Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

CONVENTION 2000 / THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

Shadow Event Drawing the Disaffected

Alternative convention hits a collective nerve with those who feel their issues are overlooked by the major parties.

August 16, 2000|ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It might not be the next "Survivor" or "How to Marry a Millionaire," and it may not have stolen the scene from the Democratic National Convention or the nightly network news.

But the alternative Shadow Convention packed fervent crowds into a heat-roiled auditorium Tuesday at Patriotic Hall, where speakers--from yippie co-founder Paul Krassner to essayist Alexander Cockburn and Rep. Maxine Waters--seemed to have hit a collective nerve with Los Angelenos who feel their issues are overlooked by the major parties.

The issues being aired here are not "new." But neither have they spilled into the mainstream political debates inside the convention halls this summer. The Shadow Convention has dealt with issues as diverse as racial inequity of drug law enforcement, campaign finance and the gap between rich and poor.

The daily press has largely ignored this gathering of grass-roots activists, intellectuals and maverick politicians.

But Tuesday, the audience--some of whom took vacation days from work to attend--filled the seats and crowded along the wood-paneled walls or sat on the marble floor of the lobby. They couldn't care less if the forum wasn't "newsworthy," many said.

"Hopefully this will send a message to the media that there are many people who think the issues are important," said Pamela Lichty, the vice president of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, who traveled from Honolulu to attend.

"I think the hope was to attract attention from the Democrats, and I don't know if that's happened. But I think that the more that elected people speak out on these issues, the more courage it gives to the others," she added.

And if the much-hyped celebrity appearances led some to wonder what would be the main draw of the affair, it was telling that the largest, standing, ovations Tuesday went to the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rep. Maxine Waters of Los Angeles, not to actors Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. When the couple moved around the building, it was the media that mobbed them, not the assembled activists and participants.

But were speakers merely preaching to the choir?

"I think there was a little bit of preaching to the choir. Of course," said "Saturday Night Live" veteran Al Franken, whose Stuart Smalley routine provided a respite from wall-to-wall speeches Tuesday. "But the choir needs to be preached to, and there are a lot of organizations here networking. It's organizing the choir, so to speak."

Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson said, "This should be a good catalyst for organizing. . . . People have been getting to know each other, networking. I met a lot of people who will be staying in touch."

"Something amazing happened in that room today," said Ethan Nadelmann of the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation, which advocates treating drugs as a health issue, not a criminal matter. "It's pretty strong evidence that drug policy reform is moving from the fringes into the mainstream."

Shadow Convention co-organizer Arianna Huffington called the drug war issue "a real breakthrough" for the gathering.

"Some of the press coverage has been based on the old paradigm that assumes that any discussion of reform is left-wing," Huffington said. "When you have [Republican New Mexico] Gov. [Gary] Johnson and [Rep.] Tom Campbell [R-San Jose] speaking passionately against the drug war, why is this left-leaning?"

Nadelmann said he did not view the Shadow Convention "as an end in itself but a vehicle. We have to regroup after this and see where we go next."

And for some issues, such as the drug war, "this day will be remembered as a major step forward from the fringes into the mainstream," he said.

Cockburn said the development of outlets like the Shadow Convention was predictable. "Whenever the tension of the banality of the regular convention reaches a boiling point, you'll get something of this kind. They crop up, in one way or another, whenever people feel dissatisfied."

Huffington said there have been 2 million hits on the Shadow Convention's Web site since it went up in July. She said the group will unveil http://www.americandemocracy. com, a new "populist portal" Web site to to coordinate the convening groups and link them to grass-roots organizations around the country.

For some, the Shadow Convention provided a quick and accessible way to tune into their country's political culture and issues that affect their community.

"The other convention was going on and I wanted to get involved," said Clara Waters, 68, a retired Realtor from Inglewood. "It made me feel good that people are actually out here doing things. I thought everyone was at home crying in their beer, like me."

Much of the enthusiasm Tuesday seemed to focus on the public examination of drug policy itself, which many politicians are reluctant to tackle publicly.

The drug war is a thorny issue for the Democratic Party, which does not want to seem soft on drugs but must grapple with the fact that drug laws take the highest toll on minorities, a core Democratic constituency.

Why, in a country in which half of all college students say they have tried drugs, are blacks and Latinos so much more likely to go to prison for narcotic use, Gov. Johnson asked.

California state Sen. Tom Hayden called the drug war "the 'third rail' of electoral politics."

"If you touch the issue, you're dead."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|