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
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.
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com.
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