Observations from the 2008 Democratic National Convention

by Spencer Kingman

From August 25-29, I was in Denver to protest against the war while the Democratic National Convention nominated Barack Obama. This is not a political analysis of the elections, or of summit protesting. It is merely a collection of personal anecdotes from my trip.

Walking downtown, my friend and I were wondering how we were going to get to a free Rage Against the Machine concert, forty blocks north. A gray-haired, middle-aged woman, pulled up in a rental car. She asked us, “Do you know where the Coliseum is?” Me and my friend smiled at each other. “It’s a few blocks north. We’re going there. Can we get a ride?” She gave us an awkward smile and said quietly, “Don’t do anything crazy.”

We got in and pointed her in the right direction. “I heard there were riots going on up there,” she said in a Florida accent. She told us she was a press photographer, and listed some websites I didn’t recognize. We told her riots were doubtful. The concert was organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). When she asked why we were against the war, my friend said, “I really just believe in following Christ and what he said about turning the other cheek and loving your enemy.” Perhaps a little surprised by this, she replied, “You also have to remember what he said right after that about being ready and defending yourself.”

As the band played through their old hits, I danced and romped and rapped along with probably 10,000 other people in the dark steambath of the old coliseum. I went down to the floor where everybody was moshing, mostly sweaty teenage boys with their shirts off. Bulls on Parade indeed. In a crowd like this, there’s a tension between asserting yourself and going with the flow of bodies, pushing and being pushed. It’s been a few years since I’ve danced like this, and I really felt my age in my back (even though I’m only 28). It was a lot of fun.

After the concert, the Iraq Veterans were brought back on stage. Their leader led the crowd in a militaristic recitation, some sort of pledge of support. It was too much for me, so I left. I didn’t like it, but perhaps these rituals were important to the Veterans, all of them active-duty, who were about to step out of line and challenge the powers amassed downtown. I didn’t quite understand what was at stake for them, emotionally, or career-wise.

The march was long, hot, and slow. There was no permit, so the IVAW was in constant negotiation with the police; it was very stop-and-start. I was roped into carrying a banner on the edge of the march. It was actually part of a long line of banners all made by the same group of Denver anarchists. They were backed with sheets of foam insulation. Maybe for some kind of shield? Whatever their intended purpose, they made it extremely easy to keep the crowd together. It was much more efficient and less authoritarian than using “marshalls,” (people in neon vests that have to constantly yell “stay inside the yellow lines!”).

Most of the people in the march were carrying simple, sensible signs: “U.S. Out of Iraq,” “No War on Iran,” etc. I looked over the top of my banner. It read “MAGICAL REALISM IS A WEAPON.” I looked past the bike cops with their poker faces, onto the streets of workers and normal people, and felt foolish. When we finally arrived at our destination, I found a picket sign on the ground. It said “END THE WAR” in big black letters. “Now that’s more like it!” I said to myself.

The march lasted five hours. It wasn’t until the very end that I saw the Iraq Veterans Against the War who were leading the march. There were 50 or 60 of them. They were standing in formation, surrounded by riot police on all sides, while inside the Pepsi Center, Tom Daschle was lecturing the world on “responsible redeployment.” The IVAW were negotiating with police and representatives of the Democratic Party to be allowed to deliver a letter to Obama and schedule a future meeting.

After a tense half-hour, the spokesperson was finally allowed in to meet with someone in Obama’s campaign. I don’t know if they got their meeting scheduled, but all of the Veterans were hugging and smiling, teary-eyed with relief. Soon after, the cops closed in. I wasn’t eager to get arrested, so I walked home parched and tired.

When I arrived in Denver, I had no idea where I was staying. My contact said he was camping out in the parking lot of the Pepsi Center, which sounded pretty miserable to me. Fortunately, we ended up on the floor of an apartment that belonged to a friend of a friend of a friend. He had a masters degree in critical theory, but he worked at a cafe. He said that for a lot of kids at the protests, being an “anarchist” just meant dressing crazy, making one’s self a target, “going out in the street and yelling things.”

On Tuesday night, I was watching some poets and bands at the Recreate ‘68 party in Civic Center Park, downtown Denver. We were sitting in a Roman-style amphitheater with huge white pillars. It was 8:00pm, and night had just fallen. In a different part of the park there was a silk tent structure in the shape of a mosque. Huge portraits of ordinary Iranian people were printed on all of its panels, a visual plea for peace. Five times a day, a recording of the Muslim prayer call issued loudly from the tent, filling the surrounding blocks. In respect of this ritual, the woman on the Recreate ‘68 stage announced a ten-minute moment of silence. As soon as it started, a police helicopter began circling above us, shining down a bright spotlight on the amphitheater. Everyone sat silent as the Arabic singing floated through the park. One black man walked around the amphitheater, looking at everyone and saying, “Its all about the police.” When the prayer call stopped, the police turned off their harsh light and flew elsewhere.

