Los Angeles, the Democratic Convention, and the Left: What the Hell Do We Do Now?

The Democratic National Convention has come and gone. So have many of the thousands of protesters who gathered here to challenge the corporate agenda of Al Gore and the Democratic Party. They were greeted by numerous attempts by city officials, the Los Angeles Police Department, and the Democratic Party itself to stifle the protest activities organized for the week.

Many activists and organizers are debating whether the events at D2KLA were successful, and are continuing to analyze their long-term repercussions. For my part, as one of the organizers of a major march and a participant in a number of others, the week highlighted serious dilemmas that the anti-racist, multi-racial, anti-corporate Left will have in influencing the center-right Democratic Party and the predominantly white middle class Green Party in the future. And now, as we wait for the final count in Florida, an even more ominous scenario is in store if George W. Bush keeps his lead. It is a time for reflection and analysis by the Left, and for a regrouping to figure out how to solve these dilemmas and create a united front against global capital and in opposition to whichever corporate President is elected to expand US imperialism’s hold on the world.

The Obliging LAPD

Of course, Gore couldn’t carry out his party without the help of the City of LA, and our officials and police department obliged the Democrats no end. A month before the start of the convention, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan wrote an editorial in the Los Angeles Times entitled “A Fair Warning to All: Don’t Disrupt Our City.” It was a chilling reminder of the Mayor’s role as poster boy for LA’s corporate elite and as commander-in-chief of the LA Police Department. “[W]e cannot tolerate nonviolent civil disobedience… Those who insist on using such tactics, . . . like Gandhi and King, must be prepared to pay stiff fines and face arrest and jail.” More disturbing was that despite the fact that most of the demonstrators coming to LA were white, there would be at least three marches—the “Free Mumia,” the Bus Riders Union, and the immigrants rights marches—made up predominantly of people of color. This raised the stakes of police retaliation since controlling people of color is one of the LAPD’s main roles.

Riordan stated that the demonstrators’ “sole intent is violent disruption” and outlined his support of the police using of rubber bullets and pepper spray because “they will be confronted with demonstrators trained in violence, and the police will have to be tough.” Though for the most part the police restrained themselves, when they did go after demonstrators they were more than “tough” in their actions and, as always, acted as a force for political repression for the City of LA and, by extension, for Al Gore and the Democratic Party.

Months before the convention, I saw LAPD riot police practicing their tactical maneuvers at a subway station close to the BRU (Bus Riders Union) office. They ran in columns at the underground platforms and formed a skirmish line in front of the escalators leading to and from the subway trains, preparing themselves for the dreaded hordes plotting to disrupt subway service or some other nefarious thing. The LAPD also utilized a bus layover parking lot and lined up in well-disciplined columns, lunging and sticking their batons at imaginary protesters.

Also disturbing were the LAPD’s attempts to spy on certain groups that were planning demonstrations. Some weeks before the convention, a BRU training workshop on organizing around the D2KLA among LA’s bus riders was visited by two undercover police officers.

The officers asked questions about who would be the presenters at the workshop and what kind of topics would be discussed. We told the officers that we would be instructing people on the tactics of organizing on the bus, how to distribute flyers and other basic organizing techniques. Eventually the cops excused themselves to have breakfast and never returned. Who knows where they went after that but I am sure they and other officers visited other organizations. They even added to the ranks of the demonstrators as news items reported on undercover cops participating in the marches and rallies.

“Free Mumia Abu-Jamal; Brick by Brick, Wall by Wall!”

Sunday, August 13, eve of the 2000 Democratic National Convention, saw more than 7,000 people participating in a “Free Mumia Abu-Jamal; End the Racist Death Penalty” March and rally, the first and considered the biggest of the many D2K marches. The march was placing in front of Al Gore and the Democratic Party the demand for a new trial for the African-American political prisoner and journalist. For protesters, police, and city officials, this march was to serve as bellwether for the balance of the week’s protests.

The protesters, representing a wide range of Left, radical, and progressive causes, had gathered in historic Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles. In the previous weeks, the city and the LAPD tried to forbid the use of Pershing Square, a location with a rich history in LA’s progressive community akin to New York’s Union Square, as a gathering spot for protesters. But a court decision struck down any ban as unconstitutional, and the many groups, including our own Bus Riders Union, were able to launch their protest from the square. The crowd then moved along Broadway, downtown LA’s major thoroughfare, in a festive and feisty march.

