During the Los Angeles Democratic National Convention in 2000, a sort of hush flowed through the circular hall of Staples Center when President Bill Clinton and the first lady, Hillary, arrived. The calm lasted a few odd moments until the angry drums and guitar of Rage Against the Machine rattled against the windows with a simple message: Dems, actually all politicians, are a bunch of corporate sell-outs. This wasn’t a Bill-plays-his-sax-and-the-oldies gig. Rage frontman Zach de la Rocha’s dreadlocks baited thousands of activists and fans from a stage in the “protest pit”–a confusing array of security fences.
One by one, the stars zipped by–Christie Brinkley, Warren Beatty–surrounded by photographers and schmoozing delegates. They all somehow tuned out the noise on the other side of that glass. It was harder for me, because I’d spent the day amid the activists as a young reporter for Boulder’s Colorado Daily, then a rowdy employee-owned newspaper, curious to know why local activists were in L.A. On the first day, I saw a mixture of street theater and long, relentless marches under the hot August sun. By the end of the day, a big crowd gathered to party in the protest pit and to see Rage Against the Machine, the legendary political-punk band that will echo its own history today at the Denver Coliseum in support of Tent State activists. Rage’s de la Rocha remarked that democracy had been “hijacked” before the guitar began wailing and the fans began moshing. It wasn’t Bill Clinton’s best moment, because of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but he was nevertheless adored by the delegates as Rage blared away outside. As he droned on about how great Vice President Al Gore was going to be for America, my cellphone rang. It was one of the activists I’d interviewed earlier in the day. “They’re shooting at us!” The line went dead. I took a long look at Clinton, sighed, and then decided to skip out on the rest of his speech–and a cushy seat. I headed for a side door, and by the time I walked to the fence that separated the protest pit from the Staples Center, I got a fleeting glimpse of the action: police officers on horseback in the distance, routing a group of protesters along the streets. The protest pit was empty. No signs of Rage. Nothing but quiet. It was truly surreal. After all, the president of the United States was still inside giving a speech. The masses who disagreed with him, who dared to rock, were dispatched. Not long after, delegates shuffled out, obviously unaware of the melee. A police spokesman would not confirm whether rubber bullets were used, but a couple kids milling around in the aftermath had given me a pocketful. So I pulled out the black rubber balls and said, “What do you call these?” The cameras zoomed down and broadcast my hand. It didn’t change the story much. The spokesman defended the department’s actions. Some protesters had thrown bottles at police. The mosh pit didn’t help. It was complicated. The next day brought harsh criticism from the civil libertarians, among others. There were some bystanders who were apparently injured. In coming days, there was an uneasy peace between bedraggled activists and police outfitted in riot gear. There were dirty looks. No more rubber bullets. There were more skirmishes and arrests, though. It wasn’t a good day to be an activist or a police officer. It wasn’t a good day for Los Angeles or Democrats. It was a better day to be a reporter. There was loads to write about. In Denver, hundreds of activists, many without hotel arrangements are here to be heard. They want social justice, an end to the war, universal health care, and so on. Though the Democrats also seem to want these things, the activists for some reason can’t hear the message–just as Democrats can’t seem to hear the activists. Instead, activists are outside, pushing boundaries–sometimes hard lines set by a federal court. Police are already pushing back. On Monday, they made dozens of arrests. Rage Against the Machine’s middle-finger soundtrack might add confusion, as it did in 2000, eclipsing those who came to bring a message of peace to Democrats and the mainstream press. Rage wants peace, too. We’ll have to see.