Reporter's Notebook from the RNC Protests
Great Days in Philly
By Debbie Lang
Revolutionary Worker #1067, August 20, 2000
Our RW reporting team wasn't sure what was going to happen in Philadelphia during the Republican National Convention (RNC). For weeks the Philadelphia police and the FBI spied on and harassed activists in an attempt to create an atmosphere of fear and prevent a disruption of the convention. It was a message underscored by the televised beating of Thomas Jones by a swarm of Philly cops. But in the face of these threats, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest the many injustices this system brings down on people here and around the world.
One thing very striking about the week's protests was the breadth of people involved. There were protesters from a broad range of political perspectives, involved in many different issues. At the same time, we found that most people we talked to-even those who still believe in elections and plan to vote-felt some kind of major radical change was necessary in order to set things right in the world.
A New Generation Against the System
The majority of the protesters were youth-especially in the street actions on August 1 that thoroughly disrupted downtown Philly. The authorities portrayed the youth as "criminals" who roamed from Seattle to Washington, D.C. to Philadelphia to cause mindless property damage and incite violence. The media called them "rebels without a cause," while largely ignoring their actual political message. This shows how desperate the power structure is to hide the fact that a new generation of youth has begun to question the way things are and fight for a different future. As one youth (who also took part in last April's protests against the World Bank in D.C.) told me, "They say we're the lazy generation. But we're the first generation since the Vietnam era to come out in such numbers, and I think that says a lot for us."
While these youth are determined to change the world, there are a lot of different views and debate on what that means and how to go about it. We talked to youth with various political viewpoints in the major protests during the week: the Unity 2000 rally on July 30, the day before the RNC began; the July 31 Poor People's March; and the mass protests on Tuesday, the second day of the convention.
At the Poor People's March, we met a woman from anarchist Black Cross who said: "It's important to come out against the Republican Party-and also remember we're out here against the Democratic Party. The whole capitalist system is the problem. We're out here to free Mumia, to fight poverty and the prison industrial complex. We need to step up our actions to bring an end to this system as soon as possible. "
Another youth told me: "I have a basic problem with the way that the system is set up to keep those in power up at the top. The workers are hard at work on barely a living wage while those at the top sit and gorge themselves with the products of the working class.... They go into other countries and take our 'wonderful' U.S. corporations and 'help' these people out by destroying their domestic markets. Then they say, 'OK, you can work for us for four cents-or you can die.' They bring soldiers over and train them at the School of the Americas in Georgia and send them back to keep people in line."
The Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade marched in formation with red flags and Mao's Red Book-it was an inspiring sight. Their militancy and political unity electrified many of the youth searching for a way to radically change the whole way people are forced to live under this system. One RCYB member told me: "We're here at the RNC to hook up with other rebel youth who are looking around at this world and seeing a fucked-up place and who are looking for answers and looking for a solution. It's our opinion that the only solution to the problems of today is revolution. And what we mean by revolution is mass armed revolution to overthrow the current rulers of this country and replace this with something better. So we march in formation to project a vision that we are actually organizing and preparing for when the time is right for that to happen. And we're looking to hook up with other rebel and revolutionary youth to be part of this process of tearing this whole system down."
I met up with Warrior's Blood, a rap group from the Akwesasne Mohawk Reservation. One of their members told me: "People want change and revolution. That's our cause. That's our purpose. We're here as a group performing; and we're also here representing the Haudonosaunee, the Iroquois Confederacy, and the Mohawk Nation. We're still being oppressed by this government. They're still taking our land. They're still taking us down economically, trying to fight us. And our position is we're in a war. They're our enemy.... It's not like this system can be fixed. This whole system has to be ended, and a whole brand new system has to be started."
Fighters on Different Fronts
Mao said that where there is oppression, there is resistance. And resistance to the many outrages and crimes of this system was manifest all week in Philadelphia. There were protests large and small, every day and night.
An RW correspondent from Cleveland noted: "I was moved by all the ways people were there fighting for a totally different future than the RNC and Bush-the killer candidate-are planning. I talked to people who are fighting for health care for the poor and for those with HIV, for a safe environment, for a society where profit and money are not the driving force, for an end to the death penalty, for the freedom of Mumia Abu-Jamal. I was struck by the fact that the police were all over, ready to vamp on the people for wanting a different future and actively trying to bring that about. I kept thinking about how Thomas Jones felt when dozens of pigs attacked him over and over again for just trying to get away from their bullets."
At Unity 2000, people protested against U.S. intervention in Latin America, occupation of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, sanctions against Iraq and blockade of Cuba. Signs and posters in support of Mumia Abu-Jamal were everywhere. Doctors marched against a health care system that denies millions insurance and access to care. A contingent of 50 Chinese people came to oppose the building of a new sports stadium in Philadelphia's Chinatown. A member of the contingent told us, "If they build the stadium there, we won't be able to build new schools. We are trying to get new schools and new playgrounds built, but the city won't let us do that. They don't respect the people in Chinatown." A large contingent from the School of the Americas Watch had a sign that read "Let Colombia Live! Stop Military Aid!" Seven members of the group were arrested the next day in front of City Hall when they staged a dramatic reenactment of a massacre of Latin American peasants by U.S.-backed troops and death squads.