As the marchers made their way to the convention site, the aptly corporate-named Staples Center a mile or so away, thousands of LAPD officers assembled on side streets. Sporting their black riot gear with dozens of strands of plastic bands for handcuffs festooned from their belts, they seemed to be anticipating a confrontation “with demonstrators trained in violence” as LA Mayor Richard Riordan warned in his LA Times editorial.

According to Jim Lafferty of the LA Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild (one of the organizations in the national coalition to get Abu-Jamal a new trial), it was the largest march held in LA supporting Mumia, bringing by far the most extensive national and international press coverage to Mumia’s struggle so far. But while the march was a public relations success for the coalition, the political success was not forthcoming. Civil Rights leader Jesse Jackson, a confidant of Bill Clinton and Democratic Party stalwart, spoke at the rally, calling for the need to free Mumia and end the death penalty that targets mostly African-Americans and Latinos. But this did not move Al Gore or Democratic delegates to respond and take up the cause for which Jackson spoke so eloquently. This issue spoke too much to America’s racism, a taboo subject like civil rights and affirmative action that a key sector of the white electorate frowns on and that Gore won’t touch lest he alienate these voters. We hope that Mumia will be freed but Al Gore, let alone George W. Bush, won’t be the one to do it.

The Police Take a Stand

Things took a more ominous tone the following day. After an evening concert by the political rockers Rage Against the Machine at a stage across from the Staples Center (another legal victory for the protesters), a few young white demonstrators tossed rocks and bottles over a fence at police. The police used this as provocation for what the ACLU called “nothing less than a police riot.” They pulled the plug on the next band, Ozomatli, after one song and told the crowd to disperse. But when the crowd didn’t move fast enough for the police, they broke out the billy clubs, rubber bullets, pepper spray, and projectile beanbags to move them along quicker.

This action again raised concerns of many organizations, including the Bus Riders Union, over possible police brutality. For many people of color, myself included, the police department is a paramilitary force that occupies our communities with impunity and protects the ruling class. Most of us fear the police and with good cause. The recent scandal at the LAPD’s Rampart Division, where officers routinely planted guns and drugs on Latino gang members to fortify the cases against them and to justify shooting them, is not an example of a few “bad apples.” It is standard operating procedure for all LAPD divisions, and is tacitly supported by the mayor and his police chief, Bernard Parks, an African-American all too willing to perpetuate this structurally racist status quo.

Our members wanted to participate in a militant march and didn’t want to walk into a police ambush. Our objective was complicated, however, by the presence of the Direct Action Network (DAN), one of the key forces at the WTO protests in Seattle. A loose network of “affinity groups” with no observable leadership structure, DAN is a mostly white grouping with significant participation by anarchists, such as those who confronted the LAPD at the Rage concert. The Bus Riders Union had a significant struggle with DAN over strategy and tactics. As Eric Mann, co-chair of the BRU Planning Committee and director of Labor/Community Strategy Center, stated in an interview for the National Organizers Alliance magazine Ark:

We told them the Strategy Center was an anti-racist, anti-imperialist organization, and we saw tactics, including “direct action” as determined by time, place and conditions. They said that their main goal was “direct action” and they planned to have an action every day. We were worried that a group that defined itself by a tactic not a strategy would be in danger of walking into a police ambush, as well as being restricted permanently to a white middle class base that equated militancy with radical or revolutionary politics.

We also had concerns about structures of accountability. While the Planning Committee of the Bus Riders Union was our locus of decision-making and leadership, the numerous “affinity groups” making up DAN were autonomous and made their own decisions, and DAN, though they tried for consensus on decisions among the groups, could not control each group’s actions. Our responsibility to our base, mostly working class and poor Latino immigrants and African-Americans, was paramount in our planning for the DNC and we had legitimate concerns over mostly white “affinity groups” provoking the police into attacking that base at any event organized by the Bus Riders Union. These disagreements led to the BRU voting to have no organizational affiliation with DAN. We encouraged individual members in DAN to join our actions, but any organizational affiliation to DAN would have opened us up to potential police retaliation, and our members felt that it was essential that we be in control of our own march and that whatever happened tactically was our responsibility.

