Ride the Donkey
Dispatches from the DNC Bazaar, Updated Daily
July 30: Looking For Vermin"Tom Hayden sucks! Tom Hayden sucks!" yells a middle-aged white man wearing an anti-war t-shirt on Boston's Canal Street, near the designated "Free Speech Zone" outside the Fleet Center, ground zero for the Democratic National Convention. He's edging into a crowd of people surrounding Hayden, a celebrity left-wing political activist in a dark suit who's pontificating in lawyerly fashion about the limits and legalities of free speech.
The anti-Hayden fellow suddenly gets into a scuffle--it's not clear who started it, but it involves him and another guy pushing and shoving at one another while both are grasping a flagpole, sending ripples of stumbling through the tightly packed crowd. "No provocateurs! No provocateurs!" several in Hayden's audience start chanting. Soon, Hayden stops speaking and the heckler stops heckling and all returns to normal.
In the Free Speech Zone, normal is charged, righteously indignant, mutually suspicious. A scruffy scenester scribbling on a notepad is seen not as a beatnik reporter, but as an undercover agent for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. An older woman whose clothing advertises anarchy as she waves a copy of Chairman Mao's Little Red Book and loudly denounces private property is herself denounced by a pack of young, slogan-shirted neo-hippies for backing the torturous government crackdown on the Falun Gong religious movement in China. With the Democratic party gathered inside making a gawdy show of its monolithic unity, the protesters outside are loosely knit--even fractious, sometimes fighting and arguing amongst themselves. Except, of course, when they're hitting on each other.
"Are you from California?" a blandly dressed woman somewhere in her fifties asks a similarly clothed gray-haired gentlemen. "Yes, Los Angeles," he answers coyly. After waving signs and chatting for a half-our, the two spoon up together against a wall, cuddling as they watch the dissident drama unfold on Canal Street. One college-aged rebel makes out with three--count'em, three--different women between his outburts of drumming and chanting. Mating rituals in this context appear to involve mustering the testosterone to scream, yell, and beat drums, followed by a flow of calming estrogen to bring the heart back to where it belongs--bathing in love, not angst.
The hormones are thick, but the protesters aren't. Since their numbers never amounted to much, they end up cast as curiosities rather than cogent voices of the disaffected. Sharing Canal Street with them (along with conventioneers heading into the Fleet Center) are free-spending patrons of the posh bars that line the thoroughfare, each establishment with its own outdoor seating. Well-groomed people quaffing micro-brews and munching gourmet burgers watch in bemusement as bedraggled gripers flacidly face down The Man. Obtuse attempts at protest humor are completely missed by skeptical tourists. One sign-waver's message is met with utter consternation by a questioning observer. On one side, it reads "Bush Rapes Iraq, Won't Pull Out (To Steal Their Oil)," and on the other, "Kerry Tries New Position." "I don't get it," the clean-cut gentleman says to the protester. "You mean, like, the missionary position?"
After a dissident miscreant is arrested for putting flame to some kind of aerosol spray (the rumor mill wrongly had it that a Molotov cocktail had been thrown), a line of bulky police wearing sunglasses forms to hold back the thin crowd on the Fleet Center end of Canal Street. The bar scene suffers as a result. "Business was okay until that happened," a bartender at one of the beer-factories says. "Now we're hurting." Sullivan's Tap, a more rough-neck establishment closest to the Fleet Center, locked its Canal Street entrance, forcing patrons to enter from another door a block away.
Adding a bit of levity to the self-important zeal of the protest scene was evidence of Vermin Supreme's presence. The perennial candidate once ran for mayor of Baltimore, and is now in the middle of his umpteenth bid for the White House. Known for his oddball costumes (wearing a large boot on his head, or a rat mask) and strange planks (he once ran on the importance of tooth-brushing), Vermin Supreme could well be characterized as a political errorist, given the way he's reduced political speech to utter whimsy.
Despite tracking Vermin Supreme for hours, biking back and forth from Canal Street to the Boston Common, I was never able to find him in person. His bumper stickers, though, are plastered on plastic buckets that protesters use as drums--and on one woman's tummy. "He's so nice," she says. "He gave me this, and I just had to put it right to my skin."
