Wild in the Streets, But Not in the Hall

LOS ANGELES – It was 6:15 on Monday and I wanted to be two places at once. Rage Against the Machine had just started playing in the designated demonstration area across from the Staples Center and I wanted to watch them. On the other hand, I wanted to go inside and see the President come into the hall.

I stopped at the fence surrounding Rage Against the Machine. There was terrific energy inside. Six or seven thousand demonstrators were there, men had begun throwing themselves off the mosh pit and someone waved a sign saying: “Al Gore, Corporate Whore.” A band member in dreadlocks was dancing wildly before a big wooden clock face on the stage, perhaps a metaphor for the end of time.

But it was a little scary, too. The concert area was ringed by police wearing black. The fences were 12 feet high and they curved in at the top. Reporters joked nervously about having flak jackets. The rumor was that the anarchists in their black masks were going to climb the fence and storm the hall. A guy inside the fence shouted “Fuck you” at me and made fun of what I was wearing. I guess I can’t hide it, I’m middle-aged and well off. So this is what Chicago must have been like, I thought, in 1968. The adults had been scared. And what will come of the penned-in anger?

An old Harvard friend went by, going into the hall, and I followed him inside and stood in the press stand alongside the stage, and watched the First Lady, then the President, speak. It was comfortable inside, and I was with my brethren. I knew many of them from college or the last 15 years in New York. It was haimish , the Ivy League periodical press. A good friend I’d had dinner with the week before. Another friend whose house in the country is near mine. A pretty woman whose midtown office I’d once used. A college friend whose party I’d gone to in Malibu yesterday, where a second friend from college had murmured, “This is the A list.”

And where another friend had come up to me and asked very nicely, “Who can I introduce you to?” with the thought that there were people there who could put me on television. The media lust.

Now we were all here for the pageant of power. One friend had opera glasses, and we were right alongside the stage, pulling for the Harvard-Yale ticket. There was something vaguely jock-sniffing about us.

The President did not disappoint. The thunder of the crowd as he came out, the surge of feeling in the hall–I told myself I’d made the right decision not being outside. Like, this is the real rock star, and this is the true face of the new democratic contract. The video of Bill Clinton coming up through the catacombs of the hall was stirring. He was a boxer, a rock star, a movie star, all rolled into one, and how had humanity produced such a gleaming gem of a being, who could quote policy and Scripture out the wazoo?

Then that feeling curled over on itself. It was too much. The speech had to cover too many bases. The theme was, “We have given you so much prosperity that you can live like Republicans; don’t complain about the gap between rich and poor because we’re taking that on.” Emotionally it was too much of a straddle. Mr. Clinton is so instinctual, he knows what Ralph Nader means by the democracy gap, he knows there is dissatisfaction in the Democratic base with the relentless corporate optimism and utopianism. He made the 1968 comparison and spoke warningly of riots.

Still, the chief theme of the speech was prosperity, the rising tide. So the speech went against his own instinct. There was little passion in it. It was not spontaneous or poetic.

His straddle is just like the straddle liberal journalists find themselves in. Saying, “Yes, there is the greatest gap between rich and poor but the only way to address it is Al Gore.” Mr. Gore will do something. But the liberals are helpless to question the corporate spirit that infuses us, the relentless optimism we are all submerged in, the Nike ad we are all forced to populate. They are middle-aged and it seems simply too overwhelming to challenge these giant conditions–and, more nakedly, we get to go to A-list parties and might get on television, we can dream about becoming minor celebrities, and even those who are not tempted by celebrity are enriched by big media. Do we have any real interest in challenging these conditions?

A Lazio Stunner

I’d been at a lunch in the Westin Century Plaza Hotel, given by dark-eyed Sheldon Silver for the New York press–Eat, eat, he said Jewishly, coming around to your table–that day when a reporter gave him the news that Rick Lazio had made a bid to renounce soft money. The look on his face was as if someone had sucker-punched him. Then, riding a bus into the Staples Center, I gave the news to a Democratic state chairman beside me. He was stunned, too.

Leaving aside how calculating Mr. Lazio is, we all recognize the unknown power of this issue. It reverberates daringly out into the violent adolescent spirit of the next age that might take on a corporate age. On Monday at a rally, a woman with a Nader parasol wore glasses made of a dollar bill, with little holes cut to see through. You say Al Gore will take these issues on! But that woman does not believe you!

