 1960s. In the 1960s America also witnessed an exploding youth generation (The Baby Boomers), a surge in civic activism, and a youthful president (Kennedy) who symbolized and energized youthful energies across the country. If we are repeating some of those historic patterns, Obama, like Kennedy, can be seen as less of a directive leader, who will govern America with a specific platform and agenda from above, and more of a energizing catalyst, who will influence America by inspiring passionate and unpredictable political forces in the broader community. Obama in this way is not so much offering America a specific platform and set of policies but is rather offering Americans a way to buy into and become part of a growing sea of social movements and community organizing projects surging in their communities. Some people may be unnerved by this growing wave of new voters and community activists–asking “Who are These People, Anyway?”–but there is no denying they are here, and they are fired up.

Experience a bit of the mood of it all in these two videos.

People have become inspired by the Obama campaign, by its invitation to people to organize their own events and community organizing teams, and by the way it has inspired millions of young people to directly involve themselves in politics teams (remember the famous “Yes We Can” video? It was created independently of the Obama campaign).

Letting the Political Genie Out of the Bottle

Where will it all go? That won’t be up to Obama. As president Obama might serve as a catalyst for community activism—but he won’t be its director and will not be able to direct its course.

In this, too, it’s not so different than what Kennedy faced. When Kennedy was elected as a representative of a surging youth movement, and when he gave his famous inaugural calling on Americans to step up, get involved, and “ask what you can do for your country,” he could not have predicted the forces he was helping to set into motion. In fact, he was inspiring forces like James Farmer, a leader of the new Congress Of Racial Equality, who (in the words of Kennedy’s biographer) “had been inspired by Kennedy’s words about change and freedom. He was convinced that this new President wanted to end American segregation” (see Richard Reeves, President Kennedy, Simon and Schuster, p. 123). And so Farmer worked with others to organize dramatic civil rights protests, such as the Freedom Riders who rode integrated buses deep into the south, knowing that they would face violence and police riots. Farmer was certain that the President was with him…so he did it.

Kennedy might have believed in ending segregation, but the record shows that he DID NOT support direct political action such as Farmer’s civil rights protests in order to speed desegregation along. It didn’t matter. Across the country people, especially young people, had been inspired by the IDEAS and SPIRIT that Kennedy represented, and they were on the move—with or without their president. As the Freedom Riders and other civil rights protests took off in the 1960s, Kennedy was worried that they were pushing too far, too fast. He called his political advisors and said “Can’t you get your goddamned friends off those buses? Stop them!” (Reeves, p. 125). But nobody could stop the growing tide of activism—not even the president who helped inspire it. When Kennedy’s advisor called one Freedom Rider and asked her to slow it down, she replied that “nothing could stop them now. We’re going to show those people in Alabama who think they can ignore the President of the United States” (Reeves, p. 126).

Here’s how Kennedy’s biographer, Richard Reeves, describes the president’s response:

“The President they were quoting actually wanted them to go back home, and did not understand the reach and resonance of his own owords. People were listening to him in a way they listen only to a president. The country was moving again. Kennedy would have to catch up or try pt stop this parade….The travelers on the road to freedom were not listening to the [President’s Advisor’s] words. They thought they had heard John Kennedy’s music.” (134).

Citizen Direct Action: The Coming Storm

This phenomenon is exactly what I referring to in my email to my friend. Across the nation, young voters and community activists are hearing Barack Obama’s music, and responding to the “reach and resonance” of his words. Radio shows are filled with community organizers talking about how they have built an organization of activists through Obama’s campaign, they have built connections between people, and how they intend to stay organized and active even after the election.

In Denver, one Obama organizer on the July 10th KGNU radio show “Swing State” was asked:

“What will it mean to have organized all those people and created all this energy, after the election? What will happen after the election? Will Obama just expect all these people to go home, so he can govern?

She answered: “What we hope to happen is a critical mass of organized people who will be able to hold the next president accountable to their values and goals. Community organizing gives people the tools, so they are not just individuals cheering for a political team, but are organized activists, working together to make things happen.”

This kind of language suggests a storm of community action to come, whether Obama wins or not, and whether he supports the coming storm or not. The Obama campaign has resonated in the people and catalyzed a broader movement—and in this, the power of the presidency is revealed to be far greater than often discussed in America’s classical founding documents and in the textbooks.

Presidential Powers Reconsidered

Certainly most of America’s Founding Fathers did not see the president as a catalyzing agent of broad social movement. The Framers’ Federalist Papers on the subject of presidential leadership generally describe the president as a fairly weak and detached leader, responding to the initiatives of Congress, and certainly not firing up the people with calls for direct action. The Framers didn’t imagine a president with the kind of resonating and emotional connection to the people that some modern presidents seem to have represented.

Still today, the modern textbooks tend to miss something about this role of the President. Review political science textbooks and you will find a great deal of attention on the powers of the President— and these powers (such as the veto power, personnel appointment powers, the power to speak to the public on TV, etc.) are seen as something the President uses to achieve his agenda, to move his policies through Congress, and to bring the nation together around his priorities. There is rarely attention to a different kind of power and role of the President—the power to catalyze a national mood (as Reagan arguably did in the Conservative 1980s) and the power to energize social movements that fundamentally transform the country (as Kennedy did in the 1960s). And there is no attention to the way in which the people can use the presidency and its evocative powers to advance the people’s agenda, the people’s policies, and the people’s priorities.

These kinds of populist powers inherent in the modern presidency are slippery in that they aren’t fully “under the command” of the President, and they often inspire actions far beyond the control of the President–but they are true and real powers of a president and his campaign, nonetheless, these powers to evoke and powers to call forth.

What we are seeing in 2008 is the mysterious unfolding of a new surge in democratic activism, and this surge cannot be separated from the Presidential candidate whose “music” has inspired the hopes of so many. No one knows where it goes from here—and that is what I meant when I wrote my friend that we are living in wondrous political times, and in for a hell of a ride.