Signs of Vermin sent me into a slight fit of Mobtown nostalgia, which I aimed to nurse by settling into a barstool away from the political fray. This I found at a establishment called The Littlest Bar, which its proprietor says is 16 feet by 26 feet and has a legal capacity of 35 people--though I'd hate to be there with 34 others. A fine jukebox, heavy on the Irish rock (lots of Thin Lizzy and the Pogues), is matched by the conversational abilities of its habitues, who rest their drinks on the wide varnished pine plank that serves as the well-worn bar.
Lively discussions of Baltimore and Boston ensue, and a convention vendor flush with cash buys rounds for everyone in the house. The evening culminates in a command performance of Gram Parsons' "The Streets of Baltimore" by a folk-bluegrass trio known as the Spring Hill Rounders, who are crowded in a tiny space between the end of the bar and the shop window. Cases of beer are stacked everywhere, since The Littlest Bar has no room for storage. After a while, as the crowd grows, it has no room for me either, so I sidle out, slide on my bike, make another bee-line from the Common to the Fleet Center looking for Vermin, and then call it a night--and a convention.
July 29: Talkin' Bout My DelegationMayor Martin O'Malley, basking backstage in the afterglow of his July 28 speech to the Democratic National Convention, describes how, out of deference, he rued having to follow Jesse Jackson in the order of speakers. After all, he explains nostalgically, he was in the audience when Jackson spoke at the first convention O'Malley attended in 1984. But tonight's event staff had been firm. "I said,'I have to speak after Jesse Jackson?'" O'Malley recalls. "And they said, 'Yes, you do.' And I said, 'No long musical interlude or anything?' And they said, 'No, no long musical interlude.'"
O'Malley's chief of staff, Michael Enright, breaks in suddenly to say, "Mr. Mayor, come wave to the delegation," pointing to the convention floor. Many in Maryland's delegation are wearing green-on-white O'MALLEY t-shirts, and nearly all of them have O'MALLEY stickers pasted to their chests--as do scattered delegates from Connecticut, Alabama, Virginia, Missouri, Wisconsin, and probably several other states, thanks to the mayor's fervent campaign organization. O'Malley steps forward and not only waves, but dances. A few steps, to James Brown's "Living in America," which was booming through the Fleet Center sound system.
Despite following Jackson, early in the evening's order of events and therefore before a relatively sparse--though certainly not thin--crowd, O'Malley is elated. His speech had been about municipal homeland-security costs, and he'd delivered a few choice lines, drawing peals of applause from the ecstatic Maryland delegation. The one about how cities can't raise the necessary funds to fight terrorism from property taxes and "fire-hall bingos" had a folksy ring to it. And the fact about September 11--not 2001, but 1814, when D.C. was burning as Baltimore fended off the attacking British--was a handy way to make the point that "one city can't do it alone" in the current war. But the content of his speech was almost beside the point. With it--no matter what vital issues of our day he may have been asked to address--O'Malley arrived. He and his speech were like a debutante coming out at the Bachelors' Cotillion; it hardly matters what dress to wear, as long as it's white, long, and goes well with pearls.
As Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger says later (after setting aside a pink martini drink at a mayors' party hosted by O'Malley at The Place, a downtown Boston bar), "this puts Martin on a whole other level. They're thinking presidential material, down the line"--repeating an oft-cited tout of the mayor's status within national Democratic circles. "He's a rock star."
Rock stars are renowned for leaving a messy hotel room--an analogy for the Baltimore that former city councilman O'Malley may leave behind when he makes his next expected stab for higher office, presumably for Maryland governor in 2006. But Ruppersberger retorts that O'Malley is "teflon," that raising city taxes this year won't hurt his chances in future elections, and that, despite a demonstrably mixed record of results in his first term at the helm of Baltimore (), the mayor's "charisma" will carry him far. Besides, the one-time Baltimore County executive explains, "look what he was left to work with" after 12 years of Mayor Kurt Schmoke, whose tenure is famous for overseeing a long, slow decline in Baltimore's fortunes, leaving a bereft, uninspired city government.
Still, Ruppersberger agrees that O'Malley failed to take full advantage his prodigious political capital immediately after the 1999 mayoral election--which, in a three-way race, produced a true mandate from voters across the city--by taking tough, early steps to whip city government into shape. Ruppersberger did exactly that during his first year as county executive, in 1995; he took his lumps for it, politically, but three years later proceeded to win re-election in every county precinct because his administration had produced tangible results that were nearly universally recognized.
