BOSTON — Was it the Boston Common or the Boston Morgue this past Sunday? Only about 1,500 protesters showed up at what was to be the marquee protest event during this Democratic National Convention (DNC). The absence of many protesters at the march may be the greatest indication yet that the American left, if not embracing John Kerry for President, simply does not want to get into any political food fights this year and possibly end up with another four years of George W. Bush.
Sunday’s event was organized by International A.N.S.W.E.R under the banner of “No War in Iraq, End the Occupation Now.” One fact is very clear, in and around the streets surrounding the Fleet Center, hub of convention proceedings which began yesterday: Boston of 2004 is not Chicago of 1968. Thousands of protesters did not come to Boston to protest the Democrats, or their presumptive nominee. Thousands did come to lend their voices, bodies, and money to upending an incumbent president’s bid for a second term.
Most of the protesting Sunday was anti-war. Most of the delegates, 95 percent according to the Boston Globe, are anti-war. Yet the “Strong at Home, Respected in the World” Democratic Party platform pays but lip service to the fundamental concern not only of the left, but of the party faithful: the war in Iraq. That platform states: “People of good will disagree about whether America should have gone to war in Iraq, but this much is clear: This administration badly exaggerated its case, particularly with respect to weapons of mass destruction and the connection between Saddam’s government and Al Qaeda.” Later the document says “having gone to war, we cannot afford to fail at the peace.” This latter statement rankles many anti-warriors, since the platform offers no timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.
But where will so many anti-war Democrats turn? Many see a Bush defeat as the only possibility of bringing the soldiers home, but there are no assurances, no language within the platform document with which to make the future president accountable.
The absence of much vocal dissent here in Boston, so prominent in Los Angeles at the 2000 Democratic National Convention, is another indication that Democrats—left, right and center—are not willing to risk anything going wrong as the final leg of the campaign officially begins here in Boston. Some protesters said press accounts this past week have described Boston as a potentially dangerous place for anyone, and that might very well might have kept protester numbers down.
Yes, $60 million was spent on convention security. Over 3,000 police, sheriff’s deputies, state highway police, and National Guard troops are a ubiquitous sight, stationed on most downtown street corners in this city of 589,000. Helicopters hover overhead. Dozens of riot-clad police form lines along the sidewalk in front of Faneuil Hall, the Massachusetts Statehouse, and Kerry’s Beacon Hill home. But in interview after interview with people who describe themselves as leftist—Democrat, Green, Anarchist—virtually everyone agreed that Bush must go. And nothing for these civil liberties-minded, peace-and-social-justice-practicing, anti-war activists seems to be getting in the way of saying adios to George W. Bush.
Probably no place was this yearning for change in Washington, D.C. more visible, and sincere, than at the national Vietnam Veterans For Peace Convention which ended here Saturday night. This annual four-day convention drew more than 400 veterans and much of the talk was about changing presidents.
Pacifica’s Amy Goodman and Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation President Bobby Muller were the keynote speakers at the closing dinner. The overt and covert subtext of their talks was about regime change in Washington. Also participating in the conference were Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers fame, who lives in Kensington, and San Francisco Global Exchange Executive Director and Code Pink activist Medea Benjamin.
Separate interviews with each of these activist legends (Muller is perhaps less well-known in the Bay Area) revealed a determined and forthright unanimity that George W. Bush has got to go. Ellsberg, the former Marine, former Defense Department analyst turned whistle-blower and current full-time peace activist, was the most forthright in his support for Kerry: “I am urging everyone here not to vote against Bush but to vote for Kerry.” Democracy Now’s Goodman was perhaps most circumspect. “I’m a journalist,” she said, when asked if she supports Kerry. “I think people can determine what politicians will represent them. The question for many,” she added, “is who can be held accountable?”
Medea Benjamin and Bobby Muller find themselves somewhere between Goodman and Ellsberg. Benjamin said of the impending protests, “the left is very confused about how to react to the Democratic convention.” Choosing her words carefully, she said, “We walk a fine line in trying to get Bush out of office and yet be critical of Kerry’s support for trade agreements, the Patriot Act, and the war.” For Muller this election is quite personal: “I’ve known Kerry for 33 years and he’s a damn good guy.” Super-dissenter Benjamin said she was “so tired” of protesting against Bush and not getting anywhere. “I’m invigorated by the prospect of protesting against a Kerry Administration and having a possibility of being heard.”