While I was carrying my “End The War” sign through the streets, a young guy walked up to me and said, “Can I ask you some questions about the war? I see how some of it is good, and some of it is bad.” We talked a little bit about war and politics, then he said “I’m asking because I’m thinking about joining the Marines.” I gave him the names of some websites, beforeyouenlist.org, afsc.org… I asked, “Why do you want to join the marines?” He replied, “Well, mostly just to get a roof over my head.” It turns out he was homeless.

While we were talking, a tall, muscular man with a tight face, stopped and tapped me on the shoulder. His two front teeth were chipped. He talked fast, without pauses, pointing to my sign, “With all due respect, I did three tours in Iraq, and we’re not quite done yet. Almost, but not quite.” We talked for a few minutes. He believed in “the mission” and was proud of what he had done in the Army.

I asked him, “Are you out?”
“Well, I’m happy for you. Are you happy about that?”
“My kids sure are,” he said as he lit a cigarette.
He looked well dressed. I asked him, “Are you doing alright? Did you find work?” He told me he was a student at the Community College. I asked if he was getting his G.I. Bill.
“My tuition is 100% paid by Veterans Affairs.”
“How’s that?”
“I’m classified as 80% disabled. Do you know how big a bullet for an AK-47 is?” He’d been shot in Iraq. A camera flash came from somewhere. “Where did that flash come from!?” he said, worried. I looked around; there were tourists with cameras everywhere.
“It could have been anyone,” I said.
He said, “I’m really sensitive to them.”

Wherever I walked in Denver, people saw my “End the War” sign and wanted to take pictures with me, or of me. Perhaps they liked having protesters around to make their vacation a little more edgy and exotic, but at times, they also communicated respect and solidarity. I was struck by how many well-dressed convention delegates supported us, even as protesters at their unity-themed convention. On the night that Joe Biden spoke, I came across a crowd of people on the sidewalk, frozen in front of a loudspeaker, listening.

One night on the street, we ran into young, fresh-faced girl who was lost, like us. She was an intern for Fox News. We were obviously protesters. Trying to be polite, I steered the discussion away from politics. When we parted, she looked us in the eye and said, “I really support what you’re doing.”

The streets were filled with menacing police presence. Often, they were dressed from head to toe in black riot gear. They wore gas masks and carried 3 foot batons. They prowled the streets on vans with big metal running-boards, riding on the sides like firemen. There were also militarized black vehicles that looked like airport stair-cars. Sometimes police stood on these mobile towers, lording over crowds with their weapons. From normal people you would hear “I feel so much safer with all these police around,” but others expressed feelings of disgust, resentment, and fear. Walking through a crowded pedestrian mall, I came upon a detachment of Riot police in full battle dress. “Tear gas. Pepper spray. Not necessary,” I said, pointing at their shiny, new orange-and-black guns. A rich woman in heels walking ahead of me turned around and yelled, “I agree!”

A Hispanic construction worker waiting for the bus, pointed to several of the skyscrapers that rose all around us, naming them and telling us that he had “built them.” My friend asked him what the police were like in Denver. “Well, they shot me,” he replied. He told us that two years ago as he was walking through an alley, an unmarked police car brushed him as it passed. He didn’t know it was a police car, and he kicked it. They shot him in the leg. The ACLU took up his case, and now he has a $1.5 million lawsuit against the city.

Carlos, a young kid with long black hair, stood next to an old man, waiting for a bus. The old man was leaning on a garbage can for support. They seemed to be related. Carlos explained to us that the city was giving out “hotel vouchers” to people who showed up at the rescue mission. The city didn’t want conventioneers to see any homeless people. Maybe there were some spare rooms in non-union hotels (the DNC only uses union ones).

As we talked more, Carlos told us that he was Lakota Sioux. He said he had been homeless himself in 2006, but he didn’t like to go back to the Reservation in South Dakota. Everything there was “conforming” or “depressing,” and everyone was “poor.” He seemed frustrated that blacks and latinos were getting so much attention, when his people had it worst of all. “I would really like to talk to you again about this, because I never really get to talk about this stuff.” I gave him my phone number and told him we would be downtown everyday, but he never called.

I was struck by the amount of black pride on display in Denver, and how this was connected to the Obama phenomenon. Everywhere you looked, one saw black people wearing Obama shirts and pins with slogans like “hope” “change” and “progress.” Some of the shirts were homemade. Some featured MLK or even Malcolm X. When I went to a party in a storefront one night, the crowd was split between white punks and older black people. A young black woman from New York performed some passionate poems and songs about Obama, and somebody taped up an Obama “HOPE” poster on the wall. After this, a white activist played some culture-jamming videos, that seemed like they were coming from a totally different world. The room split, and the party kind of died.

It wasn’t just black people who were excited about Obama. One morning, as my friend and I stepped out of the apartments where we were staying, we ran into a young woman, perhaps 20 years old, struggling with a large canvas that was bigger than her whole body. It was a colorful, musical painting of a smiling Obama. She said, “I just want to show it. Obama is the first person that ever made me excited about politics.” I saw her later at the amphitheater, with her painting.