SF Examiner column on Philly

Doug Henwood dhenwood at panix.com
Tue Aug 1 14:29:06 PDT 2000

San Francisco Examiner - August 1, 2000

The story was in the streets By Stephanie Salter /EXAMINER COLUMNIST

PHILADELPHIA - The only time during the five-hour protest march that I had to restrain my self from hurling a bottle or rock was near the end, when three buffed guys from NBC News cruised past in a golf cart.

"It figures," one guy shouted to another. "We show up and the party's over."

With two grandmothers named Judith from Philadelphia - and thousands of young demonstrators from everywhere else - I had just spent several hours and about six miles slogging in crippling heat and humidity from City Hall to Franklin D. Roosevelt Park on the periphery of the Republican National Convention.

The people I marched with were passionate but polite, committed but cheerful, and damned fine company. They had driven, flown and taken the train to Philadelphia to show their support for the poor, the environment, abortion rights, immigrants and affordable housing.

Almost nowhere along the route had I seen TV trucks parked or electronic media people interviewing the protesters. A colleague inside the First Union Center convention hall informed me by cell phone that neither CNN nor MSNBC had featured much of anything on the demonstration.

"And it's a total no-news day in here," he added.

So what if thousands of American citizens had taken to the streets to tell Republicans AND Democrats that their values are not being represented in Washington. So what if the march organizers - the Kensington Welfare Rights Union - had been denied a parade permit because the GOP, not the city's government, has been in charge of venue allocation here this week?

Big deal. Who cares about a bunch of bleeding hearts, sweating in the hot sun, when you can broadcast Laura Bush's speech to 2,066 hand-picked Republican delegates.

Shortly after the NBC golf cart whizzed by in FDR Park, I saw a bearded young man wearing a T-shirt that read, "The Whole World's Watching."

"No, it isn't," I grumbled to the Judiths. "The whole world is NOT watching because the mainstream news media aren't interested in demonstrators unless they're being tear-gassed or getting their heads beat in."

I had picked the Judiths out of the pre-march crowd that gathered at City Hall at 11 a.m. Monday. Figuring I'd walk a little ways in the much-anticipated - and policed - protest, I wanted to stroll with people like me: middle-aged who'd come of age 30 years before in marches much like this one.

As it turned out, the Judiths didn't know each other. When kids from the organizing committee handed out protest signs, they'd simply taken them and stood waiting to join the single-file line that snaked for miles down Broad Street.

Judith Will, 64, is the mother of four and grandmother of two. Since 1991, when a benign but inoperable brain tumor put her on disability, she has been active in economic and social justice programs in Philadelphia.

Judith Porter, 60, has three grown children and two grandkids. She's a sociology professor at Bryn Mawr College and recently attended the international AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa.

"I came here today because, basically, the Republican Party is morally bankrupt, and I want to make a statement about that," said Porter. "And I not only don't buy what the Republicans have done, I don't buy what the Democrats have NOT done."

Dressed in shorts, an AIDS conference T-shirt and purple bandanna, Porter added:

"I also think it's important for these kids to see that this stuff is not just a kids' issue."

Will, who wore white cotton pants, a white tank top and carried a denim backpack, nodded in agreement. Looking at the sea of teenagers and people in their 20s, she smiled.

"This gives me hope for the future," she said. "I was starting to think there was no chance. Then Seattle (and the World Trade Organization protests) happened, and whooo!"

For the next four hours, as the sun beat down and most of Philadelphia's 6,800 uniformed cops lined Broad Street, the Judiths and I were a team.

All around us, kids used Magic Markers to write emergency phone numbers for bail money on each other's arms, spread sunscreen on backs and spritzed water in one another's faces.

The chants were a combination of Summer 2000 and Memory Lane:

-- "One, two, three, four! Stop the war on the poor! Five, six, seven, eight! Time to tax Bill Gates!" -- "What do we want? DEMOCRACY! When do we want it? NOW!" -- "Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Bush and Gore have got to go!"

T-shirts, as usual, told the story in shorthand:

-- "I Oppose the Death Penalty. Don't Kill For Me." -- "Disappeared in America: Hiding the poor." -- "S¬ se puede! Cesar Chavez." -- "I Brake For Whales."

Out of the dressed-up and refurbished city center and deep into South Philly, I left the line long enough to buy a 25-cent glass of cold punch from a woman named Odessa Clarkson. She and other volunteers were dispensing drinks as fast as they could outside a community pediatric and adult medical clinic.

"As hot as it is, you could get five bucks a glass for this," I told Clarkson.

She shot me a no-BS look and said, "Twenty-five cents is ALL I can charge and live with myself."

About halfway through the march, Judith Will announced that she lived but a block away. As if we'd found Shangri-la, the three of us ducked inside her small house, hit the john, stuck our heads under the kitchen faucet and grabbed bottles of cold water for the rest of the trip.

"Republican women would never do this," said Porter, her soaked bandanna cooling her head. "If they took a break, it would be to re-do their makeup."

Somewhere along the way, the Judiths and I began to call one another "Ladies." Every time we passed a cluster of exhausted kids, resting in the shade of a building or small tree, we'd exhort each other on.

"We've come this far, we might as well see it to the end."

And so we did. Even though the Philadelphia Police Department made that akin to finishing an Iron Man competition: Only a couple of blocks from FDR Park and the convention center, an army of cops, cars and sheriff's buses blocked the way. The marchers were made to walk a mile and a half more to the west side of the giant hall.

"Well, ladies, we made it," Porter said, as we high-fived each other, collapsed under a tree and poured water on our heads.

A half an hour later, we were back on our feet, heading toward the nearest subway stop, two miles back. (The cops had closed the station closest to the convention center.) It was then that the NBC News golf cart came tooling by, and the journalist on it surveyed the bedraggled multitudes and complained that there was nothing worth reporting.

Well, certainly nothing as meaningful as Laura Bush's speech.

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