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Commentary :: DNC
08 Jul 2004
This FAQ is intended to be an orientation to the protests and other events around the Democratic National Convention (DNC) for people who aren’t part of the movement and want to find out more about why people are protesting, who those people are and why they are doing what they are doing. Most of what appears on the Boston Independent Media Center’s (IMC) website assumes that you are already part of the movement or at least familiar with it. If you are not part of the movement and are trying to figure out what’s going on from the rest of the website, you may end up feeling a little lost. We intend this FAQ to be a remedy to that.

Disclaimer: While we try to represent the views of various activist groups in this FAQ, the Boston IMC does not claim to speak for all or any part of the movement. The ideas here also do not necessarily reflect those of the Boston IMC as a whole or its members.

1. Why are people on the left protesting against the Democrats?

Most people on the left feel like the Democratic Party no longer represent popular interests--the interests of working people, women, people of color, queers, and people who want a clean environment and world peace. Indeed, many would argue that the Democrats never represented popular interests and that they have always been a party of the elite, representing the interests of big business, big finance and the military-industrial complex.

There have been times when the Democratic Party did enact policies that represented popular interests--welfare legislation, worker health and safety legislation, civil rights and affirmative action, and environmental protection laws. Democratic politicians never did so of their own accord though. They always did so in response to popular pressure from below--the labor and welfare rights movements of the 1930s and the civil rights, women’s, queer, and environmental movements of the 1960s and 70s. They did so both because they were trying to contain and co-opt social protest and because they were looking for a broader electoral base. Some Democratic politicians may have been genuinely sympathetic to these movements as well, but were not in a position to do anything until there was a lot of heat from below. While some of the legislation the Democrats passed in response to popular pressure may inconvenience big business, none of it has ever genuinely threatened the power of big business as a whole.

The social movements that once put a lot of pressure on the Democratic Party to pass popular legislation have grown weaker and many Democratic politicians no longer feel the need to be as responsive to them. The leadership of the party has moved to the right. If we want to make the Democrats specifically and the political system as a whole responsive to popular interests once again, it is necessary that we revitalize popular social movements and turn the pressure on the elite back up. The protests against the DNC are part of that process.

There are also many on the left who will not be participating in the protests against the DNC, mainly those in large, liberal organizations like the AFL-CIO (the main federation of labor unions in the US), the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the National Association for the Advanced of Colored People (NAACP). While these people are certainly critical of the Democratic Party leadership's move to the right, they still consider them better than the Republicans. Although they may be lukewarm in their support, Democratic politicians nonetheless do not actively oppose reproductive rights and affirmative action. They also still support some labor-friendly measures like raising the minimum wage, even as they support the forces of corporate globalization that undermine labor. More to the point for these liberal groups, they do not see any viable alternative to the Democrats now since no left-of-center third party is very strong.

2. But isn’t getting Bush out of office the most important thing?

Many people participating in the protests against the DNC agree with this and will actually vote for the Democratic presidential candidate. They nonetheless feel that is it is important to keep the pressure up on the Democrats to force them to be more responsive to popular interests and less responsive to the interests of big business. Many of these people pursue an insider-outsider strategy, trying to put pressure on the Democrats to move to the left both by working within the party and by protesting outside of it. Others will vote for the Democratic presidential candidate just this one time because they see the Bush administration as exceptionally bad.

Many other protesters reject the idea that we should simply settle for voting for the lesser of two evils and will vote for an independent like Ralph Nader or the candidate of a third party like the Greens. Although they oppose the Bush administration and the Republicans, they also think that the Democrats are so beholden to big business interests that they are part of the problem. Instead of trying to work with them, we should be building an alternative party that will really represent popular interests. If we keep putting this off to fight the greater of two evils by supporting the lesser of two evils, we will never get around to building that alternative. Some supporters of third parties advocate a “safe states” strategy: people should only vote for third party presidential candidates in states where it is certain that all the electoral college votes will go to either the Republicans or the Democrats; in states where it could go either way, people should vote Democratic in order to defeat Bush.

Finally, another group of protesters reject voting altogether. These people believe that the electoral system is so hopelessly flawed as a way of creating social change that it is part of the problem. Instead of trying to work with it, they think we should boycott it as part of a wider strategy of working for social transformation and social justice.

It should be pointed out that there are also large protests (1, 2) happening against the Republican National Convention--most likely far larger than anything that happens at the DNC. There is thus no way that the Republicans can take advantage of the protests against the DNC for their own benefit.

3. I’ve heard that there are anarchists involved in organizing the protests. What’s up with that?

There are indeed anarchists involved with organizing the protests. “Anarchism” and “anarchist” are terms that are very much misunderstood these days. Many people think that anarchists are terrorists or anti-organization. These are both wrong. To avoid the negative connotations of “anarchist”, some anarchists call themselves anti-authoritarians or libertarian socialists.