The Progressives Try the Inside

While groups were protesting outside, it was the hope of some of these groups, including the BRU, that our issues could be raised inside the convention as well. We even discussed what kind of tactics we could use to do that. And there were attempts by more progressive Democrats to put some issues being addressed by protesters onto the platform of the Democratic Party or to at least be debated by the committee. Months before, the Southern California Americans for Democratic Action (SCADA), an organization of left-leaning Democrats, was led by its president Lila Garrett, executive director Jim Clarke, and its members, like California State Senator Tom Hayden, to form a progressive caucus to submit these issues to the Democratic Platform Committee.

The caucus’s three main issues, universal health care, fair trade not free trade, and closing the income gap between rich and poor, were liberal and hardly radical, even for a Democrat. But the Democratic Party, led by the Democratic Leadership Council, saw the liberals as a threat and fought hard against raising these issues or even allowing the caucus’s request for a hearing to reach the committee. After all, the platform had been crafted by the Gore campaign and they would brook no efforts to change it.

For weeks before the Platform Committee’s July meeting in Cleveland, Hayden (a Gore delegate) and Clarke tried to get the list of names and addresses of the Platform Committee members from the Democratic National Committee but were constantly told that the list was not ready. Clarke did secure the list from another source and then called the Democrats again to ask for the list. The main office said again that the list, already in the hands of the caucus, was still not ready. Such was the democracy of the Democratic Party.

The progressive caucus had organized close to a hundred delegates, among them Congressmen Dennis Kucinich and Barney Frank, to support the three items as well as a fourth added by Frank to remove any reference in the platform to a missile defense system. The caucus arrived in Cleveland and laid out a full court press—news conferences, a reception for the Platform Committee members, stickers—and lobbied committee members on their issues. While there may have been support for the issues from some of the committee members, the rules the Democrats set for the committee made it clear who was in charge of parliamentary procedure.

The maker of any motion to amend the platform had to be a member of the Platform Committee. Luckily, Gloria Allred, a prominent progressive LA attorney, convention delegate and member of SCADA’s progressive caucus, was a committee member and she proffered the motions. But any motion, by Democratic Party fiat, also had to be seconded by not one, not two, but fifteen members of the Platform Committee! Suffice to say the four progressive amendments went down in flames. The long arm of the White House even reached out and touched Kucinich with a phone call asking him to back off Gore during one of the caucus’s press conferences. He declined to comply with the request.

The Bus Riders Union Hits the Streets

Weeks before the convention, the Bus Riders Union was looking for ways to get its demands in front of Al Gore. We had filed a class action Civil Rights lawsuit against the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) in 1994 for racial discrimination for taking money from a bus system serving eighty-one percent people of color and using it to build commuter rail lines to mostly affluent white communities. The Consent Decree we signed with the MTA in 1994 to settle the lawsuit called for a major reduction in bus overcrowding and for expansion of bus service. In March 1999, the federal court even ordered the MTA to buy 350 new buses, but the MTA appealed the ruling and the case has been languishing in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals since the spring of 2000.

Since the Democrats were coming to Los Angeles, we felt we needed to raise these issues with Gore. As Eric Mann said in the Ark interview:

Given that the Democratic Party has fraudulently presented itself as the party of the working class, the party of blacks, Latinos, Asians, the party of women, the party of the environment, and has co-opted so many unions and community groups, we felt it was important that social movements put their struggle in front of the Democrats.

We were hoping that maybe we could create some openings by putting pressure on the Democrats to deal with a civil rights issue. Our goal was to move Jesse Jackson, Maxine Waters, and other progressive Democrats to take a stand. We were trying to pressure Governor Gray Davis to get funds for the Consent Decree. Maybe Gore wouldn’t stop a rail line but maybe he could find the money to buy the buses the court had ordered and for future expansion of service. This was the context within which we were thinking as we began talks on what we would do, if anything, at the Democratic National Convention.

For months before the convention, the BRU Planning Committee struggled over what role we could play at the convention. There were many dilemmas to deal with. One was our concern over the legitimate fear our members, mostly people of color, had of the police. Some of our members are undocumented aliens who are always worried about their status. Others are citizens of color who knew the role of police as an occupying force in their neighborhoods. We also had a concern about the presence of demonstrators like the ones who had already provoked the police at the Rage Against the Machine concert. Could we control a march of 500 disparate people under the ever-watchful eye of the LAPD and avoid a confrontation with them?

