At some point during the upcoming Republican National Convention, delegates will look out the windows of the Xcel Energy Center, or down from swank hotels and grand old after-parties, and there, past the security fences and the legions of taser-toting police and private security guards, they will see the other America spilling into the streets of St. Paul, Minnesota.
That is, if the Republicans even make it that far. From September 1-4, the RNC will be besieged by a panoply of protesters — including antiwar activists, Iraq War veterans, Hurricane Katrina survivors, immigrant workers, labor unionists, anarchists, environmentalists, feminists and queers. At the frontlines will be America’s young dissidents who will walk out of class, lock down intersections and dance in the streets to "Funk the War."
The view from Denver at the Democratic National Convention at the end of August will look a little different. That’s because in the age of Obama many of these same movements, so united against the RNC, are deeply conflicted over the Democrats and the party system itself — perhaps none more so than the youth movement. At issue, say organizers across the country, is not only their relationship to the Obama campaign and the presidential elections but the very meaning of democracy in 2008. Is true democracy possible inside the party system and on the campaign trail? Or is democracy to be found and made by the people in the streets outside? Will the two ever meet?
Not if the conventioneers have their way. Uncredentialed activists are to be fenced off and kept away from the Pepsi Center in Denver by parking lots the size of football fields. The protesters descending on the RNC will be cordoned off into designated "free speech zones," guarded by thousands of police officers to the tune of $50 million at this "National Special Security Event."
The streets will also be haunted by the ghosts of conventions past, from the cracking of skulls at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago to the pre-emptive arrest and detention of nearly 2,000 protesters at the 2004 Republican convention in New York City. Like their predecessors outside those arenas, this year’s dissidents have come to see the party conventions, advertised as the ultimate showcases of American democracy, as exhibits A and B of the nation’s deficit of democracy instead. And they cast themselves in opposition, as the keepers of the flame.
"It really will be a collision of opposites," says Minneapolis activist Katrina Plotz when asked about the RNC, which she is organizing against with the Coalition to March on the RNC and Stop the War. "A scripted and sanitized spectacle for a homogenous group of wealthy elites inside the convention hall versus a thriving, organic movement of the masses outside."
Perhaps the starkest contrast will be between the plutocrats of the Grand Old Party and the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, a coalition led by poor and homeless families fighting for the right to housing, healthcare, education and a living wage. They will be camped in a "Bushville," a tent city evoking the Depression, and setting out on the March for Our Lives. "It’s to say to the whole country, ‘We are here,’" says Minneapolis native Rickey Brunner, who, at 16, has become a spokesperson for the group. "We plan to show that this is a crisis, this is something that needs to be looked at with a little more urgency…. We don’t have enough housing. We don’t have enough healthcare. And it’s killing the people."
The RNC for many has become a symbol of everything the protesters believe is wrong with America. They are moved to action by all-too-familiar litany of injustices–the occupation of Iraq and beyond, class war and racism, sexism and homophobia, torture and repression, corporate power and the climate crisis, rising tuition and an economic bust that’s hitting this generation hard. Yet what they have in common, beyond a penchant for ruckus and a loathing of the GOP, is a persistent belief in democracy from below, in the power of ordinary people to transform the conditions of life in this country and worldwide — a power they believe must be exercised in the street, not just in the voting booth.
"Democracy is not waiting to vote once every four years. Democracy is getting out in the streets," says Sgt. Matthis Chiroux, a 24-year-old member of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) who refused orders to deploy to Iraq this June and now plans to show up to the conventions with IVAW. "They [the politicians] are not gonna do it by themselves. We’re gonna force their hand, because that is the nature of democracy."
The dissent at the Democratic National Convention — though less "mass" than at the RNC, especially after the recent withdrawal of some national organizers — is set to feature events like an open-air Festival of Democracy, a Restoring Democracy Parade and a base camp with free housing and medical care, organized by groups like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Alliance for Real Democracy, the Recreate ’68 Alliance and the immigrant coalition the We Are America DNC Alliance.
Activists with these groups report getting the critical questions from their friends and peers about plans to protest Denver: "Especially now, with a candidate who talks a lot about hope and change, people talk about, ‘Why do you need to protest?’ " says Zoe Williams, a local organizer with Code Pink: Women for Peace and a spokesperson for the Alliance for Real Democracy. Her answer? "I think that we need to define what hope and change are. We need to decide what that means to us as a people."
Even among the activist crowd, there are those who hope the youth movement outside the convention will join with those inside to toast the "new era" they believe the Obama campaign represents — as well as hold Obama accountable and engage the hundreds of thousands of newly politicized young people who have joined in the campaign. "For people who are disenfranchised by the system, some of them for the first time are being motivated into politics," says Rachel Haut, a member of SDS and labor activist at Queens College who is working on the 100 Days Campaign, intended to pressure the next President during his first 100 days in office. "We want to create a broad progressive movement that can invite these newly politicized people in. And we want to create a campaign that can take that beyond the voting booth."
Organizers like Haut feel the stirrings of a new youth movement, newly mainstreamed. Some say it’s about the power of the stories that are told on the campaign–and about what stories will be told at the conventions. Madeline Gardner, an activist from the Twin Cities who now organizes with the Energy Action Coalition, sees a political opening for movements like hers: "The story Obama tells, about how we’re gonna change this world by regular people taking action," she says, "creates more space for social movement organizing in a way we haven’t had since the ’60s. I would like to see the conventions and the protests around them take full advantage of that opportunity."
That sentiment is shared by Joshua Kahn Russell, an organizer with the Rainforest Action Network in the Bay Area who feels that the youth movement should "use both conventions to put forward a narrative that we are starting a new chapter in American history. … Our job is to be part of that progressive wave and to pull it to the left as much as we can."
