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The Houston Chronicle

Activists to Color Democratic Convention

Many heading to Denver to demand social change and blast party leaders

Colleen O'Connor

DENVER - A nude-in with bodies arranged to spell out "Peace," music with a message, civil disobedience, direct confrontation and radical cheerleading. That funky fusion of protest, performance and pompoms.

The new generation of activists, and the '60s protesters who birthed them, are busy with creative ferment, organizing their public dissent for the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August. They are motivated by the desire to create social change with people power, not political power, frustrated by a mounting list of problems, from the mortgage crisis to soaring prices for gas and food.

"There will be a lot of people at this convention who are progressive, and who are angry at the Democrats," says Virginia Trabulsi, who's worked for years with the antiwar group United for Peace and Justice.

"They're saying, 'Why have we not impeached Bush? Why is Homeland Security out of control?' "

Tens of thousands of activists are expected, both homegrown and imported. Some plan to drive FEMA trailers up from Mississippi for a media-savvy statement about continuing Hurricane Katrina struggles.

Others are coming from Seattle, like the Backbone Campaign, which will haul 70-foot-tall political puppets called The Chain Gang: prison-suited images of President Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Socialists have formed an alliance with military veterans who are against the Iraq War.

Anarchists will give workshops on guerrilla gardening, or political gardening, a style of nonviolent action that takes on issues like land ownership by occupying abandoned lots - sometimes covertly - and transforming them into urban gardens.

And then there are the pacificists, groups like the historic American Friends Service Committee founded by Quakers in 1917, which plans to host an exhibit called "The Costs of War," detailing how the $720 million spent each day on the war could be spent on education and housing.

Various beliefs

These different factions unite on one common goal: stopping the Iraq War immediately. Beyond that, beliefs and strategies differ.

Some protesters espouse the right to active self-defense if they are treated too harshly. On the other side are those who say that violence, whether verbal or physical, is never an acceptable tool on the path toward peace.

In America, this debate is old as the war between the North and the South.

"It goes back to the abolitionist movement during the Civil War," said Ira Chernus, professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

"Some were committed to strict nonviolence, and some felt that because the system of slavery, and the military force used to maintain it, was so violent that the only way to break the system of slavery was by using violence."

Chernus says in his recent book, American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea, that nonviolence is an integral thread in U.S. history. "From the 1820s to the 1950s, scarcely a decade went by that a nonviolent movement did not play some significant role in the practical outcome of political, social and economic events.

"Since the 1960s, scarcely a day has gone by that a nonviolent movement did not play a significant role."

Code Pink, the national antiwar organization, plans a Restore Democracy Parade, featuring floats, political theater, musicians, stilt performers, radical cheerleaders, puppets, drummers and bands.

The local spokeswoman for Code Pink is Zoe Williams, a 22-year-old platinum blonde with spiky hair and black-and-white polka-dot canvas shoes.

She's part of the new face of activism, a youth-driven alliance that includes Students for Peace and Justice, Students for a Democratic Society and Tent State University. Her goal is to help restore the image of activists everywhere.

"That's something our progressive movement is now seriously considering," she says. "How can we make ourselves less frightening? How can we make ourselves look open?

"One of the big things about the colorful, creative protests is to show that we are a very interesting, artistic, positive group of people. We aren't this scary image that protesters often get painted as."

Workshop training

Adam Jung spends his free time organizing Tent State University, mobilizing students to confront the Democrats and end the Iraq War. "I'm definitely not right-wing or conservative, but I do identify with rural values," said Jung, who grew up on a farm in Missouri. "If I called my granddad an environmentalist, he'd smack me, but those are his values."

The base camp he envisions for Tent State University will include thousands of tents pitched in central Denver's City Park, with a music festival featuring political hip-hoppers The Coup and Wayne Kramer, who played with his old group, the Motor City 5, during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Tent State workshops will train activists in nonviolent direct action, and focus on building a grassroots movement.

© 2008 Chronicle

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