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Seattle Times Political Caucus

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 29, 2008 4:19 PM

Celebrating Denver's rebellious minority

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

Freak power is alive and well in Denver, for better or for worse. Throughout the week Christianists with five-foot-tall color posters of aborted fetuses have been demonstrating downtown, as have a smaller group of screwball lunatics protesting homosexuality. There wasn't much subtlety to the large sign that read "HOMO SEX IS SIN," or the hateful gibberish propagated by the man holding it. Counter-demonstrators gathered, one with a sign denouncing "Christiain fascism," apparently made in a bit of haste as she had misspelled the word "Christian." Fairly soon after I arrived on the scene of that particular standoff, riot police showed up to act as a barrier between the two groups, and I left to find more aberrations to a city otherwise overrun by mild-mannered Democrats.

The delegates to the convention took to the gentrified downtown like tics on a dog. It was in their nature to feed on what they were bred for, and considering that most were well off enough to be able to afford coming to Denver, they wallowed in all things bourgeois with a visible lack of interest in the overall state of the city. Strolling away from the bizarre pro-theocracy demonstration from earlier, I passed dozens of fancy restaurants whose outdoor seating teamed with suited men and well-dressed women, all with their laminated convention passes proudly displayed. The ad hoc police state didn't seem to bother them, and the cultural mutants of all stripes who had come out of the woodwork to spice up the week were actively disregarded. Nibbling away at overpriced meals and sipping red wine, there was a general detachment from the very reality around them.

It wasn't long before a man dressed head to toe in bright pink clothing glided by on an equally pink bicycle, peace slogans written both on his bike and his own gender-bending attire. Moments later I saw two more, riding about the streets on bikes covered in pink tassels, with pink stockings, pink skirts, pink shirts, pink paper crowns with pink signs saying "Impeach Bush," "End the War," but nothing explaining their affinity for the color pink. Every few blocks I walked more pink peace bikers sped by, always in groups of one or two. This was undoubtedly the work of Code Pink, the peace group that tenaciously disrupts congressional hearings from time to time with the help of their favorite color. While most were women, a few men had joined in the fun for the convention.

This was quite a contrast to the bulk of the anti-war folk in town, overwhelmingly pissed as hell and wearing red and black. Smiling men in tutus touch a different part of the brain than the angry young socialists the body politic tends to associate with Molotov cocktails and clenched fists. While the former had strength in bright colors and positivity, the latter excelled in mobilizing large blocs of people that were impossible to ignore. It was the difference between guerrilla and conventional warfare, the goal of both being to convey unconventional messages to an immobilized general public.

The city of Denver had spent $50 million on security to ensure that organized dissent would be confined and muffled. One wonders how many low-income apartments and neighborhood health clinics could have been built with the same amount of money. While in my experience the police were very professional and friendly as individuals, when given orders to attack in formation, brutality reared its ugly head. Mass arrests of demonstrators occurred the first day, plus the incarceration of an 80 year old man returning books to a library. Groups of armored men rode on the outside of police vehicles, speeding off to various places at all times of day. The enormous posters of Barack Obama on the sides of buildings added a cult of personality to the formula, as did the periodic whir of helicopters and sirens in the distance.

But this was America, and rampant commercialism took the edge off the multimillion dollar lock-down. There must have been hundreds of individuals hawking Obama gear to anyone who came near them. While I had sympathy for the humble T-shirt peddler, it was the pushing of environmental snake oil that was truly shameless. Billboards for "clean coal," ethanol, and filthy corporations attempting to green-wash their own awful records were ubiquitous. Even the free soft drinks being distributed by promoters had messages on them describing how their bottles used 30 percent less plastic than their competitors. I wanted to think that no one could possibly be dumb enough to fall for this transparently dishonest marketing campaign, but then again Barack Obama was promoting "clean coal" and ethanol himself as part of his energy policy.

The urge to be strange just for its own sake also manifested itself. While walking by one of the few circles of hippies scattered about downtown playing drums for money, a young man dressed as the Dark Knight's Joker held up a cardboard sign that read "Smoke Weed! Do it!" while commanding all bystanders to do the same with his loud menacing voice. "@#%! smoke weed! Smoke it! Mother @#%$ smoke weed now!" Enjoying the theater, I followed him for a while, only to encounter another Joker, hellish grin and all, with a Harvey Dent for President poster on the corner. Yikes, I thought, the tender delegates will never set foot in Denver again. My appetite shifting for something bigger, I changed direction to head to the park to see what might be metastasizing there. Five frowning men holding McCain signs walked by, followed by a team of 10 riot cops determined to prevent a brawl. My feet were tired and the heat and altitude weren't helping my quest to be at as many places as possible.

