Most American cities make attempts to beautify themselves when hosting conventions for either of the major political parties


Observations from the Streets of the City of Brotherly Love


Philadelphia — Most American cities make attempts to beautify themselves when hosting conventions for either of the major political parties. Philadelphia seems to be the exception. The official word is that city workers have been scrubbing and cleaning for two years since then-Mayor Ed Rendell landed the GOPfest. But to a regular visitor to the City of Brotherly Love, this claim is hard to swallow.


The streets are filthy. City Hall is more of a mess than usual. The number of shiftless and scruffy crack addicts appears as high as at any period of recent vintage. The only really new things which seem to be in evidence are miles of requisite red-white-and-blue convention bunting and a plethora of police officers.


Every corner is littered with cops clad in riot gear, just itching for the opportunity to crack a few skulls. Sadly, the whole affair – official activities as well as the protests against them – has been placid, and the nightsticks have had to remain in their sheaths. The professional protesters have been more pathetic than anything else, inspiring far more yawns than sparks of outrage.


As at the World Bank protests in Washington, the angry young men and women at GOP 2000 are a mixed bag, representing just about every little liberal special interest imaginable. There are pro-choicers (on abortion) and no-choicers (on just about everything else, from biotechnologically-improved foods to gas-powered cars to smoking).


The New York Post’s Steve Dunleavy described it best: “There were potheads, redheads, skinheads, eggheads and airheads.”


Some marched down the street waving copies of the sayings of Chairman Mao. Others marched down the street distributing the sayings of Ralph Nader on mimeographed sheets. “Corporate Greed” was constantly inveighed against. Capitalism was condemned. Bush and Gore were condemned. Mumia Abu-Jamal was lauded as a political prisoner in a city of notorious police brutality. Philly cops – colleagues of the officer Mumia was convicted of executing – blithely stood by and watched as the “refuse train” (one officer’s term) rolled by.


With nothing else to cover, reporters swarmed all around. Which only served to bring more demonstrators out of the woodwork, including many interested in absolutely nothing that has anything to do with the Republican convention or presidential politics.


My favorites were the leather-lunged heavies from the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, a branch of the AFL-CIO. They marched paces behind the inflatable 50-foot missile designed to draw attention to the folly of providing missile defense. The union folks are outraged too, but not at the prospect of stopping warheads lobbed in by North Korea. What set these folks off is Governor Tom Ridge’s horrible treatment of the clerks who work in the Pennsylvania  Liquor Control Board’s Wine and Spirits Shoppes. No joke. Governor Ridge, according to the union, “is bent on removing job security language from the contract so he can privatize our stores and pay off his campaign contributors.”


Sounded good to me.


Blocks away from the main Unity 2000 amalgamation of protesters, another group marched and chanted. This was a collection from Philadelphia’s not-very-vibrant Chinese-American community. Unlike New York or San Francisco, Philadelphia has a Chinatown which you can miss if you blink the wrong time. Its residents are afraid no one is going to miss it at all if Mayor Street’s proposal to build a new baseball stadium there goes through. Anywhere but in Chinatown, they say.


Elsewhere, a group called the Philadelphia Direct Action Group (PDAG) was ginning up publicity for its cause, which is nothing less than the wholesale overthrow of the way we practice democracy in America. According to its literature, “PDAG is planning a series of nonviolent direct actions against the rotten US electoral system that is alienating, ineffective, and controlled by moneyed interests. PDAG demands a participatory democracy where people have control over their lives.”


It strikes me a bit odd that there is so much bitterness and hostility directed at a country which, as a general rule, prizes the freedom to do whatever one wants. That includes the freedom to protest that very system without any real fear of reprisal. So as I stood on the corner watching the protest train roll by, I started to think that any system which rankles these professional malcontents might not be half bad. As for complaining about being shut out of the democratic process, I don’t buy it. But if that really is the case, frankly, I just might not be too opposed.

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