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The Seattle Times Political Caucus is an online community aimed at adding diverse voices to our coverage of politics. How we'll use the Caucus will evolve over time. But the idea is to create a conversation with people of various backgrounds and political beliefs. As the election season unfolds, we'll ask participants to weigh in on key political questions and then post their comments here.

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August 26, 2008 3:14 PM

Conflicting vibrations in Denver

Posted by Richard Wagoner

This post is by Keith Houser of Bellevue, who is traveling to both Denver and St. Paul to "to observe history 'unembedded' and write about my experiences." Houser is a member of The Seattle Times Political Caucus.

By Keith Houser

When I arrived at Denver International Airport on Monday I was fueled by one hour of sleep and a thirst for information. I had approximately zero knowledge of the city I was entering and about the same level of experience with conventions of any sort. Stepping off the plane I immediately noticed about four young volunteers for the Democrats greeting newcomers to the city with welcome signs and cheery smiles. I grabbed a bottle of water from a store in the airport and glanced at the most prominent headline on the newspaper stand: "TO THE STREETS" was written in large type above a picture of angry protesters waving their fists at the camera. I'm not used to demonstrations generating much news coverage at all, regardless of the amount of people involved, but the paper had obligingly reassured its readers that their number was "much lower than expected."

Waiting for the bus I took in as much as I could. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, and the air was thick with a kind of bright heat that I'm not familiar with. The horizon was a perfect horizontal line, stretched for miles in all directions without so much as a tree to keep it varied. Lifeless dirt and yellow grass were the only details to a bleak landscape distinguished by its flat idleness. The people standing around my bench made eye contact with one another in a casual fashion Seattle should aspire to. Being several miles from the epicenter of this week's events I couldn't be too sure whether the mood I was reading was representative of the people of Denver or the kind of breed the Democratic National Convention attracts. Confident but politely subdued, the people around me were a mixed bag of young thoughtful metros and graying adults indifferently fiddling with their cell phones.

The airport loudspeakers informed me that the "terror level has been raised to orange," though the significance of this was lost on me as the "terror level" always seems to be above yellow and below red. I discarded the advice to be paranoid and climbed aboard the bus, taking a seat toward the back next to a geeky gentleman looking into a map of Denver. There certainly were a lot of nerds on the bus with me, though they were from a subgroup much more benign than our own khaki-clad computer industry drones, and marginally less socially awkward.

I was soon told by the nice dork to my right that there's a place near the convention center where over a hundred bloggers from across the country will be gathering to tap away at their keyboards throughout the week, for the hefty entrance price of a hundred dollars. It might be worth it to chat with politically minded folk who like to write, but I figured more good would come spending the same amount of money on beer with strangers. A man at the back of the bus loudly talked into his phone, proudly informing everyone there that "his carbon footprint would be zero" thanks to the bicycles provided to delegates for free. I was more impressed by the spectacle out the window, where neatly stacked bales of hay made a pathway from the road to the front of a large white tent. A big sign read "Road to the White House," though the fee charged by the enterprising lad who thought that one up was known only to himself and inquiring minds curious enough to pull over.

Once off the bus I noted the multitude of empty cafes and open parking spaces. Maybe the teams of police and security guards patrolling each block had persuaded consumers to avoid downtown. Or maybe Denver is always dead on Monday afternoons. Three bags in hand, I clumsily walked around the city center looking for a place to rest until a shaggy Greenpeace member made a stab at selling me something.

I tell him $15 a month is too steep a price for saving the planet. He persisted as I steadfastly denied him access to my bank account, almost buckling under the pressure of his sincerity. A loud convoy of unmarked SUVs and police cars whizzed by. We paused as it roared past us, himself mentioning how annoying it's been with the police escorting politicians around the past two days. I asked him if there had been any disruptive protests and he assured me that they commenced the day before and will be going on all week. "Earlier today some guy was yelling at 'homos' down the street with a megaphone," he added. Odd, the thought of a hippie activist on the same block as a deranged bigot, both preying on the same crowd for opposite reasons. He finally let me go under the sole condition that we bump fists in solidarity.