But I made it, prodded along by an enthusiastic Denverite playfully walking behind me singing "Vote for Obama" through a megaphone, bobbing his head with such satisfaction that I wondered if Obama was just an excuse to share his warmth with the public. His glow stood up to the militant crew of burly men in the park, all wearing matching "9-11 was an inside job" T-shirts. They looked like they had been the targets of violence before, and were prepared for it. Further away, bad folk music echoed from a stage while much better visual art was on display nearby. Without much to do, and riot police watching everyone, I decided to leave, though not before picking up a flier for an "Open the Debates" rally with Ralph Nader.

Why not? If the Democrats had taken over the city, then it would be enlightening to step inside at least one rebel enclave not in danger of being raided by the police. I had caught sight of a few of Ralph's supporters downtown, who at their own peril milled about in Ralph Nader T-shirts. Nothing provokes the same level of hate and contempt from the otherwise docile Spineless Democratus than to inform the creature that your vote will be given to America's Jedi instead of his or her own nominee. The beast begins to stir and is quickly aroused into a fury, gnashing its teeth with the kind of rabid intensity one would think it would reserve for Republicans. Ralph has done more for this country than any other individual alive today, and it is my firm conviction that the man is immortal, bound to run for President again and again until he wins the job in 2136 and America finally gets a single-payer health-care system.

I had to see how those at his rally stacked up against the Obama supporters. When I arrived, Denver University's Magness Arena was filled with 4,000 left-wingers, cheering with unbridled enthusiasm as each speaker made his or her case for opening the debates to all third party candidates. Cindy Sheehan called George Bush a boil on the ass of democracy, one that should be lanced, but only as a treatment for a deeper disease that would take longer to cure. One woman, obviously touched by the event, stood up from the audience and gave over $4,000 to the Nader campaign, while others followed, some tearfully telling how much it meant to them to have someone who tells it like it really is. Ralph came on to thunderous applause, his speech climaxing with the statement that "if we emptied the prisons of non-violent drug offenders, and filled them up with criminal CEOs, watch how quickly the food in prison improves." In the middle of his speech, I recognized Austin radio host Alex Jones quietly take a young cameraman up to the front of the arena and then leave for the back. I gulped in anticipation of a "9-11 truth" disruption, and a few minutes later it came, someone shouting "9-11 was an inside job!" from the back of the room. The heckler was quickly shouted down but Ralph didn't seem to notice.

I saw him later that night in a cafe I visited, his co-conspirator Jello Biafra laughing heartily as Ralph in
contrast slowly chewed his food, tired and methodical like the rumpled asexual he is. In the midst of conversation with a new pal, I plotted to buy Ralph a drink as soon as we finished talking. A few geeky organizers from the rally came up to the bar and began to order beer, one of them crudely hitting on the stressed out bartender but deservedly getting shot down in a lesson in manners I doubt he'll remember. In time I looked up and the enigmatic Ralph Nader had disappeared.

So many questions. Did he really think he was helping to spark a nationwide social movement by running for President over and over again? I saw the merit in the most prominent voice on the left of the American political spectrum doing what it took to be heard. People needed to be reminded that there are more policy options than what the two major parties were giving them. But why did he vanish between elections instead of transforming his campaign's network of volunteers, donors, and e-mail recipients into a participatory grassroots organization capable of local direct actions and community organizing? Maybe he didn't know how. Or maybe he wanted us to do it for him.

Ralph Nader, Code Pink, the rowdy socialist protesters, the 9-11 truthers, even the mischievous demon in the Joker make-up were another side to the convention that probably most of the people gathered in Denver would prefer to sweep aside. They were gadflies, provoking discussion at the price of other people's tranquility. Every authentic leader in history spoiled the system of their time, disrupting the status quo and letting their ripples speak for themselves. The feral side to public discourse existed because our mainstream was too narrow for everyone, and they demanded their voices be added to it. By the end of the week the rebellious minority had won my loyalty, proving on the discordant streets of Denver that diversity, however uncomfortable for some, was better than the alternative. And that, we should all acknowledge, is what democracy is all about.


On the last day of the Democratic National Convention I awoke later than planned, a situation compounded by my delayed realization that the clock on my laptop was off by an hour. I rushed out the door to make my way to Invesco Field where Barack Obama was going to be accepting his party's nomination later in the evening. Without a car, a ticket, breakfast, or credentials of any sort, I was determined to get inside. I found the start of the queue to Invesco downtown and walked with it for the better part of two hours, joining tens of thousands of others in crossing a freeway that the city had shut down to facilitate foot traffic, asking everyone who might know how to get inside.

"They're all sold out."

"No way in hell."

"I've got a ticket but I bought mine for $300, so you're going to have to beat that."

