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Protesters in a Cage: The 2000 Democratic Convention

The 2000 Democratic presidential convention, the convocation that ultimately nominated those two Wild and Crazy Guys, Albert Gore and Joseph Lieberman, was held at the Staples Center, in Los Angeles, approximately 20 miles from my home. Because I was at that time the editor of a union newspaper, it occurred to me to apply for a press credential so I could cover the event.

I asked around and found out that the DNC people running the convention had already issued more than 1,200 press credentials to various journalists, photographers, writers, and chroniclers from all over the world.

Arguably, one more couldn’t hurt, particularly—considering the symbiotic relationship that had long existed between organized labor and the Democrats—one representing a union newspaper, albeit a tiny one.

Unfortunately, I waited too long. The 4-day convention was set to begin on August 14 and conclude on August 17. I’m am embarrassed to say that I didn’t request a credential until August 12. The person I spoke to told me that I had not only missed the cut-off date, but had missed it by a mile. The final day for issuing credentials had come and gone almost two weeks earlier.

When I asked why, with a mob of 1,200 already set to attend, he couldn’t see his way clear to squeeze in one more pilgrim, he said that they had to vet each application—confirm their affiliation, do a quick background check, issue printed ID badges—which takes time. He then scolded me. He scolded me for thinking I could just ask at the last minute and expect to be approved.

I knew a labor lobbyist (“Fred”) who worked in Sacramento. Assuming that Fred knew the right people in the DNC (which he did), I called him, apologized for the late notice, explained my problem, and asked if he could expedite the situation. He said it would be tricky at this late date, but promised to try.

He called back late that evening and told me there was no way I was getting in. Apparently, one of the people he contacted was the same guy I spoke to, who was in no mood to listen. He told Fred to “tell his little buddy” (me) that if I ever wanted to be taken seriously as a journalist, and “wasn’t just fucking around,” I needed to act like a professional. Ouch.

So, like everyone else, I was reduced to watching the convention on TV and reading about it the LA Times.

Even after all these years, I still remember several things. Congressman Harold Ford of Tennessee gave an inspiring speech as keynote speaker, and Bill Bradley, Jesse Jackson, and Bill and Hillary Clinton gave memorable speeches. If you like flowery, meaningless oratory, you would’ve enjoyed the 2000 convention. If you hate insipid, grinding repetition, you would’ve despised it.

It was Tommy Lee Jones, Al Gore’s roommate at Harvard, who officially placed Gore’s name in nomination. Why Tommy Lee? Well, let’s not forget that this all took place in Los Angeles, which is to say, Hollywood. And when you can get a real-life movie star to appear on national TV as the presenter, you don’t turn him down and go with, say, Christopher Dodd (who also happened to give a speech, and did fine).

But the most memorable thing about the 2000 convention was the handling of protesters. Fearing that there would be violent protests similar to the 1999 “Battle for Seattle” WTO riots, and still gun-shy from the insanity that followed the Lakers winning the NBA championship only a few months earlier, the Staples people decided to restrict the protesters to a “Protest Zone.”

Originally, this protest zone was to consist of an area located a full city block away from Staples Center. Responding to the objections of protest groups, a court order was immediately issued requiring the zone be placed next to the Center itself. But even with the zone now in an adjacent parking lot, it was enclosed with a chain link fence. Watching protesters would be like watching animals in a zoo.

There’s humor here. One can only imagine if the original location hadn’t been challenged, and the protesters had been dutifully herded into a fenced in area down the road. This might have been the conversation.

“Hey, why the hell aren’t there any protesters here?”
“Oh, you wanna see the protesters?”
“Yeah. I heard there would be a couple hundred people carrying signs.”
“Well, what you need to do is go down to that first light, hang a left, and then go down a block or so. They’ll be inside a pen.”

Only in La-La Land.

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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