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Commentaries and Criticisms with Attitute

Alternative Convention Dimensions
by David Burak

Welcome to a neighborhood in the Twilight Zone. This is a story about some of the activities in the alternative dimension which paralleled, and sometimes intersected, the Democratic National Convention. I just left the second day of the Shadow Convention at Patriotic Hall, where Jesse Jackson gave a rousing call to battle stations. It reminded me of a cross between William Blake's "Jeruselum" ("Give me my Chariot of Fire") and U2's cut from "Joshua Tree," ("I believe in Kingdom Come... & I still haven't found what I'm looking for.") Most of all, it was vintage Jackson. "The Constitution without the Bill of Rights is a sham," intoned the Reverend, and who could, in theory at least, disagree, with the exception of Benedict Arnold and his ilk. However, Jesse and Congresswoman Maxine Waters before him, pointed out that the "land of the free," has several standard operating procedures which could be called double.

Jesse pointed out that "80 percent of those in jail are there for nonviolent crimes." Ms. Waters noted that "African American men are imprisoned for drug crimes thirteen times more than others." She then declared, "with Bill HR 1681, we intend to correct the misguided policy of mandatory minimum sentencing. This 'lock 'em up and throw the key away' policy has got to stop."

Rev. Jackson's exhortation to renew the activist tradition continued. "We wrote the Voting Rights Act in blood, and it was signed in ink. We'll make America better by fighting back... The worst 'ism' isn't racism or sexism.... it's cynicism." Jesse, emitting almost mythical levels of energy, told the audience of about 750 that he would be speaking that night at the DNC, and he would call for a moratorium on the death penalty. Christians should be particularly willing to support this, he commented, as "Jesus was born under a death penalty and executed by the Roman government."

A couple days earlier, I had a "through the looking glass" experience. I ventured downtown on Sunday afternoon to have a look at the Direct Action Network Convergence Site. The (predominantly) young activists operating out of that headquarters had, with the help of the ACLU, just won a court order which prohibited the LAPD from making undesired visits on the pretext of investigating safety code violations and such. The large space was a beehive of activity. Despite the heat, the energy levels were like those in a crowded videogame arcade. However, this was serious business; people were painting posters, preparing dinner for hundreds, constructing large puppets, and, on the second floor, having quiet tactical and philosophical discussions.

My guide on this little journey was David Abrami, a student at U Mass, Amherst, and a "veteran" of the demonstrations in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. "I once made a brief pilgrimage to Emily Dickinson's house and sat on her porch for awhile, hoping her muses would communicate with me," I said.

Abrami, whose father is a rabbi, gestured toward a group of about 20, sitting in a circle, having a meeting. "We're trying to develop non-hierarchical methods of decision-making," he said.

"That's great," I said. "We worked on that in the 60's, too. You've heard of S.D.S.?" It kind of rang a bell, but, after a few moments, I had to tell him the letters stood for Students for a Democratic Society.

As I started my tour of the Direct Action HQ, I met Christina Yugay, a native of St. Petersburg, Russia. "You must find this fascinating, coming from a society where protest is suppressed," I said.

"No," she said, "now the KGB has trouble suppressing non-formal ideology." (As I was writing this, the jukebox began to play the Beatles, "Back in the USSR... you don't know how lucky you are.") "Americans are raised to be obedient and never question the laws," Yugay added.

"We have a tradition of protest in America, pre-dating the Boston Tea Party. This isn't the case in Russia," I said.

"In the US, it's likely you'd turn in your neighbor. Americans are much more conservative," Yugay responded.

"Maybe if you live next door to Dennis Rodman or a crack house," I said.

Returning to Patriotic Hall, I caught a presentation by Keith Stroup, founder of NORML, America's leading marijuana legalization group. "A marijuana use is arrested every 52 seconds. We're needlessly destroying the lives and families of hundreds of thousands of decent people," Stroup contended. Then Rep. John Conyers, (D-MI) said, "we must develop ways to divert nonviolent drug offenders out of the prison system. Also, after people have done their time, they should be allowed to vote."

In a panel on poverty, Prof. Peter Dries (Occidental) declared that "40% of working people in LA earn less than what it takes to achieve a basic standard of living. The top 50 in LA earn more than the bottom two million. Lisa Has, representing ACORN, a community group, contended that "we have to educate our children in fields that aren't so crowded, so that they have a better chance to get a job." She also called for a simplification of the procedures for getting on welfare, "so people who need to can get on."

During the Town Meeting on Thursday, many of the speakers called the five days of communication the "most meaningful event" in which they'd ever participated. A variety of individuals thank organizer Arianna Huffington for her efforts in putting the Shadow Convention together. "There will be more," she promised.

David Burak is a poet & freelance writer who teaches literature,
composition, & creative writing at Santa Monica College.
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