It was all rather frustrating, marching uphill for hours in the blazing sun, crowded in a slow-moving line, hungry and demoralized. How no one died of heat stroke was beyond me, but at least we were approaching a half-way point on the route, where the people in line could stop for food or gaudy merchandise. At the same bend that designated the upcoming oasis of refreshment a small protest was raging, demanding that onlookers accept that the decrepit Democratic Party was but one of two wings of the same bipartisan junta plundering the world for the sake of Dick Cheney, Warren Buffet, the Pope, 50 Cent and the Queen of England. Two young socialists berated a man trying to sell them overpriced water, yelling "@#$%-off, man! You shouldn't be trying to rip-off people for the nectar of life!" I asked them if any more demonstrations were going to happen, and they advised me to follow the existing protest moving down the street around the stadium, eventually handing me a free burrito in a gesture of good will.

I munched away in despair, taking pictures but unable to come to terms with the fact that I could get a seat on the hill overlooking the stadium at best. Then a homeless guy sat down next to me and cracked open a tall can of beer. "You want a ticket?" he asked, explaining how his cousin hooked him up with one to sell so he could get a dinner and a hotel room for a night.

I told him yes, but I didn't have quite the money he was looking for. We sat there looking down at the stadium while he drank. His words were slurred, his comments vulgar, and he was missing a front tooth. But his ticket was undeniably real. After awhile he left to try to sell his ticket elsewhere, asking me to watch his plastic bag of energy drinks he had picked up for free from a promoter. An hour and a half passed while I guarded his treasure, but he never returned. My jealousy grew as I watched people shuffle along towards the arena.

Finally Al Sharpton walked in line below the retaining wall I was sitting on, strutting along as if to flaunt the
fact that he was going where I couldn't. At that point I snapped, frantically looking about for someone with a
ticket, even if I had to betray my location and the very energy drinks I swore to the friendly hobo I would protect. I looked up and a muscular guy in an Obama sports jersey waved a ticket in the air.

"I'm not gonna rip you off like those other guys out there bro. Bro, I'll sell it for one hundred."

"Deal!" I blurted out, running off to the ATM and returning for my prize.

I clenched the item and jumped in line, wading through the next mile of zig-zagging paths surrounded by chain-link fence. From where I was, Al Gore could be seen on a giant digital screen inside the stadium, no doubt nagging the Democratic Party faithful about the environment in as monotonous a voice as possible. According to someone in line Obama was due to make his speech in a few minutes. At the entrance of the building, I grumbled as I passed through a security screening as intensive as any airport's, though finally conceding to myself that at least Al Sharpton wouldn't have the upper hand. After another twenty minutes of pushing my way past the masses clogging the stadium's hallways, I made it to the section written on my ticket, only to be turned away when an event guide informed me it was full and I would have to go to another section. Ugh. I pushed through more blank-looking human obstacles lining up for hot dogs and fried lard or whatever this place was selling and made my way to the tip top of Invesco Field, panting from exhaustion and finally collapsing in my seat.

Taking it all in, I realized I had a bit more time than expected. Dick Durbin took the stage, a pathetic hack of a politician, as did Joe Biden, Narcissus incarnate who at least had the courtesy to keep his self-adulatory prattle to a minimum. The men in the audience disproportionately gave praise to Joe, but everyone rose to their feet when the Centrist Messiah took the stage.

Black, white, men, women, young, old, though especially young, screamed like spectators in the Coliseum of ancient Rome as their celebrity gladiator took center stage. All were united in fervent praise for their Leader, whose voice made time stop for tens of thousands of impassioned onlookers.

I was scared. They loved this man, and trusted him. They knew he represented the better angels of our nature, and I knew he did not. He spoke of civility in politics, which I was sure he was sincere about, but when he got to policy specifics, I was terrified at the applause he continued to garner. They really trusted him.

Natural gas, "clean" coal, "safe" nuclear power. He promised a revolution in unclean, climate-collapsing
boondoggles, all to "end our dependence on Middle Eastern oil within ten years." But the United States was never addicted to using Middle Eastern oil, it was addicted to controlling it. Most of our imported oil was coming from Canada and the Atlantic basin.

When he promised to escalate the war in Afghanistan, the crowd cheered as well. My God, I thought, only Obama could get away with this. His promise to send tens of thousands more American soldiers to prop up a corrupt coalition of warlords under the leadership of a former Unocal consultant in a mountainous terrain perfect for guerrilla warfare didn't resonate with me. As the crowd cheered and whooped, I sat alone in my seat, unclapping and disturbed at the ease at which one man could move so many decent people to support something so wrong.

A couple of smiling women wanted me to take their picture as Obama left the stage and fireworks erupted all around us, that night on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech. I could see the dreams in their eyes, sparkling with hope and an enrapturing belief that for once they had a champion in which to put their faith. I couldn't tell them that I lacked their enthusiasm for Barack Obama. They were too beautiful in their optimism. The camera flashed and I noticed that even though Obama wasn't in the picture, people were still celebrating. Over 80,000 people weren't cheering for him. They were cheering for hope itself. And that was something I could believe in.

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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