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Published on Sunday, July 23, 2000 in the San Francisco Chronicle
The Life of the Party:
A Chance To Tell Our Leaders Where To Go
by Laura Hamburg
 
It started out like a swirling cacophony of rat-a-tat-tats on our brain, wearing us down, making us numb. Racial profiling, irradiated beef, bottled water, ozone depletion, global warming, sweatshops, executions, have a frappuccino - the bovine growth hormone is on the house, limit habeas corpus, expand Niketown, buy a politician, get some corporate welfare, Dow is up, strip the rain forest, check out my new Palm Pilot.

Until finally, we've had enough.

The wake-up call sounded last year, when 50,000 citizens took to the streets in Seattle to shut down the World Trade Organization's round of international trade negotiations.

This summer, building on the groundswell of support displayed in Seattle, there will be another political seismic shift as thousands of fed-up but hopeful citizens demonstrate outside the Republican convention in Philadelphia next week and at the Democrats' shindig in Los Angeles August 14 through 17.

The protesters will be people like you and me -- mothers, bus drivers, students, carpenters, architects, lawyers and people of every color and age. We know deep in our hearts that our governmental processes are broken and that our way of life has been hijacked by corporations and the politicians who serve as their hired thugs.

We've known for some time now that something is terribly wrong -- that the gap between rich and poor is growing, that many of us don't have health insurance, retirement funds or pensions, that we're grinding out 60- and 70-hour work weeks and there's still not enough money to make the rent, feed the kids, pay the mortgage.

We've seen our schools crumble as more prisons are built. We've seen our neighborhoods morph into generic clones, with the same Blockbusters, Starbucks, Gaps and Wal-Marts.

Inside the convention halls, it will be business as usual. The same fat-cat, corporate and industry donors will be at both the Democrat and Republican conventions, stuffing politicians' pockets with fistfuls of soft-money dollars, hedging their bets so it doesn't matter who wins.

``The Democrats and Republicans are like a two-headed monster,'' said Jason Mark, spokesman for Global Exchange, which is organizing and training people to demonstrate at the conventions. ``They may bicker and fight with each other, but it's the same body and the same feet. We don't see any real distinction separating them.''

Yes. Forget the Democrats and Republicans. The real action won't be found inside the convention halls. It's going to be outside, where the people will propose a citizen's agenda of the issues that really count.

There will be teach-ins on genetically modified foods, marches against sweatshop labor and global corporatization. There will be rallies to end the death penalty and highlight the prison-industrial complex, a Shadow Convention focusing on campaign finance reform, the widening wage gap and the failed war on drugs. There will be speeches on homeless issues and lack of universal health insurance. People will shout and wave signs about environmental destruction and demand support for working families. There will be singing and theater, dance and democracy.

``It's much more challenging than stopping the war machine,'' said John Sellers, director of the Ruckus Society, a 5-year-old Berkeley organization that trains people in nonviolent civil disobedience. ``It's confronting an entire world view. We have had this corporate consciousness descend on us that is hard to pierce through. We have to show people that we can choose a different reality than the one we have imposed on ourselves.''

Like the vast majority of demonstrators, Ruckus-trained protesters are committed to nonviolence, but it's possible that, as in Seattle, a handful of really frustrated people could destroy Nike, Gap or Planet Hollywood property. They may break windows in an empty store or throw a trash can at an HMO office.

If that happens, you will have to decide whether that kind of behavior falls under your definition of violence.

Perhaps it's more violent that some of our elderly choose between buying prescription drugs and eating. That the federal government pumps $20 billion a year into fossil-fuel subsidies. That women in Saipan live behind barbed wire where they sew clothes 12 hours a day for retailers like Gap, Wal-Mart, Sears, Tommy Hilfiger and The Limited. Isn't it violent that nearly 25 percent of California residents lack health insurance, and a quarter of the state's children live in poverty? And isn't it violent that Gap CEO Millard Drexler makes $60,000 an hour while Gap workers in Tehuacan, Mexico, make 28 cents an hour?

It just depends on how you look at it.

At the core of this citizen-awakening are two truths: Corporations have saturated every aspect of U.S. and world culture, merging and putting profit before human needs. And secondly, the government -- the very institution that is supposed to protect us -- has forsaken us and is instead helping the corporations pillage the Earth and her people.

Take the World Bank, for example. For every dollar the American government contributes to the bank, American corporations receive $1.35 in procurement contracts, according to Treasury Department Secretary Lawrence Summers, who told Congress in 1995 how companies profit from World Bank loans. One of the Bank's current proposals is to develop oil fields in the Central African nation of Chad, by running more than 600 miles of pipeline out to the coast at Cameroon. The environmental impact is expected to be devastating. But profits will likely soar for Exxon, Mobil and Chevron, the bank's major partners in the project.

