The Boston Phoenix
July 27 - August 3, 2000


Virtual Dems

The Democrats have a secret contingency plan for convention protests

by Seth Gitell

When the Democrats converge on Los Angeles for their convention on August 14, organizers expect to be joined by anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 protesters, raising the prospect of Seattle-style chaos.

If this happens, the party has a plan: go virtual.

Officially, convention organizers aren't talking much about protest contingency plans. "We're preparing for every possible scenario," says Luis Vizcaino, press secretary for the convention. But sources say that if large-scale protests erupt in Los Angeles, the Democratic leadership is ready to let delegates stay safely in their rooms and conduct proceedings online.

"The DNC is prepared for it," says one Democratic insider. "We can have a virtual convention if we have to. The delegates can vote from their hotels."

They're hoping to avoid the fate of the World Trade Organization, whose Seattle meeting last fall was besieged for days by a loose coalition of trade unions, anarchists, and activist groups. Delegates were trapped away from the convention hall for hours.

That kind of disruption looms as a real possibility in Los Angeles next month. In addition to hosting the Democratic National Convention, the city will also be hosting the national gatherings of at least 11 other organizations -- from advocates for the homeless to animal-rights activists. This means a ready base of foot soldiers for potential protests.

Democratic organizers are banking on the lack of labor support for the demonstrations to help keep their scale small. "Given the closeness of the Gore-Bush race at this point, labor doesn't want to do anything to embarrass Gore," says Kim Moody, the director of Labor Notes. Of course, the rank and file might not feel this way. "There will be trade-union members who will join the protests because they're fed up with the Democrats, and the Republicans for that matter," Moody says. "You will find union people, but they won't be there officially."

In fact, in Los Angeles the labor leadership will be inside the convention -- not out on the streets, providing manpower and communications help for the protesters, the way the unions did in Seattle. This could be a double-edged sword for convention organizers: activists won't be able to rely on big labor's organizational skills, but neither will they have the AFL-CIO's mitigating influence in the streets -- which means that demonstrations in Los Angeles could get more outrageous than they were in Seattle or in Washington, DC, where meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank drew protest this spring.

Not everyone is convinced that there will be a large protesting presence at the convention. "LA is not a great city of protest. It's not like San Francisco or Seattle," says Mitchell Moss, director of the Taub Urban Research Center at New York University. "One of the problems the protesters will have is that there's no center of gravity in Los Angeles. The people who would protest are all on the Venice boardwalk. In order to have a protest movement, you've got to have a serious political culture. LA is a hedonistic city, not a political city."

Joel Kotkin, an LA-based senior fellow at the Davenport Institute for Public Policy at Pepperdine University, is more concerned. "You have several huge facilities . . . downtown," he says. "If you can get 100,000 downtown for the Olympics, you can get protesters downtown. In some ways, because it's not as dense as a typical downtown and there are places to hide, it might work to the protesters' advantage."

A footnote: no matter what happens at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia next week, the Bush campaign is already gearing up for its post-convention boost. It is planning an old-fashioned whistle-stop train tour across America. Unlike other recent campaigns that bused candidates across the country, as Clinton-Gore famously did in '92, the train tour brings to mind another era altogether in presidential campaign politics.

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Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]

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