From street-level, downtown Denver, a look at mundane, quirky, and otherwise ignored details of the Democratic National Convention.
A man rushes through the throngs on the 16th Street Mall, speaking loudly, but to no one in particular. I realize he’s using a Blackberry. He gesticulates wildly as he says, “The changing demographic changes everything. There’s no more need to go deep into the South, all that can be different.” He weaves down the Mall, still loudly explaining the Democratic strategy necessary for victory.
We walk to the other end of the Mall and cross the railroad tracks. We cruise by the Patrón Tequila Express and ask the security cop if it is a bar. No, he says, just a train car built in 1929, now part of the display of old train engines around Union Station. Flo asks if they are giving away samples. The cop laughs. Flo was serious. I wanted a tour, but that wasn’t happening either.
We wander by the MSNBC stage but don’t linger. We can see Chris Matthews on TV at home, if we really want to.
There’s a two-story tent near the Tattered Cover Book Store. People are rushing in and out. I ask the security guard (there is a lot of security in Denver these days) if it’s a private party. He perks up; I get the impression that not too many people have spoken to him while he’s been on duty. He’s a young guy. He says that it’s “sort of” a private party, but if we give our names and email addresses to the “young ladies” sitting at the tables in front of the tent, we can get in. I ask, “What’s it for?” He laughs. “I have no idea.” Then he adds, “I doubt it’s much of a fun party, if you know what I mean.” “Because of the people going in?” I ask. “Exactly,” he answers, and laughs again.
The Mall is beaucoup busy; and it’s easy to see that the Dems are playing tourist before they get down to the serious business of “Change.” We stand in line at The Market on Larimer Street for some refreshment. The guy who serves Flo a huge and marvelous piece of Spring Fling Cake and a cold Red Stripe to me looks at the bustling crowd, frowns then smiles and shakes his head. I say, “And it’s only Sunday.” The guy laughs. “You’re right. That’s classic.”
We run into our nephew and his pal in Larimer Square. They tell us that they were in the antiwar march earlier in the day. They had gone downtown to try to see a concert but it was a closed event. The two young men say they were surrounded by police because they carried peace signs on the Mall, something that apparently was illegal at that particular hour on that particular Sunday, and the two thought they were going to be arrested. The march was over so they ditched the signs. They say that out of the blue, the cops went into the crowd and dragged away a boy, “about nine,” for no apparent reason. They assume the kid was taken to the detention center/old warehouse. (There is nothing in the news later about a boy getting detained.)
We don’t see any celebrities.
Lunch time on the Mall is crazy with people – conventioneers, protesters, reporters, and cops – many, many cops. A young man wearing a yellow T-shirt, and appearing to have something to do with the antiwar marchers, speaks into a walkie-talkie: “Come in Boner. This is Hard-on. Calling Boner.” He sprints after the marchers, trying to catch up.
[To the right, your intrepid reporter strolls past bored policemen.]
People are taking pictures of the cops and protesters. Some get right in the face of the cops and snap a shot. The officers who look like blue-uniformed Star Troopers (helmets with visors, bullet-proof vests, cradling serious weapons) are especially popular with the photographers.
The conventioneers sport lapel badges or lanyards with convention ID (Arena, Perimeter, Hall, etc.) and wear T-shirts that say things like “Barack Star,” or are over-dressed (for August in Denver) in suits, ties, high heels. Two older women walk by carrying Hillary Clinton signs. They are lost in conversation and appear oblivious to the multitude of Obama signs, buttons, posters, and T-shirts that are hocked from kiosks and tables strung out along every block of the Mall.
Protesters sport T-shirts; black primarily, but there are other colors, and many with a message: “No War For Empire,” “U.S. Out of Iraq Now!” “Books Not Guns” is my favorite.
A troop of mounted cops rides by, following a protest march. The horses have visors and protective head gear; is this in case the tear gas flows backward? Red flags flap in the mid-day heat; the marchers chant antiwar slogans “One, two, three, four. Peace is what we’re marching for.” I stand on a corner to watch the unfolding scene and have to conclude that the cops and reporters heavily outnumber the protesters. The marchers veer off the Mall toward the Federal Courthouse. I follow and mix with dozens of cops in small groups, waiting. A group of cops is putting on armor – bullet-proof vests. A cop in another group shrugs at them and spreads his arms, as if to say, “What are you doing?” I hear one cop in the first group say to another, “Just helmets and clubs” and he uses hand signs to indicate that his group should take off the armor.