O'Malley gained office five years ago by repeating certain key mantras: That other cities have reversed their declines, so why not Baltimore? That homicides are bellwether number for public safety and overall urban health, and their annual number in Baltimore would be nearly halved in a few short years by taking obvious, deliberate steps in policing. That the police can be given a large raise, despite a known lack of available revenue, because the resulting decline in crime will grow the city's tax-base again.
Baltimore's revival, clear enough along the waterfront and the northern corridor along Charles Street, has occurred exactly where an era of low interest rates would be expected to spur renewed investment, but has lagged in vast stretches of Baltimore neighborhoods that are either still stuck in a rut--or gotten worse--since the Schmoke years. As for homicides as the key indicator, O'Malley has backed off, saying instead--as Schmoke used to before him--that other, more nuanced measures of crime are better indicators. And the census still records a shrinking Baltimore, despite O'Malley's strenuous claims to the contrary; either way, the police raise clearly has not resulted in an uptick in the residential tax-base, since O'Malley was forced to raise energy and phone taxes this year in order to avoid cutting critical city services.
Rather than O'Malley's results in Baltimore, though, Ruppersberger flatly states that the national Dems' interest in O'Malley is "all about image and perception"--qualities that in O'Malley were augmented rapidly when he "raised a million bucks" for Kerry at a Baltimore fundraiser earlier this year, he adds. After jumping on the short-lived Howard Dean bandwagon, O'Malley "did good for Kerry," Ruppersberger explains, so the party rewarded him with a few minutes at the convention dais to deliver a message for which he'd already made a national name for himself. "That's how it works," the congressman says candidly.
Earlier in the day in the Boston Commons, the city's central park, a homeless man named Gilbert--who in yesterday's dispatch (see below) had been protesting the indulgences of the convention by calling for jobs for the homeless--asked me how Baltimore was doing. I explained that it's doing very well for a few, but not so well for many. "I'd like to go there," Gilbert declared. But when he heard that there still are around 275 homicides a year in Baltimore, and that it still competes with Detroit at the top of the most-violent-city-in-America list, he quickly reversed himself. "Whoa," he slowly exclaimed. "No, I don't want to go there"--and then predicts an 8-to-3 victory for the Red Sox over the Orioles at Camden Yards that night.
Even the homeless recoil from such stubborn statistics about Baltimore--especially the homeless in Boston, a slightly smaller city that has managed to keep annual homicides in the low double-digits. But they still want to talk baseball--confirming the popular tendency to put image and perception above bitter realities. Despite persistent murder and mayhem on the mean streets of Baltimore, Camden Yards remains a common draw.
And so does O'Malley. Montgomery County executive Doug Duncan--a likely primary opponent of O'Malley's, should the two run for governor--sat with the Maryland delegation nearly the entire day, confirming City Councilman Keiffer Mitchell's assessment that Duncan has been more "grass roots" and "low-key" during the convention than O'Malley. The mayor's family, friends, and merchandise-pushing staff acted as surrogates on the floor for the man himself, except during his brief presence among the delegates after his speech. But who's t-shirts and buttons are the delegates wearing? Not Duncan's, despite his strong record of presiding over a thickly populated and politically influential county. They're wearing O'Malley's--the mayor of a shrinking, cash-strapped, violence-plagued city whose political legs atrophy further with each passing census.
"This is a big day for me," O'Malley says backstage after his speech. "It's a big day for me, but it's a very big day for my mom. Both my folks are getting in their 80s now. It's great that she could see this." Ancestors on both sides of his family, he further explains, were convention delegates from Pittsburgh and Indiana, so it's a special family honor to enter the spotlight on the convention stage. The question is, does the spotlight shine so brightly that the flaws start to show through the stage make-up? Not so far, given O'Malley's reception here--and possibly never, if Ruppersberger is right about the mayor's prospects. Let's just hope he leaves the hotel room a bit closer to clean when he leaves.
July 28: Cirque du StrangeENTERGY PILGRIM STATION, reads an unremarkable sign off of Route 3A between Boston and Cape Cod. It marks the entrance—along with a blinking yellow traffic signal—of one of the oldest operating nuclear power plants in the country. In past years, the disaster-alert system for this sensitive facility consisted of pole-mounted PA loudspeakers scattered throughout the area, a system that was periodically—and ominously—tested. But today, if extra security has been put in place to protect the plant from an attack or sabotage during the Democratic National Convention, it is not visible. Elsewhere along this back road to Boston, though, added public-safety measures are evident in the extreme.
