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Resisting compromise
For all the Democratic organizers’ well-laid plans, protesters managed to engage delegates directly and even to escape their cage

LADIES AND gentlemen, please remove your shoes for inspection." The command booms out over the thousands of people queued up on Causeway Street, waiting to enter the FleetCenter for the first session of the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

"Ladies and gentlemen, please be prepared to present your dental records."

Vermin Supreme, long-time political-protest gadfly, pauses for a moment, then brings the bullhorn back to his lips.

"Please be prepared for a full-body-cavity rectal search. Remember, it is in the name of national security, and is part of your Patriot Act."

"Oh my God!" squeals a pleasingly pump young woman in a lavender pantsuit, as dawn — finally — breaks over Marblehead. "And I’m ready to take off my shoes!"

It was the intent of the convention organizers to keep Vermin, with his ratty fake-ocelot fur hood and natty red, white, and blue–sequined vest, firmly caged. And the cage they constructed for that purpose is a fine one, indeed. Cement barriers, eight-foot-tall chain-link fencing, hardware cloth, heavy black monkey netting, and razor wire are all contrived to keep demonstrators "from throwing things" at conventioneers, according to one published report. Delegates leaving the buses and walking into the FleetCenter can hear, but only dimly see, the shadowy figures inside the Cage.

However, convention planners failed to take a few things into account. The exit from the protest-zone Cage opens on to Canal Street, where access is not restricted. And instead of arriving at the FleetCenter on shuttle buses that would have whisked them by the back of the Cage to the main entrance of the FleetCenter, thousands of convention delegates and guests decide to take their own transportation and walk up Causeway Street. The Causeway Street entrance to the FleetCenter was designed as a secondary entrance, and only one person can enter at a time. The line backs up for blocks. So on Monday night, the protesters seize the opportunity to engage the delegates directly and head out the back gate of their Cage for Causeway Street. (Indeed, shortly after seven, the Cage is largely empty, occupied primarily by tourists having their pictures taken with the is this what democracy looks like? signs pinned to the wire.)

At first, the protesters wait until the attendees pass through the gate and into their own enclosure — not too different from the first layer of the Cage — to engage them. A man on the other side of the enclosure wears a press pass identifying him as Robert Gurley, of Indyradio in Santa Cruz. He yells at those entering the FleetCenter: "Quit posing and stand up for something. Stand up!" Sometimes a protester can be defined simply as someone who has an opinion and no convention credential. "This is how we get to talk to you," he says, his fingers wrapped through the mesh.

Robert O’Brien, a Dean alternate from Maine who is attending his third convention, stops and talks with Gurley. Afterward he explains, "I just feel that these are people who are passionate. They’re behind a fence." But their sense of disproportion concerns O’Brien. "What I am worried about is we’re talking about fixing the kitchen when the freaking roof’s on fire. We’ve got to make sure that George Bush doesn’t have the chance to appoint three Supreme Court justices."

As time passes, and the few cops on hand do nothing, the protesters grow bolder, come closer. They jam the intersection of Canal and Causeway, spilling for several blocks down Causeway.

Most heckles are generic, although a Free DC protester with a tricorn hat and roller blades targets Washington, DC, mayor Tony Williams for special abuse. Two women dance as they hand out Planned Parenthood’s STAND UP FOR CHOICE stickers. The supporters of Lyndon LaRouche, now specializing in streetside a cappella music, sing the Freedom Riders’ anthem "Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody (Turn Me Round)." Several movement veterans burst into laughter. "Not bad, not bad at all," says one as he holds up his credential for inspection.

An agitated young Kerry supporter walks up and down, armed with a campaign sign and a lot of frustration. "The hard left continues to be hostile to me," he complains. "Think about it. The people on the far left do not understand that if we do not unite together it will be a hard fight." A Free DC supporter bangs a drum in his ear. Chain-smoking National Lawyers Guild observers in fluorescent-green T-shirts watch quietly. Another young man, demonstrating there is an imperceptible line between half drunk and half-wit, keeps screaming "V-Tek for president! He beat A-Rod!" "Enough already," snaps the cop, in one of the evening’s few displays of official temper.

Finally, a few minutes after nine, police reinforcements show up with barricades. It’s growing dark, and some of convention-goers still in the creeping line are growing a bit nervous. A cop asks Vermin to step back behind the barricade. Vermin, in a routine he and the cop know well, asks what happens if he doesn’t. The cop cheerfully explains that he will have to call a wagon and have him arrested. That’s okay by Vermin; he just wants to make sure the cop is playing by the rules. He steps behind the barricade, and shortly thereafter decides to call it a night.

PROFESSOR DON MITCHELL of Syracuse University’s Maxwell School calls the growing trend of creating demonstration zones at political events the "ghettoization" of protest. Indeed, where once protesters were rigidly segregated only at major events and where not too many years before that, they were barely segregated at all, the confinement of protesters has now become commonplace. It is now routine at Bush-administration political events for police and Secret Service agents to create special protest areas, typically located beyond viewing distance from the actual event. The policy applies only to protesters with dissenting views. Recently, the ACLU sued the Secret Service over allegations that anti-Bush protesters were removed from locations where the president would be speaking while Bush supporters were allowed to remain. That case was dismissed after the Secret Service, which never admitted to the segregation policy in the first place, said it would not differentiate in the future.

During convention week, however, it’s hard to avoid the impression that free speech is breaking out all over. Despite Democratic organizers’ best-laid plans, these protesters managed to get closer to convention attendees than had any protester in recent memory. Indeed, during Teresa Heinz Kerry’s speech at the FleetCenter Tuesday night, Medea Benjamin of Code Pink, a women’s peace group whose members are easily identified by the fact that they wear bright-pink slips with the slogan PINK SLIP BUSH stamped on them, wangled a press pass to get onto the convention floor. She held aloft a US OUT OF IRAQ sign, but was immediately surrounded by delegates from Colorado who tried to hide the anti-war slogan from view. As she was jostled by Democrats from the Rocky Mountain State, a Dennis Kucinich delegate from Alaska came to her rescue ("We’re supposed to be better than the Republicans," he explained) before she was whisked out of the convention hall (shouting "US out of Iraq" as she went) by convention security officers and Secret Service agents.

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Issue Date: July 30 - August 5, 2004
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