Surfing Up Democracy


SANTA MONICA—They call themselves “the leaders of the pack.” Their symbol: a pointy-eared, beady-eyed, squat little blue dog. They are the conservative wing of the Democratic Party, otherwise known as “the blue dog coalition,” formed in the wake of the Gingrich Republican takeover of Congress in 1994.

Six years later, their success in moving the Democratic party to the ideological middle is apparent in both the list of corporate sponsors they attracted for Sunday’s kickoff convention fundraiser (Philip Morris, Raytheon, Pepsico, the NRA) and the ire they’ve aroused among many activists, who gathered outside the gates to their soiree.

More than 2000 Democratic delegates paying at least $1000 a head strolled the boardwalk to the Santa Monica Pier for a private party in the pier’s amusement park. Jutting out into the Pacific Ocean, surrounded on two sides by a 50-foot drop to the sand, the pier is part South Street Seaport and part Coney Island, a place where crackerjack water-pistol shooting wins cheap prizes and the Ferris wheel rises high above the crash of ocean waves.

Warming up for a week of parties and posturing, the Democrats were greeted by an alternative party on the sands below the pier—”a people’s party,” organizers called it, a bash the public could attend for free and let the Dems know that neither the kowtowing to the corporate funders nor the shift to the right were acceptable. (There were 20 company logos on the Blue Dog invitation and numerous signs touting the corporate sponsors, most of whom donate more money to the Republicans than the Democrats.) At the beach-party protest, so very L.A., the dissent rose, literally, as a floating money bag, a four-foot helium balloon that hovered above the pier. Backlit by a roller coaster, wafting along the border between the two parties, it admonished the Democrats to “end corporate rule” and to put “people before profit.” Swelling ranks of protesters, a couple thousand strong, collected on the beach to cheer it on.

All day demonstrators had been gathering: in Pershing Square for a Mumia rally, at the Gap on the Santa Monica promenade to protest sweatshop wages, at the Loews Hotel, where members of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union filled the boulevard to hear House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt, Reverend Jesse Jackson, and AFL-CIO president John Sweeney ask how it is that a luxury hotel could pay cleaning ladies $5 per hour and deny them the right to unionize.

These were the traditional Democratic issues: the death penalty, unions. But though younger activists accompanied those marches all the way to the beach, the new generation sees the corporate takeover of our lives, institutions, and government as the most insidious issue today. The evidence was on garish display both in Philly and L.A. Corporate double donors—AT&T, Microsoft, and General Motors, the biggest gift-givers to both conventions—hedged their bets for presidential influence.

“We’ll name the criminals,” said Margaret Prescod of the D2K network, a principal organizing coalition for this week’s protests. “Some of the people who are standing right up there are the grand thieves among the multinationals,” she said, pointing a finger at the tented pier. From a stage set up in the sand she called for the end of a “government that has been privatized by the people of money.”

“The Democrats have so sold out,” said Medea Benjamin, California’s Green Party candidate for Senate and founding director of Global Exchange. “They take money from Raytheon [a military equipment and missile manufacturer]. They take money from the NRA. They mouth pablum and hypocritical statements to throw people off. At least with the Republicans we already know they’re in bed with assholes.”

Hip-hop performers and spoken-word poets revved up the crowd. One of the most powerful responses came, however, when a 90-year-old lady took the stage. The mostly 20-to-35-year-old crowd erupted. Doris Haddock, a/k/a Granny D, walked from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., in January and February of 1999 to raise awareness of and garner support for campaign finance reform. “Right now they are up there [on the pier] selling our elections,” she shouted. “Vote with your hearts and let the chips fall where they may. The future must be our concern, not any one election. The only wasted vote is a vote not cast.”

A collective chant, “Shame on you,” rose up the pier embankment from the beach to the amusement park party. In the midst of the speechifying, activists stole quickie dives into the ocean, played devil sticks (that Deadhead juggling game), handed out leaflets, registered people to vote, pounded on plastic drums, and tooted tubas. Some were barefoot and bandanna’d, others dressed to the hilt in mock billionaire style—evening gowns, top hats, pearls.

