Every four years, liberal activists follow political power brokers and the world media to the Democratic and Republican party conventions, filling the streets with spirited protest against war, corporate domination and environmental destruction.
This year there’s a twist: Many protesters will demonstrate outside a convention that will nominate the first black major-party presidential candidate in history, who is opposed to the Iraq war and was once a community organizer and activist in Chicago.
But Barack Obama will not get a pass from demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention. Activists say they are wary of his shift to the center since he secured the nomination last month.
“We’re hoping he can remember his roots and, through these mass rallies and protests, we can move him,” said Glenn Spagnuolo, a spokesman for an umbrella group coordinating the Denver protests, provocatively named Re-create ’68.
In Denver as well as in St. Paul, Minn., the site of the Republican National Convention, activists are already skirmishing with city officials over where and when they will be allowed to demonstrate. But different dynamics are forming. In Minnesota, activists are eager to contrast their views with the Republican Party’s pro-business agenda and support for the Iraq war.
“People are coming from around the country to stand side by side and show how angry Americans are at the state of the country,” said Jess Sundin, spokeswoman for the group coordinating protests in Minnesota.
As many as 50,000 people are expected in the Twin Cities -- so many that activists are asking farmers to let demonstrators camp in their fields.
“Why go to Denver if you can be here protesting the important political issues being raised this year: the war in Iraq and the Republican way?” Sundin said.
In Denver, where activists say as many as 25,000 may show up, some demonstrators are taking pains to explain that they are not against Obama.
“People are looking to him to end this militarism, end this assault on civil liberties,” said Carolyn Bninski of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center. “A lot of people feel he will make a lot of changes.”
In recent years, protesters have caused headaches for cities holding political conventions. Authorities have sometimes taken controversial steps to keep demonstrators from disrupting the proceedings.
In 2000, the Los Angeles Police Department broke up a politically themed rock concert adjacent to the Democratic convention at Staples Center, using pepper spray and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd of 8,000 after a small group of anarchists pelted them with glass bottles, concrete and metal rods.
The city paid $4.1 million in lawsuit settlements with demonstrators who were injured or contended they were arrested without cause during other protests.
About 90% of the New York Police Department’s 1,700 arrests of activists during the 2004 Republican convention resulted in acquittals or dismissed charges, spurring allegations that the department had preemptively arrested activists to cut down on protests.
Denver and St. Paul have been bracing for controversy. Denver officials won’t talk about police tactics, but they promise to respect activists’ rights to demonstrate legally.
“It is a tricky balancing act to accommodate the interests of everyone who is coming to Denver to participate in convention-related activities,” said Denver City Atty. David Fine. “We are creating an environment which will maximize the ability of people to speak.”
In both cities, the local chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union are suing on behalf of protesters, contending that the cities are forcing the protesters into areas that activists have dubbed “freedom cages” -- which are out of earshot of the delegates -- and allowing marches only during hours when the conventions are not in session.
St. Paul City Atty. John Choi said the city had already altered the parade schedule and mapped the route to get marchers “within the very shadows” of the arena where the convention will meet.
“I honestly don’t know how to make these folks happy,” Choi said.
Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado, attributed the restrictions to increased sensitivity about security since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He said federal officials had initially labeled the parade route in Denver confidential because of national security concerns.
Spagnuolo, the Denver protest organizer, cited Saul Alinsky, a legendary Chicago organizer who was a major influence on Obama, to explain why liberal groups needed to protest at the convention nominating the Illinois senator.
Spagnuolo said Alinsky argued that activists would have a better chance of achieving their goals if they pressured people sympathetic to their cause. “You protest the person closest to your beliefs,” he said.