The DNC Convention in the Street/Jail/Garden/Home

by Tristan Call

Four years ago, I watched the Democratic and Republican conventions from a Brigham Young University sofa with the liberal daughter of a pharmaceutical executive. I was Mormon, Marxist, pacifist, freshman; we watched our nation’s political spectacle with the optimism of 18-year-olds hoping for a religion of conscience, an economy where people share, and a nation built by and for peacemakers. We considered ourselves sophisticated and examined the platforms with narrowed eyes (a habit which would eventually steer my vote to Nader), but we still enjoyed the excitement of the partisan moment.

This year, my eyes were on the streets of Denver and Minneapolis, not on their televised convention epicenters. On the opening night of this year’s DNC, I stood on the billy-club side of a police line for hours, boxed in against a concrete wall in downtown Denver with armored riot cops on three sides. I spent that evening dodging pepper spray and trying to make small talk with blank-faced officers in gas masks. My friend Katie missed Hillary Clinton’s stirring call for unity on Tuesday: it was inconveniently double-booked with her two days in a Denver jail for protesting imperialism on Monday. On the third day of the DNC, I sat with five thousand people at the entrance to the Pepsi Center as Iraq Veterans Against the War delivered their letter calling for an immediate US withdrawal, full veterans benefits, and reparations for the Iraqi people, to Senator Obama whose wife was headlining the night.

After the convention I came home to Salt Lake City to tend my garden, my small family, and my health (a freak summer cold blockaded my throat unexpectedly on the Friday before Labor Day. Karma.) As I watch the footage from the conventions and share my experience with friends here in Utah, I face incredulity, hostility, mockery, and, most often, confusion. What and why are they protesting? How are we supposed to understand images of masked kids running from mounted police in the Midwest, mass arrests, and terrorism indictments? Lips obscured by black bandannas are not conducive to dialogue; let this letter be my attempt to lift the cloth of anonymity from my own face, to restart the talking where it should not have left off.

As the RNC Welcoming Committee, one of the umbrella protest groups at the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis, asserts, the Republicans came to “celebrate their latest conquests in global domination and exploitation.” DNC? Bigger party, same story. Those of us who risked ourselves in Minneapolis and Denver are fighting a wide spectrum of political sins; we are appalled by both parties championing a form of capitalism that prioritizes profits over people. We can hardly believe their callousness toward undocumented immigrants and their children or their threats of yet another Persian Gulf War, this time in Iran.

Allow me to briefly explain our opposition to what would be the United States’ third large-scale Middle Eastern war this decade. I believe that a war in Iraq could have been waged for just and compassionate reasons; ours was not. We invaded that country for revenge and for geopolitical and economic “national interest,” and we later disingenuously recast the attack as a defense of Iraqi freedom. A US attack on Iran would take place for similar reasons. Proponents of preemptive strikes on Iran don’t even pretend such humanitarian goals yet (but they will later). Our politicians -the American ruling class- talk about military action as if they were debating the designation of a national holiday or the patriotic renaming of an overpass. They risk little beyond reputation, and plot the fate of the inevitable casualties, balancing them against votes and commodities. They talk about war in the language of positive values (national standing, family, security, stability) while dismissing the negative effects (devastation of civilian infrastructure, non-combatant casualties, disease, occupations that spur resistance movements, high costs that divert resources from home). And our criticisms of Iran only serve to further incriminate United States policy when we compare them to our own national record: Iran is meddling in Iraq, a country that we invaded and occupied; Iran defies the United Nations, an organization that we helped found but whose charter we refuse to abide by; Iran might be developing nuclear weapons, a technology whose development and use we pioneered killing hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians. These are of course weapons that we still stockpile, so that when Barack Obama says he will do “everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon….everything in my power…everything,” every anti-American regime will know that there is a sufficiently hard-fisted phallus in the American arsenal to make the threat stick.

On the convention floor during John McCain’s closing speech, American militarism took a central role. Representative Mary Fallin’s polemic blasted the “haters and killers whose only creed is evil,” declaring McCain’s willingness to use a “big stick” so that “goodness can defeat evil,” even though our “goodness” seems to always kill more than their evil. The RNC video on 9/11: The Day the Earth Stood Still begins with the manipulative first line, “the first attack occurred in Iran,” a cheap attempt to tie 9/11 with Iran just as Bush did with Iraq. There was no discussion of civilian collateral damage, but the excited audience chanted “USA” and McCain repeated his invitations to “fight with me!” McCain cautions us, of course: “I hate war. It is terrible.” Surely we can trust his experience on this, but the only ‘enduring peace’ the GOP (or the Democrats) want is one that privileges the United States, leaving the vast majority of the world’s population outside of their carefully-drawn “culture of life.” At every clapping break in the speech, McCain’s followers flashed their “Country First” placards to the camera as televised America looked on.

I do not dislike McCain. I wanted him to be the president in 2000. I am impressed by his achievements in government ethics reform and his opposition to corporate welfare. I trust his sincerity. I do not dislike Obama, and I think we are right to enjoy his promise of sanity after eight years of global and domestic imperialism. But that is not enough to win my silence. In Salt Lake City, in Denver, in Minneapolis, we will resist. We will resist at the munitions factories in my aerospace-industry hometown, at senatorial offices, at military bases and test sites. We will offer our bodies as out-of-place cogs to gum up the gears of war. Again, and again. I don’t enjoy the antagonism that activism can breed. I hate to find myself at odds with the compassionate conservatives who raised me and the Obama-inspired liberals who weaned me, but my loyalty is no kind of quiet. I may one day find my skull fractured by the same billy-club and my body held in the same county jail that I avoided this week, but I am willing to risk that harm to help prevent a slaughter.

My brother tells me that the best way to effect change is to raise a family and beautify the place where I live. He says it is the natural inclination of humans. I hope that it is our natural inclination. It certainly is mine. By going to Denver, I missed my apiary class and left tomatoes unstaked, I missed my family and my land. I was certainly not happier there. But if we agree that family is our focus, what then do we do when our father announces his intention to kill the neighbor’s children? Is our only option to birth more babies and build them the best cribs, or is there something else? My father killing another’s children: this is not impossible. This is not even contested. A UN investigation of an American air strike in Afghanistan last week concluded that 90 civilians, including 60 children, had been killed in one day. This is war.

Some observers were shocked when radio-journalist Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! was arrested in Minneapolis. My time in Denver taught me that safety from police is a constant uncertainty in militarized convention zones. The police seldom know what their own rules are or what orders will arrive about which crowd of 200 to charge with mace and which group to allow to disperse. I’ve learned that our supposed right to see warrants is a myth, and that organizers of protests that include misdemeanor civil disobedience -things like street marches and sit-ins- can be indicted as terrorists.

One year ago, hundreds of BYU students demonstrated in solidarity with the Burmese monks who were beaten and imprisoned by soldiers during illegal pro-democracy protests. We championed those monks and cried over their stories; I now find myself in the monks’ place, and I learned that after a few hours of being held behind police lines, billy-club at my chest, rifle pointed at my face, that confidence falters. Everything in my world -my instinct for self-preservation, the authorities, the media- proclaimed me a fool for taking to the streets. But after reflection, I feel comfortable (though not safe) in my actions. I think that within our political system I am well within my rights to assemble peaceably to petition the government for a redress of grievances, and therefore I fully support my brothers and sisters in Denver and St. Paul, in the streets, the blockades, the occupations, the marches, the barred cells. We will be there next time.