Atheists, Anarchists, and Steelworkers

LOS ANGELES—Today’s “Corporate Greed” protest march through downtown Los Angeles begins with a sublime moment of Political Correctness Gridlock. The march is the highlight of today’s “D2KLA” convention protests—the latest stop in the ongoing national tour by the anarchists, Greens, vegans, atheists, puppeteers, and sundry progressive rabble-rousers who have brought chaos to Seattle, D.C., and Philadelphia over the past year.

About 10,000 folks have lined up in Pershing Park when chaos sets in. The marchers are supposed to follow a stagecoach representing Wells Fargo’s corporate greed through downtown Los Angeles. It’s a very snazzy bit of political theater, organized by the anti-Wells Fargo United Steelworkers. Unfortunately, two very real horses are harnessed to the stagecoach, and this, you can imagine, is a disaster. The stagecoach has rolled half a block up 6th Street when a few protestors block its path. One of them begins yelling, “You enslave animals! This is bullshit! These animals are not volunteers. They are slaves! You’re denouncing corporate slavery, but you’re enslaving animals!”

The stagecoach lurches to a stop. A half-dozen animal rights activists—including a pair of PETAns in furry pig customs—sit down in front of the horses. They chant: “Let the horses go! Let the horses go!” The horses begin twisting nervously in their harnesses. One shits on the sidewalk, and a small cheer erupts. The march organizer, red-faced, ineffectually negotiates with the counterprotestors. He sputters, “These animals are highly respected by the United Steelworkers.” But after five preposterous minutes of back and forth, Redface bows to necessity. “Out of respect for animal rights supporters, who are valued members of the progressive movement,” the stagecoach is ditched at the corner, and the march proceeds.

This civil war is one of the few dark moments of a remarkably cheerful day of progressive protest. The march and the morning rally in the chain-link-fenced “protest zoo” by the Staples Center are far sunnier and more peaceful than the violent Seattle and D.C. protests. The menacing black-kerchiefed anarchists who started riots in D.C. and Seattle are heavily outnumbered here. Almost no one is carrying a gas mask. The LAPD and California Highway Patrol officers do their intimidating best: They are everywhere in huge numbers. All of them wear riot helmets—most visor down—and they carry their batons as if preparing to strike.

But even the Robocops don’t dampen the bonhomie of the D2KLA. “Vermin Supreme,” clad in a devil’s mask and star-spangled vest, announces that he is running for “Emperor of the New Millennium.” His campaign promise: “I am a politician. I will lie to you!” A posse of tuxedo-clad “Billionaires for Gore and Bush” circulates through the crowd with a banner: “Because inequality isn’t growing fast enough.” One progressive hands out flyers urging “Vote for yourself” in 2000. An anti-nuke speaker riffs that uranium mining “steals the being of the uranium, its living being, and turns it into a form of power called electricity.” Everyone cheers. The fragrant smell of pot fills Pershing Park.

The American Atheists keep a lonely but cheerful vigil in a far corner of the protest zoo: Dave Kong, the atheists’ California director, who bears an astonishing resemblance to Wayne of Wayne’s World, concedes that times have been tough recently, but that “10 percent of Americans support us.” (The atheists are not, remarkably, the most hopeless cause at the protest. That surely is the lonely gentleman who wants to stop the “Royal Norman” dominance of the United States. According to his flyer, two dozen U.S. presidents have been Royal Norman descendants of William the Conqueror, and they have “intentionally misruled” the country. He proposes a constitutional amendment to allow murder of any “Royal Norman” who strays outside the “RONO protection area without official authorization.” I ask him if he’s serious: “Deadly serious,” he replies.)

The D2KLA feels, in short, more like a giant street party than an act of progressive rebellion. That, I suppose, is appropriate, because it is clear that the defining Democratic message of the 2000 convention is “Let’s party.” Conventions have always been an opportunity for politicos and journalists to get drunk and call it work, but Los Angeles has taken the pleasure principle to its grandest extreme.

This will sound like hyperbole but it is not: Since I arrived in Los Angeles, I have not had a conversation with a journalist or political person that did not revolve around the question: “What parties are you invited to?” I feel like I am back in college. The principal activity of the day is discovering what parties are happening and how you can manage to get yourself invited. (Are you going to the West Wing party? What about Loretta Sanchez’s? Or anything with Karenna Gore? Nope.)

The Democrats—like the Republicans before them—are producing a convention drained of conflict, uncertainty, and drama. Every speech is carefully timed; every message polished; every dissent politely stifled. The Dems may be hosting four empty days, but they, like the protestors, are making sure they have a great time doing nothing.

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