We heard much outraged at the beating of Thomas Jones by the Philly cops. A young member of Kensington Welfare Rights Union told us: "I live in North Philly where a lot of the police brutality happens. And having it happen at your doorstep, if you don't act on it, you're just as much part of it." The October 22nd Coalition to Stop Police Brutality carried a banner with the names of 1,000 people murdered by police.
Many protesters said they were angry and shaken by the Texas execution of Shaka Sankofa-and determined to stop the execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal. An anarchist from Philadelphia told me: "Pennsylvania Governor Ridge is just going nuts with the death penalty. Bringing George Bush, who's executed over 130 people, to Philadelphia-where D.A. Lynne Abraham's whole mission is to execute every single person she can possibly put the death penalty on, and where Mumia's from-is like spitting at people who have been hurt the hardest by these kind of policies. It's disgusting."
About 100 kids with Philly Freedom Summer took part in the protests. They had come from as far away as Hawaii to organize against Mumia's execution. One Freedom Summer volunteer told me: "Refuse & Resist! says it's all one attack. The same people who want to execute Mumia Abu-Jamal also want to make abortion illegal so that women don't have any control over their bodies, can't make decisions for themselves, can't decide when to have a child. They're the same people who are pro-death penalty. They're for the criminalization of a generation of Black and Latino youth, who are criminalized by the media and by the police. Basically they're pro-death. That's why we call them the executioners. They're for executing the environment. They're for executing gay families. They're for executing abortion rights. They're for executing people. Bush advocates lowering the age of execution to 14, so they're basically for executing children."
The Freedom Summer youth told us that the anti-RNC protests-especially the August 1 mass disruption of downtown-had widespread support among basic people in the neighborhoods.
Hundreds of anti-abortion Christian fascists were in Philadelphia during the RNC. They brought a large van with photos of an aborted fetus on the sides. Everywhere these reactionaries went, they were confronted by pro-choice protesters, especially young women. At Unity 2000, protesters climbed on the anti-abortion van and slapped pro-choice stickers all over it. Then they went on a spirited march to confront anti-abortionists who lined the streets holding anti-women signs. The march included members of Refuse & Resist! and NOW.
During the week of protests, the authorities basically suspended many of the basic rights that are supposedly guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. Many protesters were shocked and disturbed by this-and it made them question more deeply what kind of society this is. For example, the city denied a permit for the Poor People's March, organized by the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, and even threatened to take away the children of anyone arrested at the march.
We talked to a young woman who had read about the march in the Village Voice. She said: "I think it's incredible that any free assembly whatsoever would be denied a permit. I didn't really realize that that was an issue. I just thought that you could do this kind of thing in this country." An independent filmmaker who works with the non-profit organization Battle for the Minds told me: "Everybody has the right to food. It's essential, it's our basic human need. You can't talk about hunger without talking about poverty. And you can't talk about poverty without talking about escalating housing costs, the low value of the minimum wage. Everybody should be embarrassed that this is the situation in America today."
Proletarians of different nationalities were in the mix all week. Homeless women proudly marched at the front of the Poor People's march with their children, defying the city's threats. A Black woman who brought her family told me: "We came all the way from Arkansas because we know there's strength in numbers. All over this country, we all have the same plight-homelessness, unemployment, under-employment." Another woman said: "I lost my house, and that was right after the birth of my fourth child. My husband and I were left without a place to go with a brand new baby. Two years I searched. I went into the shelter system, was promised all of these things, and none of it happened. I'm here now because something has to happen-and it has to happen soon."
A white woman told us, "All the politicians are rotten. The mayor here in Philly passes a sidewalk law where if you are in one place for too long, you will be arrested. The homeless can't sleep in Love Park and can't meet people there anymore. It's like a police state. I am HIV positive and I can no longer pay for all my medication. My doctors have to find ways to get it for me for free. That's what managed care has done for people."
RCYB member Seven, who was clubbed by police and had her wrist broken, summed the week up this way: "This has been one of the most inspiring weeks of my entire life-to see so many youth out there in the streets.... First there was Seattle. Then there was Washington. And now there's Philly. It's not going to stop until we win, until Mumia's free and safe, until we defeat this system that causes all the bullshit that comes down on youth and other oppressed people."
At the end of the wild protests on August 1, a Black student from North Carolina said, "Words really just cannot describe what a profound sense of joy I have in my heart at the brilliant display of revolutionary solidarity that was displayed today. It's just a beautiful thing, a beautiful feeling. These are definitely great days."
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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