Actually defining anarchism is a little tricky because it is a broad movement with a lot internal disagreements. The following is a definition that most anarchists would probably be comfortable with though. Anarchists oppose all systems of domination, any situation where one person or group of people is able to control another person or set of people’s life--whether it’s the boss at the workplace, the old-fashioned patriarchal family where what father says goes, or the nation-state where some people pass laws and others obey them. Many anarchists emphasize opposition to authority (thus the term “anti-authoritarian”), that is a system where it is generally considered right for one person--a boss, a state official, a military commander--to have the right to give another orders. Many anarchists particularly emphasize the struggle against capitalism and the state first and foremost (thus the term “libertarian socialism”), while those anarchists more influenced by the movements of the 1960s also emphasize equally opposition to racism (1, 2), sexism, homophobia, and humanity’s domination over nature.

As an alternative to the top down hierarchies through which our society is usually organized now, anarchists advocate bottom-up decision-making through participatory, inclusive democracy, sort of a permanent town hall meeting. Typically, they emphasize decentralization and making decisions at the community level wherever possible, with communities forming federations to deal with issues that can’t be dealt with locally. The basic idea behind all this is that people, both as individuals and communities, should be able to run their own lives democratically without other people controlling them or giving them orders. In order to achieve this future democratic, communitarian society, anarchists try to structure their own organizations along radically democratic, communitarian lines as well. Anarchists thus do not oppose organization--they just advocate a very particular type of it.

Every movement has its lunatic fringe, and a small number of anarchists have embraced terrorists like the Unabomer. The vast majority of anarchists oppose terrorism and are not crazy about violence in general--they support its use only when other means of securing social justice have failed, a position most people would agree with. Many anarchists are in fact pacifists and see any use of violence in working for social justice as counterproductive.

The most obvious anarchists in the protests will be those dressed in black and wearing face masks, a tendency in the anarchist movement known as the Black Bloc. Many anarchists, however, don’t engage in Black Bloc tactics and prefer to work with community organizations most of whose members are not anarchists. Although they will stress things like democracy and community empowerment in their organizing, they will not necessarily be in your face about their political philosophy.

4. Aren’t all of you protesters a bunch of upper middle class, white kids?

No. There are in fact many individual working people and people of color and community groups representing them involved in the Boston DNC Coalition, which is organizing some of the protests. These groups include Project Hip-Hop, the Madison Park Development Corporation, and the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation.

That said, upper middle class, white youth are sometimes overrepresented at protests. This is not because more working people and people of color don’t support the issues the protests are about--often more of them are supportive of these issues than upper middle class, white youth. Working people and people of color, however, are often struggling to make ends meet and have trouble taking time away from their jobs and families to protest. Because upper middle class, white youth have fewer responsibilities and more flexibility, they have an easier time making it out to protests, where they are using their privilege to help those who are not as privileged. That said, it would be better if the movement found more ways, like scholarships and child care, to help working people and people of color to be able to come to these protests.

5. Why are some people protesting in a way that is so confrontational and disruptive? Why can’t they just have a legal march?

Some protesters do think just having a legal march is the best tactic. These marches will be happening the Sunday before the DNC officially starts. Many activists, however, think a combination of a legal march and more confrontation, disruptive tactics (known as “direct action”) is necessary. Most supporters of direct action believe such confrontational actions should remain nonviolent though--while being disruptive, protesters should not attack other humans. Direct action is necessary to create the popular pressure from below to force members of the elite, like the leadership of the Democratic Party, to change the way they do things. If there is only a legal march, the elite can ignore it if they wish--just as the Bush administration ignored the popular anti-war marches. When social protest is disruptive enough, the elite are forced to take action to control it so business as usual can go on. This may involve repression, but it may also involve granting concessions to social protest groups. Many social movements, such as the labor movement and the civil rights movement, won their victories through the use of direct action. Although direct action may sometimes disrupt the lives of ordinary people, they are not meant to be the target--the targets are the elite who have the decision-making power. That is one of the reasons protests are organizing around big meetings of the elite, like the DNC.

6. Why are some protesters destroying property?

This is a very controversial tactic within the movement. Only a small number of protesters, mostly radicals, actually engage in it. They distinguish property destruction from violence, arguing that something is violence only if it is directed against living beings, not inanimate objects. They usually choose their targets carefully, selecting chain stores and other representatives of big business, usually ones guilty of particularly outrageous acts, like union-busting or environmental destruction. They target them as a way of calling attention to and putting pressure on them to change their business practices. Such protesters do not target small businesses. If someone has attacked a small business, they are either a non-political person taking advantage of the chaos to loot or police agents trying to discredit protesters. At large protests in other cities like Genoa, Italy, police have actually dressed up as protesters and destroyed small businesses.