Marked police and state-trooper cars with flashing lights are parked near intersections and bridges, while impressively dressed officers stand nearby, chatting, smoking cigarettes, listening to their police radios, all of them looking quite bored but content with the over-time pay that presumably will pad their next paychecks. Plymouth, Kingston, Duxbury, Marshfield, Scituate, Hingham, Weymouth, Quincy—the towns on this approach to Boston (driven so as to avoid expected DNC-instigated traffic snarls) are as well protected as military bases. One can only hope the nuclear plant is, too.
What’s surprising during this meandering commute is the lack of traffic. The car’s tires eat up long stretches of blacktop alone, with no others present in either direction. It’s just me and The Man, and, boy, do I feel safe, assured of a helping hand in the event of a breakdown. And as Boston nears, its downtown skyline growing larger, the traffic grows only marginally. NPR interviews a local traffic guy who says that, in his 22 years of covering Boston traffic, he’s only seen it this light on Christmas. The region, it seems, has stayed at home and let the nation’s Democratic leadership have the city for itself.
I stake my claim at a half-empty pay lot and forsake the car for a mountain bike. After checking in with the amenable crew at Boston’s Weekly Dig, an upstart alt-weekly that has opened its doors (and taps, for the office is regularly equipped with a choice of three kegs to draw from) as a home base for visiting reporters, I pedal to the Boston Common. Here, at the city’s main downtown green space, is where the voices of dissent are said to be gathering. And indeed they are—all 300 or so of them, huddling cheerfully near the Common’s monument to honor the city’s Civil War dead, for an event billed as the Really Really Democratic Bazaar.
“Punk bands—cool!” exclaims a young woman into her cell phone nearby. As the band plays raucously, guys with long dreads wearing skirts juggle and play hacky-sack while chicks with shaved heads man tables covered with free zines. A Revolutionary War re-enactor carrying a trombone soaks up the scene. A pink-clad punk-rock cheerleading squad, including one large male in tights and a mini-skirt, practices its routines. Slightly away from the paltry crowd, a solitary African-American protester clutches newspapers and proclaims: “Shut all the shelters and give the homeless jobs!” He appears passionately unamused by the gluttony of the DNC—or the comfortable play of the dissenters.
Police helicopters constantly hover over the Commons, which are also patrolled by cops on foot and atop horses and bikes. An accordionist, Darryl Smith, says, “I can deal with the bands, but those helicopters are driving me crazy,” as he peeks over his round rose-colored glasses while packing up his instrument to call it a day.
Up on the widow’s walk of the State House dome, high atop Beacon Hill, two black-clad officers survey the Commons with high-powered lenses. At street-level, tour buses are double-parked, and a guide with a mike tells his patrons the obvious: “There is a very heavy police presence in the city right now.” At the back of the bus, a woman surrounded by children retorts in a patriotic tone, “Better that we be safe.”
At Cambridge’s Harvard Square, the scene is normal—which is to say, bustling with people. A major subway stop ensures a lot of foot traffic, and folks tend to dally around the newsstand there, or stay to watch street performers, such as today’s break-dancers. Suddenly, as if on cue, hundreds of people turn to face a stopped motorcade. “It’s Bill Clinton!” someone yells out. Instantly, as the former president pokes his head out the window and waves, virtually everyone at the square starts cocking their fists and yelling in unison: “We love Bill! We love Bill!” Seconds later, the window closes and the vehicles pull away.
Not a half-minute passes before everything is back to normal: the break-dancers perform for the crowd again as readers peruse the newsstand’s offerings and subway commuters come and go. The only indication that Clinton had just stopped by was the large number of people using their cell-phones to report to friends and family what had happened. “I’m on Harvard Square, and Bill Clinton was just here! It was awesome!” says one preppy young man as he digs in his pants pocket to find some coins. Having found a handful of small change, he drops the money into a cup held by a wheelchair-bound fellow who’s rhythmically repeating the words, “Wheelchair basketball … wheelchair basketball.” If nothing else, Clinton’s presence apparently inspires small, spontaneous acts of charity.