After Mr. Clinton’s speech I rushed out of the hall. You could smell smoke, and the view was staggering. The designated demonstration area had been swept clean of people, and police officers sat on the bumpers of cars taking deep breaths, getting over pepper gas. Signs of violence were everywhere. Fist-sized chunks of concrete were strewn around, thrown over the fence by the anarchists. Small fires were burning in trash. Torn, sodden leaflets lay flattened.

A breathless sergeant held a press conference to tell how they had dispersed the crowd using horses.

I walked down Olympic Boulevard and found clots of demonstrators raving about the brutality. They told stories you would not believe. That the cops on horses had curved, wooden Japanese-style swords, with hilts, to whack people with. That the “Mobile Field Force” units fired pepper gas from one type of gun and white rubber bullets from another. Some of the demonstrators sat down and linked arms but had been trampled by the horses.

The L.A. police had been so efficient and effective. Nothing like the Philadelphia cops on bicycles, in shorts. The Democratic cops wore shiny black plastic articulating leg guards and moved in Busby Berkeley phalanxes reminiscent of fascist newsreels. They performed for you in the street, their designs intoxicating. A group of 18 would stand in a solid block, then, at a signal, peel off one by one and march. They drove in a crisp line in their patrol cars, then suddenly cut over and parked at an angle, one after another, like airplanes. These maneuvers were enough to intimidate anyone.

All the demonstrators had were bandanas for the gas.

The delegates came up Figueroa, and a girl named Natasha got in their faces at the light. “Do you notice these paratrooper fucking Robocop storm troopers or are they just an illusion to you?” she said. “Do you know what they did to us? We’re living in a liberal police state and you don’t care, do you?”

The delegates were about my age, and they had just been in the hall with the hall’s straddling promise: There can be social justice and you can also make out like a bandit personally, and maybe get invited to Barbra Streisand’s party.

Mostly the delegates smiled tightly and waited for the light to change as the girl named Natasha with unshaven armpits yelled and danced. Tom Hayden came by in a van and rolled down the window and seemed to murmur encouragement, in a confused way, but he was soon gone, and a column of cops drove by and one waved a Victory sign in a black glove to the delegates. We took care of these filthy people for you.

Reporters say, “We can’t cover the demonstrators because they don’t say what they’re protesting.”

Incoherent Messages

It’s true, the protesters’ message is incoherent. There are three groups. The anti-globalization, anti-W.T.O. crowd. The anti-death-penalty-and-prisons crowd. And the campaign-finance crowd. They’re turfy and lack leadership. No one has done the clear thinking yet to unify the ideas and make this a movement. They are just 6,000 or 8,000 people getting angry and nuked, and when will they have another opportunity? After L.A., the party’s over.

The liberal media’s thinking is even fuzzier. They are trying to cover too many bases. They are on panels at the Shadow Convention talking about the marginalization of speech, and meanwhile their own broadcasts don’t cover the protests. They are utopian about free trade, and of course they have all done well by free trade. They say the death penalty is wrong, then they make distinctions between good death penalty and bad death penalty. They shun Ralph Nader from coverage with barely repressed anger. They sense he is speaking to something out there; they want to believe he’s irrelevant.

“I don’t want to talk to you,” a man said grimly to Natasha.

She said, “I don’t want to talk to you either, but I have a few things to report. Did you see those paratroopers–do you know what they did to us?”

“Excuse me”–a woman on her cell phone–”I’m just doing my job.”

Natasha ragged her out into the street. “The police were just doing their job, too.”

And then the woman turned; she was apparently torn open by that comment, emotionally eviscerated, and stopping in Ninth Street, took a step back toward Natasha and bent and screamed, “FUCK. YOU.”

I walked back past the concrete bunkers into the Staples Center compound and boarded a bus to my hotel. Behind me were two union guys talking about the food at Spago; then we waited for a cop to get on the bus. All the buses have cops at the front.

“We have a safe route between here and the hotel,” he announced. “We have troopers set up at key points.”

It was assuring, as Bill Clinton’s speech was. We headed west, and 20 or 30 patrol cars went the other way in formation, lights flashing. Who knows what’s out there. Wild in the Streets, But Not in the Hall