Three of the four spoke of the dangers which Bush has created at home and in the world. “When I think of Kerry I don’t think of Veteran benefits, I think of war,” said vets activist Muller. “He (Kerry) can walk us back from this untenable, cataclysmic position we are in within the world community.” Ellsberg called the world situation both “a crisis” and “an emergency.” Benjamin said, “A second Bush administration would harden the left…with Kerry we have more of a chance.”
Goodman seemed to think that Bush’s standing in the polls is the result of a press which hasn’t held him accountable. She spoke of the dangers posed by what she calls “sound-bite media.” She said, “We need a media not for pundits, who know so little, but a media for people speaking for themselves.” Goodman cited a study in which the major television programmers—NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS Newshour—had 393 pro-Iraq War interviews and only three anti-war interviews in the month leading up to Bush’s war in Iraq. “The sound bite media is fiercely political,” she said.
In the streets of Boston Sunday anti-war passions mixed with tacit support for Kerry. The marchers were critical of the Democrats, but restrained. Only one arrest was recorded that day. For the most part, the issues raised on signs were like those seen at Bay Area rallies over the past couple of years: “No to War, Stop Fascist and Anti-Gay Violence, Say No To Racism and Police Brutality, Free Mumia Abu Jamal, People Not Profits.” Along with the small turnout, the ‘whose-streets-our-streets’ fervor of past demonstrations was significantly muted.
“It’s mainly, do what it takes to get Bush out of office,” said International A.N.S.W.E.R. member and day laborer, Adam Luce of Boston. “Kerry is the best option of getting Bush out.” Luce added, “I am left-wing, but realistic.” Jessica Ramer, a math teacher from Pompano Beach, Florida, disdains Bush but is not ready to commit to Kerry. “I’m here to let the Democratic Party know that they can’t have my vote until they change their policy on Iraq.” When pressed by a reporter saying that polls indicate a vote for neither Kerry nor Bush would most likely add up to a vote for Bush, Ramer responded, “I’m still wrestling with the question of who to vote for, especially since I am from the swing state of Florida.”
Paula Sutton, an archeologist from Alaska and a Dennis Kucinich supporter, was walking with the protesters. She was concerned about the war, but she is waiting to declare her full support of Kerry because “we are seeing if we can influence the Kerry agenda. We need to take a stand on the war in Iraq.” When pressed about who she would end up voting for, Sutton conceded, “Basically it has come down to, we’ve got to get Bush out of office.”
Tom Sager, retired and a Veterans For Peace member from Rolla, Missouri, said he’s not of a mind to vote for either Bush or Kerry right now. “Kerry has said he will send more troops and stay the course. I’m definitely not going to vote for Bush…(Ralph) Nader and (David) Cobb (Green Party nominee) are other choices,” he declared. When asked whether a vote for Nader or Cobb might be a vote for Bush, he replied, “I really have not made up my mind on that, probably won’t know until I walk into the (voting) booth.”
Many who might have been in the streets in past protests were not present at this one. The mood here is that the left is feeling an overwhelming sense of duty to help in denying George Bush another four years, so many are getting behind Kerry with great reservations. Global Exchange’s Benjamin puts it this way, “I have the luxury in California of voting with my heart, but if I lived in a swing state I would vote with my head and vote for Kerry.” She then paused to reflect for a moment, “And I can’t remember the last time I voted for a Democrat.” Vietnam veteran Muller says, “If we don’t create political space for Kerry, it is totally unrealistic to think he is going to shift government institutions unless we create a base, a parade of popular support.”
Perhaps David Cline, president of the national Veterans For Peace, who served in Vietnam and has three purple hearts to show for it, summed up the citizen-activist ambivalence best. He said, “We want to beat Bush and get our foot up Kerry’s ass.”
This Thursday, the day of Kerry’s nomination, there will be another informally organized opportunity for protesters. There will be random acts of civil disobedience, according to a Boston group, The Bl(a)ck Tea Society, which is helping coordinate talks, parties, housing for activists, and direct action trainings.