Even in the unified ranks of the Boston antiwar group United for Justice With Peace, fault lines began to form recently when activists started discussing whether to protest at the Democratic National Convention next week.
"Some people feel very strongly that we should have anybody but [President] Bush. They don't want to somehow play into the Republicans' hands," said Cynthia Peters, a coalition organizer.
The group decided to hold "People's Parties" instead, timed with Democratic Party events for convention delegates. Peters even encouraged national activists not to come to Boston, but instead hold People's Parties in their hometowns. Peters has mixed feelings about the approach, which is aimed at bolstering the chances of presumptive Democratic candidate Sen. John F. Kerry.
"The 'anybody but Bush' movement makes people think that if Kerry wins we can all go home," Peters said. "But under Clinton we saw the dismantling of welfare benefits. We saw sanctions against Iraq and the bombing of Baghdad. I am under no illusions that Kerry is going to radically diverge."
Another left-wing group, United for Peace and Justice, decided differently; it will protest, and it's coordinating an antiwar event near the convention Thursday, the day Kerry speaks. "There's a lot of 'anybody but Bush' pressure," said Bill Dobbs, the media coordinator of the New York-based group. "Lots of people who feel very strongly about getting rid of Bush. They want to give the Democrats a pass. We do not want to give the Democrats a pass. We think it's important to keep the pressure on both parties."
How this debate plays out will determine the strength of the protests at the convention. Behind the protest issue, of course, looms an even larger concern to the Democrats: Will left-wing protest candidates undermine Democratic chances the way votes for Ralph Nader worked against Al Gore in 2000? During the last election, many activists said the parties were so similar that it was not significant which candidate won. They protested at both the Republican and Democratic conventions, and some voted for Nader.
This time, some who protested before aren't sure. There's the war in Iraq. The weakening of some environmental laws. Civil rights concerns over the Patriot Act. The Republican attempt to constitutionally ban gay marriage. Activists, now members of well-organized antiwar movements, are debating — in living room meetings and e-mail exchanges, in the alternative press and on the Internet — whether to protest in Boston.
As a headline in the liberal magazine the Nation put it: "Progressive activists at the Democratic convention are faced with the question of whether to protest or just talk about their issues."
For some activists, at least, "the slogan 'The Evil of Two Lessers' has been replaced by 'Anybody but Bush,' " the Nation article said. "That leaves progressives with a question: whether to demonstrate at the Democratic National Convention in Boston July 26-29 or give the Dems a pass and concentrate on the Republican National Convention in New York August 30-September 1."
Some people fear that antiwar protesters will blow it and undermine the "Dump Bush" effort, which they view as the overwhelming priority. Others are angry that a powerful liberal advocacy group, MoveOn.org, is playing an active supporting role for the Kerry campaign. To them, "giving the Democrats a pass" means not staging convention protests despite the fact that Kerry and many other Democratic lawmakers voted in favor of the resolution for the war in Iraq and helped to overwhelmingly pass the Patriot Act after the Sept. 11 attacks. There is talk that "progressive" delegates will stage a surprise antiwar action on the convention.
"People all around the world want Bush to be defeated," said John Beacham of the ANSWER Coalition in Los Angeles, who will protest in Boston and New York. "ANSWER knows that going out in the street and fighting for our right to demonstrate is more likely to further the people's goals of ending the occupation and bringing the troops home now."
Many on the left have settled on a compromise, attending one of the "people's conventions" planned in Boston. At People's Parties on Sunday night, organizers will pass around a "Fund the Dream" petition calling for the $100-billion defense budget to be reallocated for social projects.
The "Campaign for America's Future" will host three days of "Take Back America" events concurrent with the convention, open to Democratic leaders, activists and "progressive" delegates. Headliners will include former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), "Nickel and Dimed" author Barbara Ehrenreich, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and former Vice President Al Gore.
"These are folks who want to help Kerry win, but they also want to make sure Kerry is accountable to progressive values," said Toby Chaudhuri, a spokesman for the group. "With the popularity of [Michael Moore's documentary] 'Fahrenheit 9/11,' there are indicators of the surge of progressive energy out there."
The sessions will deal with such issues as jobs, wages, healthcare, Medicare and education. One session — headlined by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, National Organization for Women President Kim Gandy and Los Angeles City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa — will seek to discuss "a dynamic new alliance, representing working families, women, people of color, the middle class and the poor."
Another forum will air "the debacle in Iraq [that] has left America more isolated, more reviled, and less safe" — with such panelists as staunch antiwar Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), the last of the Democratic candidates to withdraw from the presidential race, and Joseph Wilson, the former U.S. chargé d'affaires in Iraq and author of "The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies That Led to War and Betrayed My Wife's CIA Identity."
On Tuesday the "Revolutionary Women 2004" event will feature Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Anaheim). Activists from the antiwar group Code Pink will also staff a table there, though they are planning to attend protests as well.
"We're going to do both," said Lora O'Connor, a California-based coordinator for Code Pink. "Even mainstream statistics show that the majority of Americans want the U.S. out of Iraq. We're trying to keep the heat on the Democrats, reminding them to represent true Democratic values."
That opens the question of whether the forums' all-star lineups will appease people who are weighing whether to mobilize for the kinds of confrontations with riot police that took place at the 2000 conventions — or whether the protesters will catapult criticism of Kerry onto the nightly news.
At its 2000 convention, the Republican Party managed to defuse potential protests from the Christian right and more extreme right-wing groups who refrained from publicly pressuring Bush on such issues as abortion in exchange for assurances that he would push their agenda once he was elected.
But many left-of-center activists seem to have the opposite strategy, eager to subject even sympathetic liberal Democrats to the kind of grilling that brings to mind the French saying that "when the left forms a firing squad, it's always in a circle."
"Did Kucinich Sell Out Antiwar Democrats?" demanded a headline of the public radio show "Democracy Now," whose host, Amy Goodman, questioned Kucinich on his delegates' recent acceptance of a compromise, hammered out with Kerry delegates, to accept a pledge to withdraw American troops from Iraq "when appropriate."
"Amy, I had to make a decision, whether I want to, you know, stay a Democrat and continue to work within the party or go in a different direction," Kucinich said July 14 on Goodman's show. "What we have isn't perfect, but it's, you know, a lot better than another four years of George Bush."
But many of Kucinich's admirers believe Bush is just one aspect of a larger problem and that it's up to activists like them to keep the Democrats honest.
"Bush didn't start these policies," said Frank Dorrel, publisher of the comic book "Addicted to War," who will go to Boston to attend a Veterans for Peace gathering and the Boston Social Forum just before the convention. "If we put in Kerry, and he continues the policies, what have we got?"
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