Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

A Variety of Voices at the DNC
distributed 7/18/08 - ©2008

A core principle of eco-justice ethics is hitting the front pages on a regular basis in Denver this year. It has been fascinating to watch the news, but often it isn't pretty.

At the end of August, Denver -- my home town -- is hosting the 2008 Democratic National Convention. The eco-justice ethical norm that is proving to be very difficult is the one about "participation" . (The three other generally accepted norms are solidarity, sustainability and sufficiency.)

Participation affirms that all stakeholders in a decision should have a voice in important decisions. Theologian Dieter Hessel defines it as "socially just participation in decisions about how to obtain sustenance and to manage community life for the good in common and the good of the commons."

On the national scene, the most evident issue about convention participation had to do with how delegates were selected and seated. The long process of primary elections and caucuses, and established rules about "superdelegates," defined the delegate list -- except for that very messy thing about elections in Florida and Michigan. Those two states broke the party rules about scheduling their elections, and triggered a complicated conflict about "fair" ways of providing appropriate participation by those delegations.

Locally, the questions about participation are not about who will have seats inside the convention hall. The ongoing challenge for the city -- and the Secret Service -- has to do with the 10,000+ protesters who are expected to arrive in Denver in just over a month.

Some of the protesters are coming with hopes of influencing the official delegates: they want to assert some form of voice in the convention's decisions. That intention has shaped lengthy negotiations about the "demonstration zone" which will be in a parking lot of the convention hall. Representatives of numerous protesting groups have demanded that this fenced-in zone be within "sight and sound" of delegates arriving at the center. To their mind, there is not authentic participation if delegates can't see and hear the demonstrators.

Other protesters are less concerned about the (some would say already-scripted) votes that will take place inside the convention. Instead, they seek participation in a larger social conversation. Many of those coming to protest hope to influence the broader realm of opinions and ideas. They want to do this through visibility and access to the throngs of worldwide media that will be in Denver for the week. Their measure of real participation will be column inches, the number of blog postings, and the amount of TV coverage that deals with various protest agendas.

City officials have had quite a challenge in juggling free speech concerns, security issues, and practical logistics about scheduling these events. From my vantage point, they have worked in very good faith, and general competence, to encourage wide participation.

Denver created a special lottery process to allocate space in parks and other public settings for the use of the multitudes of groups that want to make a statement. The rules on that process changed the normal guidelines whereby city-sponsored events have priority for the use of parks. This time around, the city had to put their requests in the same hat for a random drawing along with everybody else.

Back in February, the city said, "As an expression of support for the rights of people to express their views safely ... [Denver will] provide a Designated Parade Route and waive its standard fees, making it available free-of-charge to groups wishing to conduct parades during the week of the Convention." Under the current schedule, a sequence of parades and marches will close down several major streets every day of the convention from 11 AM to 3 PM. Those marches will focus on a number of issues, including immigration, the Iraq war, and ending "all illegal imperialist occupations in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Hawaii, North America, and others." Opinions will be expressed on those marches which are unlikely to be spoken from the convention's podium.

One of the coalitions of protesters -- which goes by the name of "Recreate 68" in a reference to the protests at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago -- plans to bring in "high-profile activists from oppressed communities whose voices are usually drowned out on the political stage." R68 explicitly names the theme of participation when they write "Instead of [other people] speaking for the oppressed, we want their voices to speak for their communities."

Clearly, managing so many protest events -- the scheduled ones and others that may be spontaneous -- is a logistical and legal challenge. It is good to know that considerations of real participation are being taken seriously. Today's Denver Post has an editorial, "Denver must protect the rights of DNC protesters." A front-page story in today's Post begins, "A group of Denver lawyers has joined together to provide protesters ...with both pre-confrontation training and post-arrest legal services if necessary."

As I watch Denver's preparations for the Democratic National Convention, I am reminded that "participation" is not a trivial thing. It must include not only those who can participate easily, but also those who stand far outside the established systems and values. Even for a carefully-managed convention week, participation is difficult and conflictual.

I am also aware that the DNC in Denver this summer is a relatively easy case. The norm of participation is far more challenging in the face of political regimes which seek to silence their opposition, in an economic marketplace which gives no voice to those who don't buy goods and services, or when we seek to empower future generations and other species.

Those who are in power, and those who benefit from the status quo, are always threatened by widespread and honest participation. To be honest, most of us in the affluent world should feel threatened by the prospect of real voice being given to the majority of the world's population. If decisions were made based on the interests of the world's poor, of future generations, and of the entire web of life, we would move quickly into a very different world.

That is precisely the point of participation as an ethical mandate. It is not right that the rich and powerful should control the common destiny of us all. As we come to see the urgent need for a more just and sustainable global society, I have hope that broad participation will shape the course. I also have hope that people of faith will be among those who demand genuine and far-reaching participation by all stakeholders.

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I'm glad to say that Denver and the DNC are also being vigorous in addressing the eco-justice principle of sustainability. The goal of the planners is to make this the "greenest" convention ever. Most of the electricity is coming from wind power. There are concerted efforts to divert 85% of the waste stream into recycling and composting. Caterers are being encouraged to use local and/or organic foods, and to minimize meat. 1,000 bicycles are on loan to Denver for use during the convention, and many delegations are offsetting their travel carbon emissions.

It is good news when participation and sustainability are taken so seriously. May the steps being taken in Denver be seen as the bare minimum for future political conventions.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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