There are several protesters and multitudes of cops at the old Federal Courthouse; lines of cops in helmets and armor, carrying impressive-looking guns and rifles and very long truncheons; another group of cops on horses, a few on bicycles. Some of the cops march off in organized fashion, like a drill team at practice; others mill about, waiting. Two young black men dressed in yellow coveralls and black hoods follow a squad of cops, and a bystander says, “I wouldn’t mess with a bunch of guys in bulletproof vests carrying automatic weapons.” A man talks into his phone – “at the Federal Courthouse, but it’s quiet.” A woman tells her friend, “Nothing’s going on.”
My lunch hour is over and I walk back to my office. (Later, I learn that the protesters gave a water boarding “demonstration” and that several of the protesters wore yellow jail uniforms and black hoods as a protest against the continued violations of human rights at the Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp.)
Again, no celebrities.
About a hundred protesters were arrested last night near the Civic Center; pepper spray was used. The cops say the crowd refused to disperse and was coming at the cops after being ordered to stop. The protesters say the cops attacked without warning or saying anything. There's a video of the event here - judge for yourself.
Meanwhile, inside the Pepsi Center, Michelle Obama and Ted Kennedy celebrated the transition of power within the Democratic Party, while the pundits speculated about how the Clintons will handle the loss of power. Three powerful political families, each at a different stage in their political lives. Historical.
The Mall is heavy with pedestrians but I also get the feeling that the delegates have learned that there is more to Denver than the 16th Street Mall. The day is hot and dry. I hear someone say, “It’s just the next couple of weeks that are nice.”
There are fewer cops on the Mall. The overbearing high security paranoia appears to have been relaxed. Maybe the previous night’s theatrics appeased the adrenaline jones carried by cops and protesters alike.
Tuesday seems to be the day for wackiness. A large white truck waits at an intersection. There is a huge color photo on its side, which I don’t look at for long. A sign on the truck says: “Abortion is an Obama Nation.” A couple of long-haired, tattooed young men eye the driver. One says, “Should we go drag him out of his truck?” The other says, “You notice he has his window rolled up.”
At the next corner, a woman carries a sign: “Democrats – Stop Bird Porn.” Further along, two men are handing out Bird Porn pamphlets. One shouts through a bullhorn – “McCain is a bird watcher. Stop bird porn.”
A line of people stretches down the sidewalk. They are waiting for T-shirts, and then to have their pictures taken. The T-shirts say “Tacos for Obama,” “Burritos for Obama,” “Nachos for Obama.” I finally figure out that it’s a promotional gimmick for Qdoba and that the pictures are for the company website. I might have waited in line for a T-shirt that said “Chile rellenos con frijoles, arroz, y tortillas de maíz for Obama.”
I end up in a restaurant where I sometimes do eat chile rellenos, but today I order a chicken sandwich with chipotle BBQ sauce (allegedly). The crowd is a bit smaller than usual, so it doesn’t look as though the DNC has had a positive economic impact on the place. There is one difference – rather than the telenovela or Mexican music video that is usually playing on the television that sits on the bar, I watch the CSPAN2 broadcast of film from the 1960 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles, without sound. It’s an unreal situation. The restaurant staff is too young for the film to register, and when they do stop to look at the screen, it’s with bemused grins. LBJ goes on for several minutes, quite animated about something. The podium sign says Biltmore Hotel and LBJ is surrounded by dozens of white men and a few white women, who occasionally give him what looks like polite applause. Perhaps it’s a press conference. The camera angle changes and I recognize RFK, who looks bored. It is an eerie moment. RFK in the city where he would eventually die watches LBJ, who also has died, and who finally steps aside for JFK, another dead man. Kennedy is looser than Johnson, more friendly, and the spectators laugh as JFK flashes his famous smile. He is brief and when he quits, LBJ looks surprised; he wears a sheepish grin as he shakes JFK’s hand.
It's the day after Hillary has united the party and brought peace to all things Democratic with her clever and passionate speech on Tuesday night. Tonight her husband takes the stage and I'm sure there's a prayer being said by more than one Democrat big-shot along the lines of, "Please don't screw it up, Bill."
