Is the two-party system that has for long governed this country representative of the citizens’ political needs? Or is it rather a clever diversion from the fact that large corporations control this country’s politics, spending almost equally on each party’s candidates? If you were leaving the Philadelphia train station (on foot, rather than in your limousine like the Republican delegates) on the morning of Sunday July 30, you would have found a colorful answer to this question. A group of gaudily dressed people, top hat-ed and pearl necklace-ed, cigar in mouth and fake dollar bills bursting out of every pocket, calling themselves the "Billionaires for Bush or Gore" were happily proclaiming their ownership of both candidates. While posing for the cameras and holding up signs reading "People don’t vote, money does" and "Billionaires for Bush or Gore: because inequality is not growing fast enough", they triumphantly shouted "Bush-Gore, we don’t care who YOU vote for, ‘cause WE already bought ‘em!". It was the Million-Billionaire march for Bush (or Gore), and the ‘billionaires’ were having a wonderful time satirizing the rather large failings of this country’s democracy. (You can learn more about the ‘billionaires’ or better yet, become one yourself, by visiting their web site, www.billionairesforbushorgore.com .)
The fact that both parties that evenly share the ruling of this country are representative of only the large corporations and big money interests was the main theme of the street convention surrounding the Republican National Convention (RNC) in Philadelphia earlier this month. Many thousands of people came to Philadelphia to demonstrate their concern that the issues they cared most about were not being discussed by either party, and to try to bring these issues to the attention of the national media. And these issues were not obscure or dictated by personal interest, but concern the foundations of life in a healthy society: accessible health care, quality education, an end to police brutality on poor and minority people. Even though some organizations focused more on one or the other aspect of these common themes, the unity was remarkable: thousands of people, and hundreds of organizations, came together on the streets of Philadelphia to express their disappointment in both parties and the two-party system in general. All agreed that the interests of the majority of the people (vs. the majority of the corporations!) were not being served by either party, and all agreed that the only hope they had of conveying their message to the national media was to take it to the streets.
The RNC protest was the third major mobilization of social justice forces in the past year, along with the WTO protests in Seattle and the World Bank/IMF protests in Washington, D.C., and was the first time that the target of the protests has been purely domestic. Most of the issues centered around the injustices of the American state against its own people, whether through prison, police repression, or promotion of economic disparity. All three of the protests have centered on the idea that the interests of people - all people, not just a privileged few - should come before the interests of capital and corporations.
In a disturbing erosion of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, all of these mobilizations were disrupted by police intervention. Police and city officials contended that the protests were dangerous to the public, and potentially violent, and therefore must be thwarted wherever possible. Each demonstration elicited a different police response. In Seattle, the police repression was open and intense: the entire city was tear gassed and a curfew was imposed. In Washington DC, police violence against non-violent demonstrators was also rampant, photographed and broadcast on the cover of every newspaper, and over a thousand were arrested (although they were released after a few days, with only a small fine to pay). In Philadelphia, although we witnessed many instances of police beating non-violent protestors, they were careful to do it away from the news cameras. Although fewer (450) people were arrested, their bails were set at astronomical amounts, the highest ever set in this country for misdemeanors. The prisoners were also kept in jail much longer: up to two weeks, and the brutality inside the jails was extreme (you can find testimony from prisoners at www.phillyimc.org , the Philadelphia Independent Media website). Kris Hermes of the R2K Legal Collective said of this aspect of police response, "They think that giving them high bails is maybe going to send a message that political dissent is something that they will not tolerate, and essentially gives a message that our first amendment rights are no longer valid in this country."
The police repression is not in response to violence or crime, but rather a tool to prevent political expression. The reporting of the events in Philadelphia was a good example of how the police can manipulate the media, silencing demonstrators by unwarranted arrests. Protestors that were beaten by the police were routinely taken into custody immediately afterwards, so that they could not tell the media their story. Thus the next day, the newspapers ran only stories about four slightly injured cops, and praised the police for showing restraint, while the many badly beaten protestors were locked away in jail, far from cameras, microphones, and medical attention.
Furthermore, Philadelphia Police Chief John Timoney called for a federal investigation of the groups involved. This is very reminiscent of the FBI COINTELPRO (COunter INTELigence PROgram) tactics, where political dissident groups such as the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement were demonized, accused of different crimes, and then eliminated by the most brutal and direct means. (By the way, if you think this is an exaggeration, you should read Cointelpro Papers: Documents from the FBI’s Secret Wars Against Domestic Dissent by Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall.)
In response to Chief Timoney, the War Resister’s League (one of this nation’s oldest and most respected pacifist groups) made the following statement: "Police chief, John Timoney, has called for a federal investigation into what he has called a nationwide conspiracy. Since the great bulk of the protests consisted of nonviolent civil disobedience, we can only assume he refers to a conspiracy to commit such acts... There need be no investigation. We admit it: We conspired to bring nonviolent civil disobedience to Philadelphia. Prosecute us, Chief Timoney... Did the Philadelphia police actually conspire to suppress the protests altogether, depriving thousands of protesters - and tens of thousands of their people across the nation for whom the protesters were speaking - of their most basic right to dissent? How about it, Chief Timoney? We’ve confessed; will you? Or must we - as some human rights groups have urged - call for an independent investigation into Philadelphia’s police practices?"
A fitting example of repression was seen in city treatment of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU), a group committed to highlighting poverty and homeless issues. KWRU points out that while the American economy has prospered in the past few years, with corporate profits at an all-time high, the majority of people are facing decreasing wages and unemployment, and thanks to the exportation of labor, a great deal of the labor force must resort to service-industry or temporary employment. During the convention, KWRU took people on tours of poor districts in North Philadelphia to highlight the hypocrisy of the convention. They also organized a March for Economic Human Rights on Monday, July 31st to garner public attention. While the city did give many protest groups permits for street marches, KWRU, an old-time nemesis of the Philadelphia city government, was denied any permit. "Our permit was denied in Philadelphia because the city wants the poor to during the Republican National Convention," the group said in a statement on July 18th. "It’s a shame that they don’t want poverty to end - just to disappear." KWRU chose to march anyway, and asked for the support of other groups, with the result that over five thousand people joined them in their march, with children leading the march, making any police action against the march untenable.
Other demonstrations were not so lucky - police responded to actions by ACT UP (an AIDS activist group), homeless rights groups, and the later convention shutdown by the R2K coalition and the Anti-Statist Black Bloc with mass arrests, horse and bike lines, and when the occasion allowed, beatings. Police also closed down the protestors’ puppet-making center (dubbed ‘Puppetganda’) on far-fetched bomb-making charges.
Despite all efforts at discouraging and shutting down the protestors, the demonstrations against the Republican convention proceeded enthusiastically. And despite what some are calling one of the largest preventive detentions in this country (to prevent activists from protesting the Democratic convention in Los Angeles two weeks later), the Democratic convention was even more of an activist victory. Although the Billionaires for Bush (or Gore) are still celebrating their purchase of the two main candidates, we might be witnessing the beginning of the downfall of the two-party system.
Local postscript: the first of three presidential debates will be held here in Boston, on October 3rd. These debates only include Bush and Gore. To find out how to get involved in trying to get a real debate going, visit www.bostoncan.net/o3b.html .
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