Still, many in the youth movement are riding on a different wave, and they do not want to be swallowed up by the one depicted in Obama’s campaign logo — especially following what they see as his betrayals of the movement’s values. Some of them are tired of being taken for granted, whether as young people or as people of color. "Because Obama’s running, they think, ‘We’ve got them, they’re coming out, they’re gonna support Obama no matter what,’ " says Troy Nkrumah, a chair of the National Hip-Hop Political Convention in Las Vegas, which is convening this summer to forge a national agenda for the hip-hop generation. "Some of us aren’t so sure that it’s gonna make a difference."
Likewise, young people like Adam Jung, a farm boy from Missouri who is helping to organize the DNC tent city with Tent State University, are questioning whether Obama and the Democrats are ever going to represent them: "The Democrats, they count on and expect our votes. We’re saying, ‘If you’re not representing me, I don’t have to vote for you. You need to start listening to the youth [and] the 65 percent of the people in this country who want the war to end.’ "
Most determined of all are the anarchists and anti-authoritarians, as many of the youth activists describe themselves, including two of the most active groups preparing to crash the conventions: the RNC Welcoming Committee and the Unconventional Action network. Unconventional Denver organizer Clayton Dewey acknowledges that "the candidacy of Obama is a reflection of the public’s desire for something different." But as an anarchist, he explains, "we believe that despite the rhetoric Obama uses, genuine change will always come from the bottom up, and that means countering the system as a whole."
"An anti-authoritarian vibe is what’s going on," says Carina Souflee, an activist with Anarchist People of Color and the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA) at the University of Texas-Austin, who was radicalized by the immigration protests and is planning to be in the streets at the RNC. "People have learned that a top-down approach to things doesn’t work."
To young radicals like Souflee and Dewey, the question remains one of democracy, and to them, democracy has very little to do with the 2008 presidential elections. "What we have in common is a desire to break the spell that elections have over the US left," says a member of the RNC Welcoming Committee who goes by the pseudonym ‘Ann O’Nymity.’ "Our message is one of direct participation in democracy, bypassing corrupt politicians who don’t represent us but instead further corporate interests."
Still, in the age of Obama, some in the youth movement are bypassing protests that directly confront the Democratic candidate and his party, opting instead to aim their dissent at the Republicans. "The RNC is a very easy target, because they are so visibly to blame for what’s happening in this country," says Samantha Miller, who recently graduated UCLA and is now organizing members of DC SDS to bring the group’s notorious Funk the War street parties to the RNC. "There’s a whole lot more energy for the RNC than the DNC," she reports.
Thousands of youth from dozens of groups from across the country are coming together to blockade the Republican convention, using direct democracy not just as an end but as a means. Inspired by the Battle in Seattle and the global justice movement of the ’90s, they are deploying a well-organized web of leaderless "affinity groups," "assemblies" and "spokescouncils."
Always the bete noire at a convention ("Anarchists Hot for Mayhem!" screamed a typical headline at the last RNC), this direct action wing of the youth movement has already sparked a media frenzy, along with an internal debate, over what tactics they will employ in the streets. Some activists are wary of the plans to blockade the convention. "I don’t know what to make of shutting down the RNC," says Uruj Sheikh of New Jersey, who has worked with the War Resisters League and with the new SDS since its inception. "I’d like to see more of a consciousness raising thing. I don’t want the left to be perceived as crazy."
Yet most activists in the Twin Cities agree that the likeliest scenario will be violence from those in blue, more than those in black: "We know that it is the police, not protesters or activists who will have the tasers, guns, rubber bullets, concussion grenades, chemical weapons, helicopters, the media spin machine and millions of dollars on their side," says the Welcoming Committee.
The same story can be heard over at the DNC protest headquarters. "We’re just hoping that the Denver police don’t recreate the violence that happened in Chicago [in ’68]," says Glenn Spagnuolo of the Recreate ’68 Alliance, "since they’re the only ones capable of doing that."
The group’s call to "Recreate ’68" at the 2008 DNC has become a point of contention all its own, even among activists born decades after 1968 and bred amid a new world order. The collective memory of ’68 — not just of Chicago, but of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, of Black Power and women’s liberation and youth revolts worldwide — persists among this generation. But while some in the youth movement may look back on ’68 as a usable past, as a memory of mass democracy they can mobilize and learn from, few activists see it as a moment to recreate. "It provides inspiration and an example of what can be possible," says Arya Zahedi of New York City SDS. "But it can also prove a disservice. If we just ‘recreate ’68,’ we will be destined to also recreate its problems."
Not everyone is counting on the conventions, the campaigns and the protests. Not Senia Barragan, who helped found the new SDS at Brown University and in Providence: "That culture of activist summit hopping, I’m not really into that. I do think it is important to show a resistance to both parties. I just think that there are different ways that people go about doing that. And I hope we don’t lose steam over this election. We’ve got a long way to go."
Already youth organizers are looking beyond September, even beyond November 4, 2008, and January 20, 2009. They are looking to the long haul, to the work of movement building, rooted in their communities but linked in solidarity with a global movement. For, they say, the whole world is still watching. "Our task today," says NYC SDS’s Zahedi, "is to get to work organizing where we are, at our campuses, workplaces, and in our communities, while at the same time building links with people struggling all around the world."
For many, this push begins by showing ordinary people, and especially young, newly politicized people, their own power beyond Election Day. "We really need to find a way to engage the people who are excited, and really do think that Obama’s gonna change something," says DC SDS’s Miller. "We have to do a lot of popular education to say that it isn’t politicians who make real change, it’s the movements that politicians have to follow."