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CONVENTION 2000 / THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

Shadow Convention Focuses on Rebels With Cause

Speakers at the alternative event at Patriotic Hall rally against the political power structure as a 1960s mood prevails.

August 14, 2000|ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was an all-out assault on politics as usual.

And a wildly enthusiastic audience at the alternative Shadow Convention on Sunday night loved every minute as a parade of speakers lobbed verbal grenades at politics and the Democratic Party convention six blocks away took some direct hits.

As millionaire campaign contributors wined and dined party officialdom around Los Angeles, speaker after speaker ridiculed them at the Patriotic Hall event. Even the reception lounge was standing-room-only as crowds of people pressed around the television monitors to watch and listen to speakers like distinguished intellectual Cornell West, who declared "a new day is dawning here."

The Harvard professor said the divide between rich and poor in America is "not just an injustice, but a crime against humanity." He said: "We're living in a time of commodification of everything and everybody. We're going to fight back."

Arianna Huffington, Shadow Convention co-convener, opened the gathering saying that the Democratic convention was going to be a "focus-group-fixated fantasy."

But her convention, she said, "is going to be about reality. About the reality that 1 in 3 children in Los Angeles County is living in poverty."

The Shadow Convention, she said, "is about the cancer of money and politics and the failed drug war that neither party wants to address."

Onetime Democratic presidential hopeful Gary Hart gave one of the most eloquently critical speeches of the night.

"We sold our political birthright to the money-changers in the temple. . . . Where today are the nation's prophets? I don't know. But I do know they are not a few blocks from this hall attending cocktail parties."

The Democratic Party, he said, "has become so beholden to special interests that it cannot demand reform."

Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), a co-author of a campaign finance reform bill, told the crowd that political conventions "are basically corporate trade shows for the delegates where the real show is behind closed doors."

"My friends, make no mistake--soft money is setting the agenda across the country," Feingold said. "We have devolved from a representative democracy to a corporate democracy. We do not have a system of one person, one vote. This is a system of 1 million dollars, a million votes."

But if the streets outside were relatively calm, it was the Shadow Convention that seemed to have the air of protest Sunday night, with a palpably 1960s mood.

Singer Merry Clayton, who belted out the famous backup on the Rolling Stones' recording of "Gimme Shelter," set the nostalgic tone when she opened the event with a gospel a capella version of Bob Dylan's classic "The Times They Are A-Changin'."

But a note of pessimism crept into the speeches, too, as politicians decried the popular cynicism with the electoral process they blame for strikingly low U.S. voter turnout.

"Some say the times are changing, and we can never get them back," Feingold said. "Maybe that's true, in our brave new corporate democracy."

Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) said he had taken some heat for planning to speak at the Shadow Convention, a forum that plans to host views criticizing what some see as both parties' failure to act on campaign finance reform, on reducing the gap between rich and poor and on the racial disparities of the drug war.

Wellstone said, "Let's leave with a whole lot of determination. When this is over, I really believe we need to build an independent political force."

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