Nearby I found a restaurant with outdoor seating, and umbrellas to protect my pitiful Irish skin from the oppressive sun. I demanded beer at once and soon I was scribbling notes on my legal pad with the kind of zest that comes with cold drinks in an alien environment. A waitress comes over and asks what I'm writing. "My heart is in humor but my mind is in politics. This is an attempt at some kind of synthesis. I will be King one day." She informed me that she also writes, though "mostly foo-foo poetry." In an eager stream of consciousness she tells me that she's an avid Ron Paul supporter and wishes she could go to Minneapolis to see his Rally for the Republic counter-convention like I am and that the recycling bins on every corner are new as of this week as are the surveillance helicopters and that I should go to Pat's on 17th and Market tonight to go play beer pong and take advantage of $6 pitchers. Two drinks later she gave me her number and left me unsure how to proceed.

I met up with my gracious host soon after. Unwilling to spend money on lodging, I had found someone online willing to grant me the use of their couch for free. Once off her shift, we went to her house to drop off my things, and sped off for a late afternoon tour of the city. The waitress from earlier had told me that a group of protesters were going to gather at the Mint and try to levitate it off the ground and shake the coins out of it. Driving by I could see a thick row of bizarre young people in front of the building chanting "Peace, Justice, Freedom" in unison, directing their mantra to the old building itself. Heavily armed police on horseback watched in confusion as the grinning unwashed vainly tried to lift the structure.

Concluding our tour we headed back to the apartment where I collapsed from exhaustion on the couch. After a solid forty second nap I was awakened, springing to attention to head downtown for another whiff of history. The sun was setting, and with helicopters overhead we walked along at a rapid clip. There was a large crowd of pedestrians, perhaps 100 in all, being forcibly pushed down a street perpendicular to our own. Police in black riot gear were forcibly clearing the streets, and not a protester was in sight. We avoided being clubbed or trampled, though the fate of others closer to the hardened boots and clubs was visibly less fortuitous. Resentment rippled through the onlookers and dozens more riot police marched to reinforce their fellow cops.

"Wow. I've never seen that before," remarked my associate.

"What, fascism?" I asked incredulously.

"Well, actually when the Broncos won the Superbowl, there were riots, but not since then."

I imagined that a jubilant outbreak of property destruction would be quite a bit easier to pacify than an ideologically charged angry mob. Either would be more difficult than pushing people around who just happen to be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. In keeping with the authoritarian aesthetic of the hour, storefront after storefront was crowded with police, particularly the Federal Reserve building and the nicer hotels and restaurants. Delegates wearing Obama T-shirts mingled with the locals, both migrating away from the turmoil a few blocks away.

We finally arrived at our intended location, and I took a seat at the bar. Lighting equipment with NBC logos printed on it had been set up in the other room, apparently for use later as they had been left unattended. The bartender had little use for the convention and had the TV set to sports. I scribbled down more notes until the guy sitting next to me decided to make conversation. He worked for a private security firm and was in town for business, also informing me that the police had been clearing the street I passed earlier to make a path for Michelle Obama, all the way from the Westin Hotel to the convention center.

The rest of the evening is something of a haze in my memory now. The locals were happy to talk with me, though as the night progressed their commentary became more slurred and tangential, shifting more from political conversation to base gossip with every passing hour until what was once thoughtful banter descended into the foggy realm of unconscious jabbering. From what I gathered, everyone seemed pleased that the convention was giving them something to talk about, whether they were Democrats, protesters, or hapless pedestrians shoved out of the way of our rulers. These days people hunger for controversy as much as inspiration, and so far the Democratic National Convention is providing all camps with at least one or the other.

Keith Houser, 26, describes himself as "a white suburban slacker from Bellevue with a knack for understanding belt-way intrigue and synthesizing global macro phenomena into a coherent world systems theory." He isn't affiliated with any political campaign.

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