For all the ruckus, only an occasional Democratic partygoer peered around the tent, and most couldn’t hear a thing. That was partly because the Dem party wasn’t quite what you’d expect from the rhetoric outside. Inside the Blue Dog gala, one might have expected, they’d be eating canapés and sipping martinis. One could imagine a black-tie affair with excessive pinky lifting. A violin concerto, perhaps. But no. First sight: barrels filled with boxes of single-serving Kraft macaroni and cheese. Dems, grinding to the beat of “Stayin’ Alive,” playing Skee-Ball. The game’s prize: What else? A stuffed blue dog. Lots of them hanging in big blue bouquets. Nearby, bumper cars filled with regressive Dems fender-bendering to an old fave: “Baby we can do it, take the time, do it right . . . ” For their big bucks, the Dems were offered 10 doggy choices at the buffet, from your basic Oscar Meyer to chicken apple, Cajun, and smoked turkey wieners. The most popular dessert: chocolate-covered banana.

Even if they were bankrolling the party’s right-wingers, the delegates I spoke with inside were actually more liberal than the Blue Dogs or Gore, at least rhetorically. Back in the day, Chip Forrester, a delegate from Tennessee, said, “I used to be a rabble rouser.” Despite feeling a lot of “hometown pride” for his man Al, he’d still like to see campaign finance reform, and thinks the protesters “can influence us and raise our consciousness” about trade. He thinks working inside government is the way for him to go these days—even if participating in the system’s inner workings is enough to make you think of sausage. “I like sausage,” he says, “but if you see it made, you’d never eat it. It’s messy but in the end it’s flavorful.” As for the corporate sponsors of the evening: “The fundraising is part of convention culture. Most of these contributors give more to the Republicans, they’re here taking care of conservative Democrats.” The party he wished he’d been invited to: Warren Beatty’s.

As the evening wore on, the crowds began to move. The activists migrated to the pier, outside the gated entrance to the Blue Dogs’ private amusment park. Tensions built as protesters arrived from the beach, and more and more Dems spilled onto the pier from other parties, vying for a late-night ride on the Ferris wheel, a rappel up and down a faux rock wall. The group Billionaires for Bush or Gore thrust phony dollar bills through the fence. Fifteen mounted police formed a wall between demonstrators and partygoers. As they waited on the thickening line, some Dems tapped their feet (unconsciously?) to the chant, “Al Gore, Corporate Whore.” Waiting stoically was Craig Bieber, executive director of the Democratic Party of Virginia, who recalled that 20 years ago he was an antinuclear activist, so he didn’t mind the protesters. “Our political process exalts money too much,” he said. “And anyway, Bush and Cheney are the real corporate whores.”

The flash of wistfulness crossing the faces of those who had only positive things to say about protesters suggested a slight, if only slight, discomfort at how the passage of time changes one’s values, or at least one’s approach to changing a system. Some of the delegates almost appeared to have their hearts on the beach, even as they reached for the water pistol to win a blue dog prize.

The speaker who seemed to sum things up was California senator Tom Hayden, the once radical student leader who evaded police for days during the 1968 Democratic convention protests in Chicago. He walked with activists from the Gap demonstration to the beach party to the pier, and refused to go inside the Blue Dog tent. I’d spotted him earlier during the parade to the beach, wearing a pacifier for a ring, newborn son Liam in tow, posing for a photo with a highway patrol officer. After passing the baby to his wife, he spoke en route to the beach party about the activists as “the real thing.” Although firmly supportive of Gore, Hayden criticized the veep for launching a “negative campaign to obliterate Ralph Nader” instead of addressing Nader’s critique of trade and campaign finance reform. “I think they’re held back because of some dependency on corporate money and also by their centrism.”

Later, as he took the stage, Hayden spoke about fear and intimidation: “I encourage you to have heart,” he said to the cheering crowd. “We have to deal with fear, not just oppression. As long as people are afraid of power, then power persists. When you laugh at power, march against power, and scorn power, then the powerful start to fear you.”