I left my bed early on Sunday to head into Center City Philadelphia to catch the Unity2000 demonstration, one of the many protests planned for the week of the Republican National Convention. Unity2000 was designed as a noisy parade of various left-leaning groups. Not much news happens at political conventions anymore—perhaps Dubya will fill us in on the difference between a Compassionate Conservative and a New Democrat—and the buzz in and out of press circles is that the protests will be the big story. If this morning's effort is an indication, that story won't be above the fold on the front page; in fact, it may end up struggling for space in the Food section of most papers. There were more cops than protesters—well, that's a bit of an exaggeration—but both were appallingly well-behaved.
Not that folks weren't prepared for violence. "I don't like cops and I don't like government. They have too much power," Mike Shane, a 9th grader from a Philadelphia suburb, told me in a thick Philly accent. Shane doesn't plan to commit violence. He's committing capitalism, selling gas masks for $5. He'll also sell you a navy blue shirt with Protester over the left nipple for the same amount. He'll net $2 on each item. "Pretty much sell stuff, that's all I can do," Shane answered when I asked him what he planned to do during the week. "Anybody that wants to buy a gas mask, they come to me."
Shane wasn't the only one peddling wares. A fellow pushed a grocery basket full of soft pretzels, barking "two pretzels for $1." Not a bad way to start the day in a town known for dishing up scrapple, the ultimate odds-and-ends mystery meat, in every breakfast special.
While interviewing Audrey from the United States Marxist Leninist Organization (she feels we need a new kind of democracy in America), I spotted an attractive brunette with a temporary, "Fuck Bush" tattoo on her deltoid. As I tried to chase the brunette down for a question or two, I ran into the source of the temp. tattoo, Barry Adams, sitting on a concrete traffic barrier, wearing an American flag as a skirt, oversized purple sunglasses and a red, vinyl rain cap. He's a trans-partisan capitalist, hawking "Fuck Bush," "Fuck Gore," and four other temporary tattoos. Politically, he likes either Ralph Nader or Alan Keyes, but figures that after Clinton, who he says is "the Kennedy of our time," anyone will be a letdown. The Lewinsky incident doesn't bother him. "Clinton's a good man, despite cheating on his wife and everything else," he said. "Like Chris Rock said, 'She's the First Lady, she should be the first lady on her knees.' Chris Rock has a point."
Adams expects to sell a thousand stickers at $2 a pop over the next four days and a thousand more in Los Angeles. The money will help finance his next semester at Temple University, where he will study mass media and communications. Then he plans to head to Las Vegas to do stand up comedy. I told him he's a mini-capitalist. "Why not," he replied, "and the government doesn't take 31 percent from me."
The Unity2000 protesters were pushing sundry issues: Free Philadelphia's own Mumia Abu-Jamal; kill the death penalty; tax the rich, no more lynchings (an uncomfortable one for me), police brutality, close the School of the Americas, no Star Wars missile-defense program, etc. Such a smorgasbord of leftism is bound to generate some conflict, especially with the libertarian counter-protesters and bible-babblers present.
Just as the march started to move, a group of 20 or so libertarians showed up with orange shirts with black L's on the front and a Lao Tzu quote, "The more prohibitions there are, the poorer the people will be," on the back. They carried signs proclaiming, "More Good, Less Evil," "Big Brother Abuses Earth Mother" and "Free the Market." Like Adams, they're no fans of the IRS. They chanted "Hey Hey, Ho Ho, the IRS has got to go."
They weren't marching for 10 minutes when they got into altercation with a representative from Unity2000, who wanted them to march on the sidewalk, not the street, since they were counter-protesting. "Our protest is only against your means," said Kendra Okonski the libertarian leader. The guy retorted that capitalism kills children.
Safely past the Unity2000 rep, the libertarians ran into Andru Ziwasimon, a doctor from Albuquerque, New Mexico, who was holding a sign, "Privatize our Lives, Publicize our Resources." They stopped for a brief dialogue, although no one's mind was changed. When I interviewed him later, Ziwasimon still wanted Canadian-style single-payer health care. Ziwasimon's friend, David Pennise, who's working on his Ph.D. in environment and health sciences at UC-Berkeley yelled, "Transaction costs, externalities" as they marched away. Nice touch, I thought. The discourse, at least, is a level up from the IMF/World Bank protests in D.C.
This, however, was a mild exchange compared to what all the protesters faced just a few blocks away, where three people of faith stood with signs and megaphones. "Fornicators and Drunkards will Join Tupac in Hell," was what Stephen White's sign said. A chubby, middle-aged male protester, perhaps recalling better times, told White, "I'm a fornicator" This set White off. "I know you are because you are following Al Gore," he screamed through his megaphone. "Al Gore is a Nazi who kills babies."
I found White compelling and moved closer. He was particularly hung up on sex. "They represent wicked things," he said of the marchers. "They represent lesbians, drunkards, fornicators, thieves, liars, clitoris lickers." I asked if "clitoris licking" is OK so long as folks were married. White granted that, yes, within marriage, it was approved activity. Which in a way sets a dangerous precedent: Perhaps being a drunkard is OK as long as you're married.
The march terminated at a stage, where a woman sang the National Anthem and encouraged the crowd to boo. Somebody burned an American flag. I checked back with the orange-shirted libertarians, who were being led around by a man in a pink pig Disneyland-style costume chanting, "Hey, Hey, Ho Ho, Corporate Welfare has got to go."
I decided it was time to for me to go. I wanted plenty of time to rest up for Rep. J.C. Watts' (R-Okla.) bash at 5:30, where the Temptations and the Four Tops were supposed to show up. I looked forward to asking them about Social Security privatization and missile defense in between songs.