Another concern was whether our demands would get lost in the plethora of other demands being brought to the streets of Los Angeles. Up to the convention the media obsessed over whether there would be violence. Very little of the coverage concerned the actual demands of the protesters. Could we have a clarity of message that could get out to the media as well as to the people?

And finally we had concerns about turnout. We had made sure with the D2K network that a time slot from 12 noon to 3 p.m. was open and that we were the only march scheduled for that time. But it was a workday and our base is mainly working class people of color. Could we ensure a large multi-racial, working class and anti-racist crowd at the march?

The Planning Committee proposed to hold a march and a rally on Tuesday, August 15. We took the proposal to the general membership meeting in July and after much discussion over the concerns about the police, the membership voted unanimously to support the march and to attend in full force. Our members distributed over thirty thousands flyers during the following weeks, volunteered for phone-banks to mobilize other members, and went to other organizations to enlist their support for the march.

And we made sure our message was clear. We developed three main demands on Gore, avoiding the laundry list approach. They were:

– enforce Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by withholding federal funds to the MTA because of its racially discriminatory policies.

– cut off all federal funds to LA for rail construction.

– support the BRU Civil Rights Consent Decree by leveraging a billion dollars to buy 1,000 new clean-fuel buses to reduce overcrowding, to offer new county-wide service, and to remedy transit racism.

We held a successful press conference a week before the convention to highlight our demands and to announce the march. We ran a full-page ad in the Western edition of the New York Times on the first day of the convention asking Gore “What side are you on? Civil Rights or Racism?” We expected many of the convention delegates to see the ad and hoped they would come to support us as well. The ad generated other media stories on the Bus Riders Union march. We also had new yellow BRU T-shirts with the demands emblazoned on the back as well as placards with the demands and Gore and Bush’s face on them for any news photographer or TV news camera to capture. We also created a banner stating “Stop Transit Racism” in English, Spanish, Tagalog, Korean and Chinese.

But as we gathered at noon at MacArthur park in the mostly Latino immigrant neighborhood of Pico-Union, we were worried. There were at most a hundred people, half of them BRU organizers and staff, and our spirits started to sag. But little by little people trickled in and our hearts rose as we soon had the largest crowd ever for a Bus Riders Union event, over a thousand people.

Street performers donning masks to represent Al Gore and a cadre of his corporate supporters (Occidental Petroleum, Chevron, etc.) tried to block the marchers but were vanquished by giant puppets portraying BRU members in their signature yellow T-shirts. A BRU member took to the mike on a mobile sound truck and let loose with her improvised rap lyrics that incorporated the demands of the march. And the Bus Riders Union’s nascent street theater group had center stage across from the Staples Center with a skit parodying Al Gore’s dismal civil rights and environmental record and ending with BRU members chasing him off the stage.

It was difficult to get press coverage considering that the media consistently focused on tactics and police. However, La Opinión, LA’s Spanish-language daily, covered our march and demands, the Long Beach Press Telegram carried a big picture of the event, and an LA Times editorial focused on our demand for a moratorium on rail spending. We were interviewed on Pacifica’s Democracy Now, AP radio, and other radio shows.

As we marched we were met with an outpouring of support and genuine affection for the BRU from the people on the streets, which inspired us even more. Latino construction workers on their scaffolding cheered us on, storekeepers waved support, and people off the street joined us for a distance. Black and white office workers came down and cheered us, as did a group of predominantly white attorneys who even recognized the BRU’s signature yellow T-shirts.

The Bus Riders Union was also able to strengthen ties with new progressive organizations. Two of these are the Youth Organizing Committee, a multi-racial anti-racist student group very active in the Seattle protests, and the Coalition for Educational Justice, an organization of progressive teachers demanding the reinstatement of bilingual education and other reforms in the LA school district.
At the end of the convention, many of the groups were simultaneously encouraged by their own organizing but disheartened by the response of the Democrats. The Mumia supporters had a major demonstration, the students of color marched for affirmative action and against racial imprisonment, the BRU had its most successful mass march. But as the Democratic Party kept even its own liberal delegates under house arrest, the demonstrations were far more successful in radicalizing their participants about the Democrats’ unresponsiveness than in directly impacting the issues in the convention or the election.

