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Walk softly, but carry a big puppet

Protesters say they will use marches, civil disobedience and theatrics - not violence - to spread their messages.

By BILL ADAIR

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 14, 2000


LOS ANGELES -- It's rehearsal time outside the ramshackle headquarters known as the Convergence Center.

Under a blue tarp, the protesters who will carry the big "Bush-Gore Controlled By Corporations" puppet are figuring out who will be the hands and the head.

Around the corner, a dozen protesters pick up drums, puppets, and a sign that says "Mother Earth Rocks -- Corporate Greed Sucks." Another puppet represents The System, which is controlled by smaller gears representing Corporate Profits, Racism and Violence.

As the group walks two blocks to MacArthur Park to rehearse, Zach Brandau, a "political theater" expert wearing paint-splattered sandals, warns everyone to cross properly or risk arrest.

"Please! No jaywalking! We could get puppets taken away!"

The demonstrators at the Convergence Center are rebels with many causes -- so many that it's hard to keep track.

Their Web site says they are against "corporate globalization, militarism, poverty, starvation, campaign-finance corruption, sexism, racism, homo/transsexual-phobia, criminalization of youth, environmental destruction, prison industrial complex, genocide, undermining of organizing labor, ageism, welfare reform, persecution and deportation of immigrants, lack of decent and affordable health care, undermining of small family farms, disintegration of public education, law enforcement corruption, brutality and state sanctioned murder, corporate controlled media, exploitation of the disabled and all forms of oppression that divide people throughout the world."

They are a loose collection of activists from dozens of political, environmental and labor groups. Hundreds of demonstrators have arrived in Los Angeles to protest the Democratic National Convention. Their published plans call for several marches each day, but police are afraid they will also block traffic, damage buildings and cause other mayhem, just as they did in previous protests in Seattle, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia.

But with so many causes -- many involving complex global issues that don't strike a chord in Middle America -- the demonstrators have had a tough time spreading their message. They were portrayed as Starbucks-sipping thugs who like to smash windows and block traffic. And if there's one thing Middle America does not like, it's traffic jams.

Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher called them "overindulged children searching for ways to upset their elders."

That portrayal doesn't sit well with the volunteers in the center who say the news media has squelched their message.

"To be blunt," said Davis Solnit, a carpenter who helped build many of the puppets, "We're fighting the corporations that own the media."

'Flirting with anarchism'

The Convergence Center is a dilapidated four-story building in a working-class neighborhood 1 mile west of downtown. In the past two months, it's been taken over by a coalition of groups known as the D2KLA Network (www.d2kla.org)

The first floor has a makeshift kitchen, a puppet-making area and table for the "Midnight Special Law Collective," the lawyers who represent the demonstrators if they're arrested.

Upstairs are meeting rooms for seminars on racism-sexism, meal preparation and how protesters should behave if they're sent to jail. The Midnight Special legal manual advises protesters that, "There are a lot of ways the police will try to trick you into talking. It's always safest just to say the Magic Words, "I am going to remain silent. I want a lawyer.' "

The protesters are told to write their lawyer's phone number on their legs in permanent marker, in case the police take their clothes and belongings.

The demonstrators are an eclectic bunch ranging from 19-year-old college students to 40-year-old Teamsters to tanned 50-year-old men with long gray hair. Most, however, are in their 20s and 30s. They have a whole-earth look, which explains why several are cutting up vegetables in the kitchen rather than ordering Big Macs. No one wears Nikes, lest they contribute to a giant corporation with a questionable reputation on overseas sweatshops.

The official guidelines for the group says people should not engage in violence, but members say they support civil disobedience to call attention to their causes.

"I think civil disobedience is a very important tactic," says Peter Dorian, 21, an English literature student from the University of Florida. "I would connect it to the writings of Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King."

In the puppet-making area of the Convergence Center, Mark Tully, 32, is stapling cardboard lips onto the Face of Democracy. A skinny San Francisco resident, he's made a living by working for activist groups on causes such as school overcrowding.

He got enthusiastic about "socially conscious puppeteering" in New England and feels the big cardboard symbols are a powerful way to tell people about his political beliefs. He's perplexed why the L.A. police have sought permission to seize the puppets, claiming that they can be used as weapons.

Tully says a puppet "is a weapon -- but it's a love weapon."

Asked to describe his political views, Tully says, "I've been flirting with anarchism."

He says he believes in "human ecology," which he describes as "kind of like anti-specialization -- making sure you look at things from different angles. I like to bring (issues) together rather than push one thing."

A mechanical beat

The puppeteers, dancers and flag-wavers have arrived in MacArthur Park without anyone being arrested for jaywalking.

Two officers in a black-and-white cruiser eyed the group carefully as they drove by, but, surprisingly, there are no cops in sight at the park.

"All right everybody! In your places!" shouts Brandau, the political-theater expert.

The drummers start playing a mechanical beat as the puppeteers of The System move their gears into place. Dancers move back and forth robotically as the singers chant "Traffic! Smog! Rush! Rush! Work! Stress! Hard!"

The dancers fall one by one to the ground, overtaken by a puppet with an evil red face that is supposed to represent pollution.

"Our social and environmental problems come out of a fundamentally un-democratic system," the narrator shouts to a bewildered group who has come over to see what the fuss is about.

The singers switch to an upbeat "Rising! Rising!" song after the mask of Fake Democracy is knocked down. Then puppeteers carrying puzzle pieces parade by, each puzzle piece offering a solution to the world's problems such as "Books in the 'hood," "End the Death Penalty" and "Free Media."

The narrator seems pleased.

"Let's re-claim the streets," he says, "and re-claim our lives."

* * *

From the Midnight Special Law Collective's Handbook for Activists, a legal manual for protesters at the Democratic National Convention:

Physical Non-Cooperation Techniques

We recommend engaging in jail solidarity tactics in this order, so we can escalate to stronger tactics as we go:

1. refusing to stop chanting, singing or dancing

2. refusing to follow orders (if they say stand, we sit; if they say line up, we mill about)

3. refusing to move at all

4. refusing to wear clothes

5. refusing to eat (but not refusing to drink)

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