My trek along the Mall reveals nothing really new. A street performer stands still for several minutes and "portrays" a statute of a Colorado Rockie. Not all that exciting. A pickup truck decked out in red, white and blue bunting passes by. In the truck's bed is a giant cardboard cut-out of Obama standing in what is supposed to be a glass container. A sign on the truck says ObamaInABottle.
I stroll over to the Convention Center where DNC caucuses and smaller meetings are taking place. In the shadow of the Big Blue Bear I find cops (of course), and vendors (of course). Fourteenth Street in front of the Convention Center is a busy place and it is here that I pick up my first DNC souvenir - a cardboard pen from Coca-Cola Recycles. But the pen has no reference to the DNC, Obama, or the election, so it's not really a souvenir, is it?
The McCain camp has noted that Barack Obama is a celebrity, and there are many entrepreneurs who are willing to make a buck or two off that fact, including the Democratic Party. The official Democratic Party Merchandise Tent is across the street from the Blue Bear. This is where you can find several different T-shirts, badges, pins, pennants, etc., all sanctioned by the Party as legitimate. I was ready to buy an Obama bobble-head doll for $24.95, to add to the figurines that sit on the top shelf of my home office desk (Cheech and his giant bambú; three of the Homies bobble-heads, several Transformers and super heroes that I share with one of my grandsons, and so on), but the slow-moving line of customers stretched around the inside of the tent, and I had neither the inclination or the time to wait around.
More vendors have established themselves on the sidewalks. For many people, this convention is nothing if not about making a buck. The unofficial T-shirts include slogans like "McCan't," and a few of Michelle Obama framed in pink, to emphasize her femininity, I assume. There's a nice looking shirt that brings together Obama and Martin Luther King, Jr. The slogan is something about a dream.
I quit looking for celebrities.
Wednesday was quite a night for Democrats, wasn't it? The protesters also had a big night. Rage Against the Machine played a free concert and then the crowd of about 4,000 marched to the Pepsi Center, led by antiwar vets. The three demands are reported as: Out of Iraq immediately; complete health benefits for returning vets; reparations to the Iraqi people. Apparently the Obama camp has agreed to meet with representatives of the marchers, to give them a chance to officially air their grievances. The three points sound right to me. I hope Obama listens.
The Mall is abuzz with talk about Obama's upcoming acceptance speech at Invesco Field. Everyone is told to arrive early. The speech is scheduled for 8 - 9 PM but the folks I know who will attend are on their way to the field by 1 at the latest. Traffic, security, etc. Stevie Wonder, John Legend, Sheryl Crow, and Will I. Am are scheduled to entertain, among others, so I guess waiting in the football stadium for eight or nine hours won't be too bad.
There are more protest marches and alternative political gatherings today: marches supporting immigrant rights, marches against the war, marches to legalize marijuana. The news reports of these marches congeal into quick, fading images that float away like photographs dropped in a fast-moving stream. The commentators say that Chicago, 1968 was not re-created, "that chaos was avoided in Denver, thankfully." The politicians are quoted as concluding that it's been an exciting but relatively quiet week and that Denver has done a marvelous job; a reporter says that the protests have "diminished;" and one policeman remarks that the last evening has been a "calm ending to a good week."
I drive home from work across quiet streets. The crowds are gone, tucked away in Invesco, waiting for the man. The freeway is closed, so there is no rush hour. After the crowds and fevered stimulation of the previous days, I feel like I'm driving in a post-apocalyptic city, looking for signs of any other human being. But the radio reassures me that the masses are in the football field, and that the people are loud, boisterous and partying. I get a grip and appreciate the quick drive home.
As I conclude these notes it's about an hour before Barack Obama is scheduled to make his acceptance speech on August 28. It's hard not to get carried away with the excitement of the night. This is an historical, important event, happening on the anniversary of the historical "I Have A Dream Speech," which serves to emphasize the importance in case we do not get it. I allow myself the thought that the Democrats have probably over-played the night. Football stadium? Hours of speeches and popular music? A set so pretentious that it easily has become the butt of jokes before the speech has even been given.
But, hope is the key word tonight. Obama has raised expectations, and I assume that the remaining few months before the election will reveal more about his plans to meet those expectations. Tonight, the thousands of people in Invesco Field and millions watching on their televisions or computers are ready and willing to be moved, to reach for the dream and the promise, to let their hardened hearts be taken over by rhetoric and political poetry and visionary ideals. We can only hope.