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

The Dems in Denver
distributed 8/29/08 - ©2008

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Jana Schofield and Michael Isensee of San Luis Obisbo, CA. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

The Democrats came to Denver this week, and I have to say that my home town did a fine job of hosting the multitudes of delegates, staff, visitors, media and protesters.

I had planned to stay in my office during the convention, and get some work done. But I was sucked in to the excitement, went downtown on several days, and spent far, far too much time watching speeches and reading news reports.

As the news focus now shifts away from Colorado, I'm pondering a few of my persistent reactions that may be of some lasting and national importance. Today, I'll touch very briefly on two policy details, and dwell more deeply on a vivid strategic perception.

=== POLICY ===

You won't be surprised that my eco-justice perspectives and commitments were in mind as I followed the convention coverage. If you've been reading my musings for any length of time, you also won't be surprised that I'm not entirely on the Democratic Party bandwagon. Two areas of concern stand out for me.

  1. Global warming was named often in convention speeches. Frequently, it was included in the standard litany of issues that need to be addressed. That's good news, I guess. It is clear that concern about climate now has become utterly mainstream. We're certainly over any public questions about the reality of this crisis. But I was very concerned about the way that global climate change was addressed in almost all of the speeches that I heard from the convention hall.

    Solving global warming was presented with about the same urgency, and with about the same level of complexity, as procuring funds for college tuition or establishing universal health care. Until Al Gore spoke from the football field on Thursday afternoon, I heard no details about the vast scope and alarming impacts of the changing climate, and I heard nothing that called for profound changes or exceptional commitments. If the carefully scripted statements from the podium and in countless interviews are indicative of where the Democrats are willing to take us, then I must echo Gore's long-standing assessment. "We have the vision and know-how and technology we need to address global warming, but we lack the political will." This week revealed political awareness, but we're still far from the strong political leadership needed to dramatically reduce climate impacts.

  2. Global warming was named often, but "the American dream" was the convention's repetitious drumbeat. Every biography was crafted as an example of the American dream, and every citizen was promised that they could live the dream. Here, too, I am concerned.

    The dream that was described -- both implicitly and explicitly -- went far beyond the ideal that "anybody can grow up to be President" or that we can all live a decent and fulfilling life. Descriptions of "the dream" often moved far beyond a sufficiency that serves the common good, and praised the sort of prosperity and growth which are primary drivers of the ecological crisis. When 95% of all working families are considered "middle class", then there's little space to critique excessive consumption and inappropriate wealth. The American dream that was voiced spoke, too, of regaining US power in the world, rather than discerning a new role within the community of nations. That over-extended form of the American dream is an eco-justice nightmare.

Last week, I wrote about the amount of trust that we place in "The System." I am not surprised that the institutional power of a vast political party is deeply invested in the system. All of the policy directions that party leaders can envision will be within the context of making that system work. I am grateful that the Democrats did often push into the third realm of "leadership" with an assertion that The System is not living up to its promise. But I also need to acknowledge that the Dems are not -- and will not be -- profoundly transformational. Which leads into considerations of social change strategy ...

=== STRATEGY ===

In the months leading up to the convention, fears about massive and violent protests haunted convention planners and filled the local media. By the close of the week, though, there were only about 100 arrests and no major conflicts. The police over-reacted on a few occasions, but generally things went quite smoothly and peacefully.

Advance projections looked at 15,000 people coming to protest -- or to "witness", as one Notes reader described her role in Denver. The actual numbers were much, much lower. The largest events involved about 3,000 people. The size of the crowds, the tone of the protests, and the community's reaction have stirred my thoughts about the nature of effective public protest in today's world.

On Sunday afternoon, my wife and I went downtown to see how the city felt on the eve of the convention. While we were on the pedestrian mall in the heart of downtown, we encountered about 500 self-described anarchists on a "snake march" to tie up the city. Dressed in black, often wearing masks to hide their faces, and chanting "No Government! No war!", they threaded their way through downtown streets, intending to cause widespread disruption. On all sides of the marchers were astonishing numbers of police -- many in full riot gear or on horseback. SUVs with special platforms each carried 10 battle-ready officers ready to step into a conflict. Other cops in shorts and T-shirts rode bikes, and could form a barrier within moments to block an intersection and divert traffic.

The chanting protesters and the heavy police presence surged around us, and moved down the pedestrian mall. As they went by, we saw tourists calmly shopping for bumper stickers and souveniers, utterly unconcerned about the spectacle happening five feet away. The folk buying campaign buttons speak to me about the weak prospects of taking to the streets as a strategy for social change. Except for a few brief stand-offs between the marchers and the police, the street protests -- the one that we witnessed, and many others in the following days -- generated little interest, and did not advance an awareness of important issues. I have a hunch that the large swarms of protesters never came to Denver because they knew that they would be marginalized and ineffective.

There are occasions when massive crowds with a clear message can be powerful. But what I saw on the streets of Denver -- and in the related TV and newspaper coverage -- makes me think that street demonstrations are a strategy with a limited, declining impact.

On two days last week, I took part as a volunteer in a very different form of protest and activism, one that I think was far more influential. I didn't get the adrenaline rush of facing off against the police, but I did help with a project that could be transformative.

In a downtown parking lot, a coalition of environmental organizations, progressive activists and media bloggers erected "The Big Tent" as a center for education and advocacy. The 8,000 square foot tent -- two stories tall and air conditioned, with excellent catered meals -- was a hub of activity and political conversation. Leading figures in the progressive cause gave presentations, which were streamed live to web viewers around the world. Members of Congress and the mainstream media came to the tent to be part of the conversation. In one example that I saw from a distance: for an hour on Wednesday, oilman T. Boone Pickens and Sierra Club President Carl Pope met together in a conversation on energy policy that pushed far beyond anything on the convention's script.

The Big Tent was a new thing at this convention, providing a home base for 500 bloggers and alternative media, many of whom could not get credentials to get into the Convention hall. I heard of one guy from Pennsylvania who had to get donations from friends so that he could afford to make the trip. These were not powerful and well-funded reporters, and the Tent gave them resources, visibility and access to power that they could not have claimed on their own. The Tent's modest infrastructure and careful planning gave these commentators far more of a political impact than any of the protesters on the street.

When we picture the great movements for social change -- for women's suffrage, civil rights, and against wars -- we picture throngs of people gathered in protest. There will be times when, like the 1963 March on Washington with King's "I have a dream" speech, those crowds are essential for advancing a popular movement. In today's media world, though, the folk that I saw in a tent last week, huddled over their laptops to produce an informed and coordinated commentary, also represent a powerful avenue of change.

I'm biased, of course, because these Notes are an expression of that new form of media activism. I'm convinced that thoughtful commentary from the margins is essential in building a strong and effective movement. In this election season, and beyond, I urge you to see mind-opening and values-changing commentary as a powerful and effective form of social change. Read widely, and forward often!


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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