Back at the Common, the homeless protester hangs out at the base of the Civil War monument, near a phalanx of mounties. Asked jokingly if he’s managed to get any shelters closed or any jobs for the homeless today, he becomes obtuse and apparently offended. “Oh, I got a job, hope to have a place soon,” he says. Then he points to two white men in street clothes sitting on a bench, one of them hold a long-lens digital camera. “Those guys are cops,” he proclaims loudly. “One of them fingerprinted me once.” The men, aware of the comments and the sudden attention from a fellow with a note pad, shrug as if to say, “So what?” Situated on a small hill above the Really Really Democratic Bazaar, they resume snapping zoomed images of the political protesters. As I approach them to ask if they are police, they quickly stand and walk away as a folk singer on the Bazaar stage chimes melodically: “I’m talking to you from here at the end of the world.”
With the undercovers gone, I instead ask two uniformed officers an innocuous question: “Do you know where the Spot-a-Pots are?”
One replies: “They got rid of them. Got rid of the trash cans, too.”
“So where are you supposed to go?” I ask.
“Go home,” answers the other, rudely. A hundred or so yards away, I find several banks of portable potties. Inside of one is graffiti: “A better world is possible, but it’s not on the ballot.” Even the toilets are political during the convention. When I return to tell the patrolmen where the bathrooms are, for their future reference, the angry one states, with sarcastic venom, “We just use the Dunkin’ Donuts.”
Just outside the Commons on the street, a medic protester—identifiable by the red tape forming crosses on his black T-shirt and his green helmet, along with his bulky First Aid kit—is stopped while riding his bicycle by two large state police officers wearing full riot gear. The medic’s body language spells nothing but fear as he produces an identification card on demand. Once they let him go on his way, he re-enters the Commons and cries out, “Legal!” A young fellow in a green T-shirt approaches the medic, who recounts his story. “I was stopped by state police in riot gear,” he explains, as a video-cameraman arrives to record the moment. “They told me I need an ID and a valid license to ride a bicycle in Boston, and then they asked me to recite my social-security number, which I did. Then they asked me where I lived, and then how I got to Boston from western Massachusetts.” I ask him his name, but he shuts down: “I’ve had enough of being ID’d today,” and pedals off.
It turns out, according to several sources knowledgeable with local bicycling ordinances, that bikers are only required to carry and produce identification if they are bike couriers, who are licensed by the city. Thus, it appears that the officers were simply harassing the medic.
Down near the Fleet Center, where the convention is being held, crowds throng around Quincy Market and the MSNBC tent. Young girls carry Kerry-Edwards placards, while several people hand out CNN buttons. A middle-aged gentleman walks through the crowd with two school-aged children and suddenly shouts out with a heavy Boston accent: “If you wanna be free, vote Bush! Pro-life! Down with abortion!” Then, getting absolutely no reaction, he puts his arm around his kids and scurries off. Then an old man wearing a funny red-white-and-blue hat shaped like a hand making the victory sign arrives, shouting in a lispy voice through his gapped teeth, “He lied! He lied!” He carries a poster of Clinton with a Pinocchio nose, and the words, “Believe Paula Jones”—one of the women who accused Clinton of trying to seduce her. As the TV cameras close in on the old man, he passionately endorses Bush by saying, “He won the war in three weeks! Three weeks!”
Back at the Bazaar, a local protest singer named Eddy Dwyer takes the stage wearing an American flag shirt and an acoustic guitar. His songs—some of them his, some of them covers—are designed to provoke. One of them lampoons an army volunteer as a “flat-cut monkey throwing shit in his cage” who ends up “a double-amputee on a breathing machine.” It’s nearing the 8 pm closing time, and the crowd is down to about a hundred hard-core believers. “Fuck Ronald Reagan! I’m glad he’s dead!” Dwyer shouts, as the riot police sit placid and bored a hundred yards behind the stage and a small group of people start doing calisthenics nearby. “I wrote this next song in jail,” the singer explains before ripping into a number that features the words, “Kill the pigs.”
Suddenly, the athletes stretching out break into a jog, shouting out in cadence to their drill sergeant’s cues. “Oh look!” shouts Dwyer. “The Marines are here! We’re safe now!” Then he leads the paltry crowd in a spirited chant: “Fight war, not words! Fight war, not words!” The Marine grunts scream their cadences louder as they jog by, competing with decibels against the protesters.
Before Dwyer leaves the stage, he makes an announcement. “There’s a Shakespeare play over there,” he explains, pointing in the direction of an outdoor theater. “Go get yourselves some culture. It’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’—kind of theme for this week, huh?”
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