Exploring the Nader Option

After the convention we decided that one way to broaden our coalition was to make an overture to Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate for President. He has a reputation for integrity in struggling against corporate power, and seeing as our struggle with the MTA, a public transportation agency, was confronting the influence of corporate power over its transit policies, we felt Nader would jump to the challenge. We felt that if Nader called attention to a major civil rights issue in the city where the Democrats had just held their convention, we might leverage Gore to take a stand supporting the BRU’s Civil Rights Consent Decree and thereby get federal funding for the MTA to comply with the court order. We were sorely disappointed.

At the August opening of the Green Party campaign office in Highland Park (a predominantly Latino community of Los Angeles), Nader was the keynote speaker. Over twenty Bus Riders Union members and organizers attended the event and from the outset we had grave concerns. One, the crowd, over four hundred strong, was ninety-five percent white, a disconcerting thing for me, a Latino, especially when this office was in a Latino stronghold.

Second, I was distressed by an act of apparent male chauvinism on Nader’s part. Before Nader arrived, Medea Benjamin, executive director of the progressive organization Global Exchange and a candidate for US Senator from California, was rousing the crowd with a bi-lingual speech in Spanish and English challenging US imperialism. In the middle of her speech, Nader strode in, late as is the policy of most politicians, and cut Benjamin off in mid-sentence.

Third, Nader’s obsession with discussing the evils of corporate capitalism subsumed any discussion of race and civil rights. When he talked about the prison/industrial complex, it was not in terms of its racist nature of locking up mostly African-Americans and Latinos, but more as a corporate evil taking jobs away from US workers. When people shouted from the floor, myself included, that this was racism, he agreed and said it was racist, but the word seemed to stick in his craw.

From the floor I asked Mr. Nader if he would support the demands we had against Mr. Gore and if he would help us challenge the MTA’s racist and corporate-dominated policies. His answer was a condescending “Well what do you think?” rather than an encouraging “Yes, I will” or “Let’s talk about that after the meeting,” and response from the “progressive” Greens in the room was that I should shut up. At the end of the program I approached Mr. Nader with a copy of our New York Times ad with our demands and our phone number on it. Mr. Nader did not acknowledge my presence but one of his staffers took the flyer. We have yet to hear from Mr. Nader on this issue.

Afterwards, we talked amongst ourselves and pretty much had the same opinion of Nader and the Greens. Here was a grassroots civil rights and environmental organization seeking help from one of the biggest challengers of corporations and pollution in the US. Our assumptions that our cause could be something he would support wholeheartedly, maybe not on the civil rights aspect of the BRU’s work but certainly on its anti-corporate aspect, were dashed. Many of us felt, after talking with other organizers around the country, that the Nader campaign would not be a major tactical arena for advancing the anti-racist civil rights struggle.

What the Hell Do We Do Now?

As this is written, votes are still being counted in Florida, where Bush retains a razor-thin margin. Gore is jogging around Nashville and not answering press questions. By the time you read this we will know who our president is, and in either case the Left will have a lot work to do.

The long-term ramifications of the protests at the DNC are still being analyzed by the participating organizations. For the Bus Riders Union what was confirmed again was that independent social movements must be built to put pressure on elected officials and that an electoral strategy for the Left will most always be met with repression, either politically or by other means.

Following the convention, the BRU could have focused on electoral issues but instead focused on supporting the transit workers’ mid-September strike against the MTA. For a month BRU members and organizers walked picket lines, passed out flyers explaining the workers’ fight for a just contract, and attended rallies supporting the drivers.

With the strike over, we are now part of a new alliance of MTA unions and other labor leaders, elected officials, clergy, and community organizations. We are mobilizing these and other forces to an MTA public hearing in November, to stop bus service cuts that the MTA is trying to make so as to save more money for its boondoggle corporate rail projects. We are involved with crafting a bill in the state legislature to create a partially elected MTA Board of Directors that could give the BRU the opportunity to elect a director sympathetic to our goals. There are many opportunities open to us now to win our demands and forge a labor/community alliance to do it. This could not have happened if we had chosen to focus on elections and candidates.

I am convinced, now more than ever, that any independent social movement against corporate capitalism must be driven by an anti-racist, anti-imperialist, multi-racial Left, and must have at its core a leadership of people of color and women. To challenge capitalism, the Left must forge national and international alliances with indigenous groups, people of color, and anti-racist whites. For me, that is why continuing to build the work of the Bus Riders Union is so important. The D2K events brought many of these different groups together and maybe, just maybe, this alliance can continue to be formed.

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