Essay

GIVE DUBYA A HAND —GET VIOLENT

What’s the surest way to secure a second Republican victory? Trouble at the convention.

ANDREW POTTER August 30 2004
Essay

GIVE DUBYA A HAND —GET VIOLENT

What’s the surest way to secure a second Republican victory? Trouble at the convention.

ANDREW POTTER August 30 2004

GIVE DUBYA A HAND —GET VIOLENT

Essay

What’s the surest way to secure a second Republican victory? Trouble at the convention.

ANDREW POTTER

ON AUG. 30, the Republican party kicks off its national convention at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Delegates will be greeted by as many as a million protesters, by some estimates, including a fair number of Canadians. An army of 10,000 police officers— many of whom will be decked out in riot gear—will be on hand to broker the encounter, ready to display the very latest in crowd management techniques. Violence is on the agenda, and while New Yorkers themselves aren’t too keen, it would seem that both the

protesters and the Republicans welcome the prospect.

Among the demonstrators will be the usual gang of activists and anarchists who’ve been a familiar blip on the global radar since the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. Though they appear to be focusing their energies on one party—the Republicans—it’s clear that many of them see the convention as just another opportunity to advance the anti-globalization agenda, a notion that’s stupidly counterproductive, not to mention dangerous for democracy.

New York 2004 is shaping up to become a replay of Chicago 1968, when thousands of student radicals, civil-rights activists and counterculture rebels descended on the Democratic National Convention. There are some worrisome parallels, even beyond the matter of widespread anger over the escalation of an imperialistic war in a place many Americans couldn’t find on a map. In 1968, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley took a hard line against demonstrators, at one point giving specific orders to police “to shoot to kill any arsonist and to shoot to maim or cripple anyone looting.” At the same time, city officials made it very difficult for demonstrators to engage in lawful protest, by systematically denying permits to hold rallies and marches. When the tear gas finally cleared, 668 demonstrators had been arrested and 111 hospitalized.

Jump ahead to 2004, when police forces everywhere have adopted a militarized response to crowd control. Fences are often used

to corral demonstrators into bottlenecks, where they are met by riot police wielding clubs, Taser guns and pepper spray. Meanwhile, city officials have antagonized activist groups by denying them the right to assemble in Central Park, suggesting instead that they stage their rallies in Queens. Thus is the table set for a wave of violence that promises to make Chicago 1968 look like a rugby match.

For many demonstrators, violence is not an unfortunate hazard of legitimate political protest—it’s the goal. Like the student radicals in 1968, those heading to New York City are less interested in affecting the outcome of a presidential election than they are in catalyzing a social revolution. What they really object to are not the specific policies of George W. Bush and the Republicans, but the entire regime of representative liberal government and the economic system that supports it.

In Canada, we got a taste of this thinking during our own recent federal election, when the national media suddenly became obsessed with “alienated” young Canadians. In all of the articles about young people who did not intend to vote, it was clear that the widespread disenchantment with electoral politics was just another aspect of the general disaffection among youth who are weary from globalization and its capitalist consumer culture. Many appear to have been convinced by the old Marxist characterization of representative government as the “executive committee of the bourgeoisie.”

In its more updated form, the claim is that corporations have become so powerful, they exercise effective control over government.

You didn’t have to look very hard during the election campaign to find someone willing to fly a kite for this position, but for pure, unadulterated alienation, you had to check in with the Edible Ballot Society, a group that urged us all to go to the polls and eat our ballots in protest. On its website, the society argues that, “It doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government always gets in—the government being big

business, and those who can afford to fund political parties or hire lobbyists. The elected party is just the changeable mask on the face of corporate power.”

This attitude is on clear display among the anti-Republican protesters, though it promises to manifest itself in far more aggressive forms than ballot-eating. In a recent article in the online magazine Salon about the upcoming protests, a writer/activist named Jason Flores-Williams declares that the point of the rally in New York is to “instill fear into the power structure.” In the same piece, anarchist Jamie Moran says that, in addition to protesting Republican policies, he would “like to see corporations involved in the Iraq reconstruction get targeted— anything from occupation to property destruction.”

This should not be dismissed as the overhyped joy of the activist lunatic fringe, since there are plenty of reputable media and intellectuals pushing the same agenda. The Nation magazine—leftist, but hardly lunatic-

is promoting a pre-convention event called “Beyond Bush: An Evening of Visionary Resistance.” Featured speakers include the writer Vijay Prashad, Michael Albert of Z Magazine, and our very own Naomi Klein. In case the fundamentally revolutionary tone of the proceedings is not obvious, note that the event merely launches a three-day festival called “Life After Capitalism 2004.” The registration website for the festival features a line from a Zapatista communiqué as its epigraph.

What is most disturbing about the prospect of street battles in Manhattan is how it plays right into the hands of the Republican party. It is imperative that the decision to hold the convention in New York City be recognized as the deliberate provocation that it is. As the site of the deepest wound in the American psyche in a generation, New York symbolizes the nation’s anxious vulnerability. Across America, there are tens of millions of voters who do not agree with Flores-Williams when he says that an explosion of violence could be healthy and cathartic. They don’t want catharsis, they want to feel secure while they’re watching TV or ducking into Wal-

Mart. To the extent that the anti-convention protesters can be identified as at least potential supporters of John Kerry, the violence will only help secure Bush’s status as the homeland security candidate. The rioting helped Nixon in 1968, and it could very well help the Republicans again.

Perhaps the protesters don’t particularly care. It may be that the Edible Ballot Society is right: it doesn’t matter whom you elect, because all you get are different shades of status quo. Ralph Nader certainly thought so, which is why he decided to run for president in 2000, almost certainly costing Al Gore the election in the process.

But if you believe that it does matter, even just a bit, who wins the election, and if you believe that Al Gore might have declined to use 9/11 as an excuse to invade Iraq, then it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Nader has a lot of Iraqi and American blood on his hands. To the claim that democracy merely offers voters the choice of the lesser of two evils, the comedian Rick Mercer offered Canadians this unrefutable reply on election day in June: in a democracy, it is extremely important that the lesser of evils wins.

If you’re really invested in seeing Bush out of the White House, you’d do well to skip the protest in New York and stay home. Canadians: write a letter to your MP on a topic of national concern. You’ll be surprised at how thoughtful many of our parliamentarians can be when given the chance. If you’re an American, and you really hate Bush, spend the week volunteering at your local Democratic party office. Not as much fun as a street party with the culture jammers in Manhattan, but politics is not supposed to be fun. When Nov. 2 rolls around, you’ll finally have the chance to do something really radical for democracy. You can get off your ass and vote. fifl

Andrew Potter is the co-author of The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can’t be Jammed, available Sept. 25.