Out of the Streets, Into the Voting Booths

One year from now the presidential campaign will be in full swing. Absent a political meltdown (which is not inconceivable), the Republicans will have renominated George W. Bush and the Democrats will be uniting behind a candidate of their own which, one hopes, will not be Joe Lieberman. There's speculation (much of it wishful thinking on the part of Democrats) that Ross Perot will enter the fray (see www.runrossrun.com), and a possibility that Ralph Nader will again run as a Green (with ample financial-backing from gleeful Republicans) and split the left from the Democrats.

The Democratic convention is scheduled for Boston the last week of July. The Republicans have planned theirs for New York City the first week of September. That date was selected to exploit the patriotic emotions associated with the anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Expect to see a lot of firefighters, police officers, and rescue workers feted at the convention. Political conventions are organized as political theater, and the plot of this one (barring a challenge to Bush's renomination) is to promote a connection between the Bush administration and the 9/11 heroes.

Convention theater, as always, will include political protestors. The left is already gearing up to protest Republican policies. A mass march is planned for the convention opening "A million people on the street, representing the diversity of New York, and the multiplicity of this nation," the organizers conceive it (see www.counterconvention.com).

In addition to the march, individual groups are planning their own protest actions for the week of the convention (see www.villagevoice.com/issues/0335/harkavy.php). The Republicans, I'm sure, are delighted. There are always groups, egged on by provocateurs, that confuse revolutionary bravura with smart political tactics. One inevitable result, planned or not, will be confrontations with authority. Protest organizers envision, "An overwhelming, festive, and poignant showing with the entire world bearing witness." More likely, what the whole world will be watching, will be protestors squabbling with New York's Finest. With 9/11 on everyone's mind, that is not good protest theater; for the left, in fact, it would be a political disaster. Political violence -- no matter who provokes it -- plays into the hands of those who advocate and benefit from political repression.

The movement to oust the Bush administration doesn't need to get people into the streets; it needs to get them to the polls. Half the eligible people in this country did not vote in the last presidential election. The majority of the non-voters were (and are) young or poor, people who are not benefiting by Bush's tax-cuts, can't find good jobs, can't afford higher education or medical care, and who do not share in the general affluence. Get these people to the polls and President Bush is history.

The voter education drive of Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964, not the street demonstrations against the Democratic Party in Chicago 1968, is the organizing model. What's needed is a summertime voter education project, a massive, well-funded door-to-door, face-to-face organizing effort with people, especially young people, going into ghettos, barrios, trailer parks, small towns, urban neighborhoods and suburban developments to identify and register the millions of non-voters. The drive would need good literature and a media presence. It would continue beyond the summer in order to keep people focused on political issues throughout the campaign season. And it would peak on a huge Election Day get-out-the-vote effort, which would assuredly translate into a stunning defeat of Bush and his policies.

Such an effort doesn't have to come under the exclusive banner of the Democratic Party. Issue organizations, third parties and other political organizations could participate in this effort independently, promoting their own issues, but agreeing that the defeat of the Bush administration is the election's top priority.

I would suggest that the advocates of the convention protests go back to the drawing board. New York City is a Democratic City. More than street demonstrations by activists, the organizers need a program that encourages participation by those who live and work in the city.

How'bout fifteen minutes of protest around a different issue during lunch-hour each day? On one day people could wear facemask-respirators to protest the assault on the Clean Air Act and the administration's covering-up of the EPA report on toxic air quality in New York after the twin towers came out. Another day people could wear a black armband to protest the war. On another lunch hour, people could ring bells to celebrate freedom and protest the Patriot Act and its infringement of the Bill of Rights. There could be organized events involving education and children, unions, tax-cuts, and high unemployment; women and abortion rights; tolerance and human rights. These actions, focused on policy disagreements with the Bush administration, would invite participation by people at their workplaces and in their neighborhoods rather than confrontations by small self-selected groups of activists with the police. And instead of a protest against the Bush administration in New York City, how 'bout a walk away from the city? Millions of New Yorkers fleeing the Republican convention for a day of political festivities in outlying areas.

Whatever the protestors plan, they should decisively distance themselves and condemn any group that seeks confrontation with the police and doesn't accept a strongly-worded nonviolent discipline. Street disorder at the Republican National Convention would play directly into the hands of the Bush administration. It's at the ballot box where Bush will be defeated. Getting out the vote and making sure that the ballots are honestly counted should be the focus of the election year's political direct action.

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