Jia Ching Chen is an organizer with Youth Action for Global Change, which focuses on the U.S. role in driving corporate globalization and teaches young people about institutions like the World Bank and the WTO.

Chen, 27, hopes the unconventional gatherings outside the Democratic and Republican conventions will highlight the growing gap between rich and poor, a schism he saw in his own work as a former architect.

``I love architecture, but it was too painful of a contrast to be detailing a house where just for the windows, the owner was spending $250,000,'' Chen said. ``You could buy a couple of houses in West Oakland for that. I just didn't want to be involved in that kind of amassing of personal, private wealth.''

Rose Braz will join Chen and thousands of others at the demonstrations. Braz, an Oakland criminal defense attorney and the program director for Critical Resistance, a national organization working to end prison expansion, and other activists have teamed with the Fresno NAACP in a lawsuit challenging the construction of a $335 million, 5,000-bed maximum security prison in Delano. ``There is something very wrong when California is No. 1 in prison spending and 41st in the nation for education spending,'' Braz said.

For Braz, Democrats like Gov. Gray Davis and Bill Clinton share the same lock-em-up mentality as their Republican predecessors. ``Who is more wicked? Republican or Democrat? There really is no difference,'' she said. ``Since Clinton and Davis have been in office, there have been attacks on civil rights throughout the court system. And to say it's better to elect Al Gore president so he can appoint better Supreme Court justices just doesn't hold water. History has shown that a Supreme Court nominated by a Democrat has not made a difference.''

Braz has a point. The court's two most consistently liberal justices -- John Paul Stevens and David Souter -- were appointed, respectively, by Republicans Gerald Ford and George Bush. On the other hand, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, both consistently pro-corporate, were appointed by Clinton.

This summer's protests will illustrate just how far both parties have moved away from people's concerns, Braz said. ``People are motivated by everything from the degradation of the environment to sweatshops to prisons to come together for so many different reasons as an alternative to both Democrats and Republicans.''

It's going to be a hodgepodge of protests because there is so much to protest about.

But to what purpose? What will two weeks of marching, demonstrating, singing and yelling accomplish, when all is said and done?

Well, remember slavery? Remember when women couldn't vote? Remember when we didn't have even the most basic workers' rights? Remember being forced to sit at the back of the bus? Remember the Vietnam War?

Marching, demonstrating, singing and yelling is the way we've historically made change when our government stopped listening.

In times of moral crisis, it's always been the people who lead and the leaders who follow. It's been the emancipators, the suffragettes, the protesters against child labor and inhumane working conditions, those who marched and even died to stop the war, to gain civil rights, to end apartheid.

As Emma Goldman wrote in 1909: ``When in the course of human development, existing institutions prove inadequate to the needs of man, when they serve merely to enslave, rob and oppress mankind, the people have the eternal right to rebel against, and overthrow, these institutions.''

See you on the street.

Laura Hamburg is a free-lance writer who lives in Ukiah.

 


GET INFORMED

The following Web sites offer information pertaining to the Republican and Democratic conventions.

-- www.thepartysover.org -- The Web site for the Philadelphia Direct Action Group provides information on activities set for the Republican National Convention; www.d2kla.org lists Los Angeles events.

-- www.democrats.org -- The Democratic National Committee's Web site; www.speakout.com/dnc/ seeks feedback for the party platform.

-- www.rnc.org -- The Republican National Committee's Web site; www.rnc.org/policyfeedback/ seeks feedback for the party platform.


GET INVOLVED

The Republican National Convention begins July 31 in Philadelphia; the Democratic National Convention starts August 14 in Los Angeles. Here are some of the demonstrations scheduled for both events.

Philadelphia

July 30: Million Billionaires March for Bush or Gore, a protest over corporate takeover of electoral politics

July 31: March for economic human rights

July 31: Shadow Convention organized by Arianna Huffington, focusing on issues not on GOP agenda: campaign finance reform, the widening wage gap and the failed war on drugs

August 1: Protest against the criminal justice system

August 2: Demonstration in defense of women's reproductive rights

Los Angeles

August 14: Human Needs Not Corporate Greed, a mass march on the opening day of the convention

August 14: Shadow Convention hosted by Huffington throughout convention proceedings

August 16: March and rally against mass incarceration, police brutality and the death penalty

August 17: Rally to stop sweatshops, promote a living wage, assure immigrant rights and end global economic injustice

###

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