Whatever one thinks of these tactics, it is worth pointing out that the amount of destruction they cause is trivial compared to the destruction of human and other life caused by poverty, violations of worker health and safety laws by big business, environmental pollution and wars. The focus should not be on a small group of protesters, but on the destruction done by the larger system against which they are protesting.

7. What groups helped organize the protests?

The Boston DNC Coalition (BDNCC) is organizing a series of neighborhood "People's Parties" in public parks on Sunday, July 25, the day before the DNC starts. These parties will be within shouting distance of places where delegates to the DNC will themselves be having parties and thus hopefully turn up the pressure on them. The BDNCC is backing the Fund the Dream Campaign, a project of the Black Congressional Caucus to have the military budget cut and the money put into social services,in accordance with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream. Unfortunately, the BDNCC has been dogged with controversy, with many activists accusing its central organizers of working in a heavy-handed, undemocratic manner. This may result in low turn-out for its People's Parties.

The Boston branch of International Act Now to Stop War and End Militarism (International ANSWER) is holding a march against the Democratic Party on that same Sunday before the DNC. ANSWER is also a very controversial organization, with many activists charging that it is a front for the Marxist-Leninist group Workers World Party, which they also charge with being very undemocratic, both internally and in its dealings with other organizations.

The Socialist Party (which is an advocate of democratic socialism, not Marxist-Leninism) is holding a Dump the Democrats march on Monday, July 26 to protest the limits of what advocates of social justice can accomplish under the two-party system.

The Black Tea Society is an anarchist group who have organized a convergence center (meeting space) for other radicals. They are planning two major events for the DNC. On Tuesday, July 27 they will host a Really, Really Democratic Bazaar on the Boston Common, during which people will give away goods and services for free, in a generally festive atmosphere. The idea is to create an event that looks like the society that anarchists want to create. They will also be hosting meetings to coordinate the actions of small groups (known as affinity groups) that are planning a variety of independent actions on Thursday, July 29, the Day of Action.

United for Justice with Peace, the main Boston-area anti-war coalition, is holding a protest on Wednesday, July 28, entitled, "What have we become?: Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib." The focus of the protests are against the violations of international law by the US government in its war "against" terrorism and its occupation of Iraq, plus the loss of civil liberties here in the US as a result of the USA PATRIOT Act. The goal is to pressure John Kerry and the Democratic Party to take a stand against these violations of people's basic rights. The protest are being co-sponsored by Boston Mobilization, a local student activist group; the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), one of the major defenders of civil liberties in the US; and Representative Dennis Kucinich's (D-OH) campaign for the presidency.

Finally, there is a 258-mile Democracy Uprising march planned from the Democratic National Convention to the Republican National Convention, calling for a reinvigoration of community-based, grassroots activism as the solution to our social ills, not mere participation in electoral politics.

8. What is the Boston Social Forum?

The Boston Social Forum (BSF), which is happening the weekend immediately preceding the DNC (Friday, July 23-Sunday, July 25), is a meant to be a place for groups from all over the left end of the political spectrum to engage in dialogue with each other and to begin to find a way out of the crises facing the American left. It is not meant to be a counter-convention to the DNC, but a place where progressive groups who both oppose and support the Democrats can come together. The organizers of the BSF are also hoping to showcase the best ideas of the left while the mainstream media is in town, in order to counter the charge made by critics that the left has no alternatives to offer. The organizers are not planning to issue any points of unity or to create a coalition at the end of the conference--they are instead interested in the cross-fertilization of ideas and the creation of stronger activist networks.

The Boston Social Forum is inspired by the World Social Forum (WSF), of which four have been held now, three in Porto Allegre, Brazil, one in Mumbai, India. They were set up as parallel meetings to those of the World Economic Forum (WEF) that happen every year in Davos, Switzerland. At the WEF meetings, business and political elites from around the world gather together to informally network and make plans to advance globalization. Since it is a closed, informal meeting, there is absolutely no democratic accountability, even though many of the decisions made there have a huge impact on people all over the world. The WSF was set up to create a place for grassroots social activists from around the world to engage in similar networking and to develop visions of a better world. Unlike the WEF, the WSF has not tried to produce a single plan for the direction of the world, but tried to create room for multiple visions and foster cooperation among different social justice groups. While the elite have said of globalization, “There is no alternative”, the slogan of the WSF is, “Another world is possible.”

Regional and local Social Forums have been held in many other places as well, including a European-wide Social Forum. The Boston Social Forum is thus part of a much larger process within the movement.

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