Month: August 2008

Dispatches from Denver — Pay no attention to ANYTHING behind the curtain

Here’s how it’s done: bring in concrete barriers and erect them in ways that form choke points, dead ends, and traffic diversions so that vehicles can only go where you want them to go when you want them to go there. Place traffic control police at every strategic corner. Set up heavy eight-foot tall mesh screens end-to-end to wall off selected areas, and have manned metal detector entry points wherever you want to control people’s entry and exit.

Have different color passes for different degrees of access and make people wear them in plastic sheaths attached to lanyards hung around the neck so so they are readily available for examination. In areas of special concern make everyone do the airport security dance of taking out their cell phones and keys and sending them through xray machines on conveyor belts.

Once you get all this in place, let people do what they want.

So what you have here in Denver is a tightly controlled, structurally contained, party. The streets themselves are festive and full of life. The outdoor tables at restaurants overflow with convention goers; the shuttle buses that go up and down Denver’s main mall are filled with folks who are laughing and talking and open to strangers.

Actually, Denver is wonderfully designed for such an event. It has one long street that is a pedestrian mall with free shuttle buses, and a number of side streets splitting off from that mall that contain restaurants, big hotels, and other entertainment and tourist venues. You can survive very nicely on just these few streets if you have a credit card, a love of liquor, good food, and entertainment, and no desire to see the seamier or more human side of Denver life. It’s a cultural Potemkin village, and that’s just how Denver and the convention wants it.

Mostly folks are tolerant of these constraints. Everyone knows there is at least one nut out there with a high powered rifle or a bag of explosives, so you accept your containment with only a minimal amount of grumbling. You even dare joke a bit — this is not the clenched-jawed airport security world where a quip about a bomb gets you sent to Guantanamo.

In fact, the police, of whom there are hundreds, if not thousands, are affable and willing to make light of the situation. I asked at one point if I could chain my bicycle to a tree or if it would be assumed that it had been left there by Osama Bin Laden. The police just laughed and said, “You don’t look like Osama. Go ahead. Anywhere’s good.”

And tonight, mildly bent out of shape by the need to go through a metal detector to sit in an auditorium and watch a video of Hillary giving her speech, I asked if there was some likelihood that someone was going to take out a gun and shoot the screen.

At first the man doing the checking took justifiable umbrage. “It’s to make you feel safe,” he said.

“I feel safe at home,” I smiled, “And I don’t have any metal detectors to get in my front door.”

He looked around to make sure no one was listening, then said, “I grew up in Iowa where we left our doors unlocked and our keys in the car.”

“I live in northern Minnesota where lots of folks still do,” I answered. He shrugged and said, “That’s the way it ought to be, but this is the way it’s become.”

And, sad to say, he’s right. This is the way it’s become. In a country where security has become equated with the right of everyone to carry a gun to blow the head off of someone else who might be carrying a gun, the whole system falls apart when, suddenly, the rules are changed and a bottle of shampoo or a lipstick tube becomes a potential weapon. Last week I was supposed to feel safe because I was allowed to walk around carrying an Uzi, today I’m supposed to feel safe because no one is allowed to enter a building carrying a nail clipper.

Denver has done a good job of hiding this cultural schizophrenia by putting us all in a structural containment vessel. The hawkers are smiling, the thousands of police are smiling, even the protesters — with the notable exception of those walking around carrying posters of dismembered fetuses — are smiling. Just go where you’re supposed to go, do what you’re allowed to do, and everything will be fine.

It’s all one big party, but just remember not to leave the main room.

Denver at one mile per hour: a convention dispatch

I am at the Democratic Convention in Denver, and it hasn’t been easy. No city can prepare for a one-time event like a convention and hope to do it right. The volunteers in their orange tee-shirts try to help, but the streets are clogged with vehicles, barricades disrupt normal traffic flow, and the sidewalks are hopelessly jammed with people who have no idea where they’re going and no idea how to get there. Think “leaving a professional sporting event” and superimpose it on an entire city for four days. It is not a pretty sight and not an enjoyable experience.

After using one of the free rental bikes that the convention is providing, and having some teens in an SUV shout, “Get off the road, old man, you’re going about one mile an hour,” I returned to my pedestrian status and made my way through the hawkers selling “Barack-Abye-Baby” sleepy suits and the phalanxes of helmeted, jackbooted police who almost outnumber the pedestrians. It was 85 degrees and rising.

Due to a bit of good luck I had a pass to get into the Pepsi Center where the convention itself is being held. So I decided to put the travails of the day behind me and go through the check points and barricades to hear what I could of the speeches.

It was like nothing so much as a rock concert in a big arena. Crowds surged around the walkways pushing and jostling and buying nachos and limp pizza. People sold buttons and tee shirts and Democratic paraphernalia destined to collect dust in closets all across America .

I found my designated section halfway to the nosebleed section on an impossible sideways angle to the speaker’s platform. The platform was like a thrust stage in a mega-church, with a podium on a five foot high half-circle that protruded into the audience. The speakers came out one by one from behind a curtained area.

On either side of the speaker’s podium, set back and raised, were darkened seating areas for a few important folks. One side was filled with a house band that had the musical tightness of a Muscle Shoals session group. Between speakers they played hard driving instrumentals that were blasted through the darkened arena while spotlights strafed the audience. Just after I found my seat the band launched into a high energy, trumpet-and-sax led five minute jam of James Brown’s “Gonna Have a Funky Good Time.”

I felt like I was on a different planet. James Brown blasting. Lights strobing and strafing. An entire arena on its feet waving American flags in unison. Men in blue business suits thrusting their arms upward to implore the audience to get up and party. Yet, in spite of myself, I was beginning to have a funky good time.

Caroline Kennedy came out. Haloed in the speaker’s light in the otherwise dark arena, she seemed wraithlike and almost ethereal. She spoke softly, giving a personal testimonial about her “Uncle Teddy.” When she finished, a video tribute to Ted Kennedy appeared on monitors throughout the darkened hall. It was filled with his voice and his vision and his hope. It seemed like a eulogy for an era.

As the video finished, the arena became silent. Out of the darkness a voice on the speaker system announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Senator Ted Kennedy,” and the senator, like an aged, wounded lion, was led to the podium. Spontaneously, the entire audience rose as one and let out a cheer that had more love in it than anything I had ever heard. It was the cheer of thanks from a generation.

I found myself cascading back to 1963 when I stood, confused, at my high school locker as my civics teacher walked by and said, “The president’s been shot.” I felt myself tumbling through time, seeing the dreams of my generation shot on balconies and podiums, watching my friends come home wounded and broken from a war that should never have been fought, standing helpless as my country turned from one of vision and caring to one of self-aggrandizement and self-absorption. And then I looked down at the man, fighting a battle now that he cannot win, and realized that I was looking at the link to the hope that my generation had lost, and watching him hand that torch of hope – the hope he himself had never lost — to the generation that is now coming into its own.

I did not stay for Michelle Obama’s speech. I gave my arena pass to someone else so they could hear her shape that hope for a new generation.

I walked out into a Denver night that seemed cooler and more hospitable. The lights of the prairies to the east twinkled like distant stars. The shadows of the mountains to the west loomed up like peaceful, silent monuments.

Maybe, I thought, the teens in the SUV were right: maybe it’s time for me to get off the road. After all, I am a little wobbly and I do move about one mile per hour. Time to let those with a sense of urgency get moving.

So, now it’s up to them.

I wish them well. Their struggles will be no less than ours, their dreams no less real and visionary. I only hope that they will remember the courage of folks like Ted Kennedy as they travel, and use his vision to guide us further down the path of this strange and crazy journey called “democracy”.