By Ben Corbett
The 2008 Democratic National Convention would have been incomplete without the tongue-in-cheek cheerleader troupe, the Missile Dick Chicks, who drove up from Crawford, Texas to try and sneak into Denver's Invesco Field during Obama's nomination speech. Their mission? Bribing democrats to vote yes on war. Prancing around outside the football stadium and posing for photos decked in red, white and blue, their over-the-top high jinx were a perfect fit for an over-the-top week of politicking. Somebody had to satirize the otherwise serious convention, and despite their denial (“Oh no, we're not activists! We're Republicans!”), the Missile Dick Chicks made activism fun this year, just like they did back in 2004.
The overkill in security was an exercise in estrangement. Any reasonable human was asking: “Why the $50 million federal infusion of cash just to cover security during the four-day event?” Was it the fear that the Missile Dick Chicks might blast their rockets into the stadium and cause untold destruction? Could the people involved with protest group Recreate ‘68 or the Alliance for Real Democracy with its Tent State encampment at Cuernavaca Park be a threat to the status quo? The entire city looked like a high security lock-down with every venue wrapped in double perimeters of iron fence. And the clusters of cops dangling from every street corner with full riot gear at the ready took on the appearance of a police state during Martial Law. Denver even converted an empty warehouse into a processing center, complete with razor wire cages, preparing for mass arrests. But aside from Monday night's scuffle between 300 Recreate '68 protesters and Denver police that resulted in 114 arrests, fortunately there was less violence than expected by both authorities and demonstrators. Other than the occasional scrape between protesters and law enforcement for the rest of the week, things remained pretty tame.
It was the 40th anniversary of the 1968 Chicago convention that, 40 years ago, melted down into riots and teargas and mayhem. Besides William S. Burroughs and author Terry Southern, who covered the event for Esquire magazine, other personalities took part in that historic week, such as outlaw journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who ran around in his football helmet dodging nightsticks, as well as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, who spent the next year or so in and out of the courtroom during the Chicago Seven trial. So those who came to Denver for the 2008 convention to demonstrate and speak out brought along the spirit of those times, or at least the hopes of reliving a similar spark, and a will to unite against the war in Iraq – this generation's Vietnam.
The tempo got off great with a Michelle Shocked/Jill Sobule anti-war concert Monday night, followed by a free Public Enemy show on Tuesday afternoon. But it was Wednesday's surprise free Rage Against the Machine reunion concert held at the Denver Coliseum that became the orgasmic peak of the week. Joining Rage on stage to benefit Iraq Veterans Against the War were State Radio, The Coup, Flobots, with special appearances by Jello Biafra of Dead Kennedys and Wayne Kramer of the MC5, who participated in the DNC 40 years ago. Charged up by Rage’s 10-song set that launched with “Guerrilla Radio” and “Testify” and encored with “Wake Up” and “Killing in the Name,” the crowd was ready for action.
After the show, Rage guitarist Tom Morello and singer Zach de la Rocha invited the almost 10,000 who attended the concert to join them and 60 members of Iraq Veterans Against the War along with Vietnam vet Ron Kovic, author of Born on the Fourth of July, in a four-mile march to Denver's Pepsi Center to protest the war in Iraq. The thousands of picketers chanting anti-war slogans arrived to a wall of police armed in full riot gear. Tensions ran high, but violence was thwarted when officials inside the venue capitulated, agreeing to meet IVAW and hear them out. The IVAW demanded an immediate end to the war, full benefits for veterans of the Iraq war, and reparations to the Iraqi people.
Later that evening, as Bill Clinton and Joe Biden prepared to address the crowd at the Pepsi Center, across town at Denver University, Ralph Nader’s “Super Rally” got underway. Representing third party candidates, Nader himself is running as an Independent, the main gist of the event – called “Open the Debates” – was to protest the major parties' denial of third party candidates to participate in the presidential debates. However, the event turned into an intense anti-war, anti-corporate affair with 4,000 in attendance. With little to no security, no fences, no pat-downs, no metal detectors, and no cops, the Nader rally made for stark contrast with the DNC going on downtown with its high-tech, Big Brother security installations.
After a wicked speech by the Green Party’s vice-presidential nominee Rosa Clemente, demanding rights for Puerto Rico, and pre-recorded videos of Green Party presidential nominee Cynthia McKinney and Libertarian presidential nominee Bob Barr, longtime activist Cindy Sheehan took the stage, beginning the rally, which was dovetailed with appearances by political musicians Nelly McKay and Ike Reilly. Naming the Republican and Democratic parties “The Dastardly Twins,” and calling president Bush “a boil on the ass of Democracy” that needed to be lanced, Sheehan told of losing her son Casey in Iraq.
“My son was stolen from me by the twins,” Sheehan, who is running against Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in California, bellowed emotionally. “My son was sent to fight and die and kill people for the military-industrial complex.”
“Unless we cure the disease,” she continued, “the boils will continue popping up.”
The event, broadcast on Free Speech TV, continued to produce prominent activist speakers.
“I'm the half-Kenyan Harvard grad who's not running for president,” said Tom Morello (The Nightwatchman) leading a couple of acoustic songs from his solo disc, One Man Revolution, and later engaging the crowd in a sing-along to Woodie Guthrie's folk song “This Land is Your Land” with lyrics revised to address today's political sentiments. Morello told the audience that Guthrie's song was written in a socialist spirit to mock Irving Berlin's anthem, “God Bless America.”
Capping the night was Nader's long speech attacking corporations, criticizing lack of relief for Hurricane Katrina, highlighting prisons overpopulated with petty offenders, the need to end the War on Drugs and legalize marijuana, and challenging Obama and McCain to an open debate.
But actor Sean Penn's speech, sandwiched amidst the five-hour presentation, stole the show. Explaining how he sometimes does journalism on the side, Penn mentioned the stories he wrote about the Iraq war, an election in Iran, and other “common sense” observations that he made in areas of conflict and war.
“You have to excuse my voice,” said Penn, joking about the DNC. “I've been numbing myself on punch at this prom. And it is a prom.”
“I stand here today as a supporter of no candidate, neither of the two dominant parties nor the independents,” Penn began. “I stand here today not as a representative of the Hollywood community, but simply as a citizen. Simply as one of you.”
“Each generation's responsibility is to be more complete than the last in its commitment to constitutional principles,” Penn continued, speaking of America's eroding rights in face of the Patriot Act. “The major parties are both running candidates who not only approved the constitutional misuse of FISA warrants but also supported retroactive immunity to telecommunication companies that violated the public trust, violated the rule of law, and violated our constitution, again and again in the current administration with unlawful and un-American wiretaps.”
“I'm sick of this high school with suits on called the Democratic and Republican Parties,” said Penn. “They snicker away debate like a clique of wormy snobs. The solution and our mission is to put all challenges on the table now, and to do that, we must have open debate.”
Ralph Nader speaking for third party candidates
Sean Penn speaking at Ralph Nader's "Open the Debates" rally
Activist Cindy Sheehan addressing the crowd
Tom Morello at the "Super Rally"
The Missile Dick Chicks