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Protesters: See us, hear us, but don't reveal us

By DIANE ROBERTS

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 16, 2000


LOS ANGELES -- In the hard, dirty sunlight of a Los Angeles parking lot, Dog, a 20-something with brown, curly hair and a Lakers T-shirt faded to beige, holds forth: "We're out here because we don't have the money to be in there. We ain't part of corporate, bulls---, suit America."

"Dog" isn't his real name. At least, it isn't the name on his Social Security card or his Blockbuster Video membership. He won't reveal his real name or where he's from. He won't give his age or occupation. "Irrelevant," he says.

A girl who can't be more than 17, concurs: "Names don't matter out here." Her arms are stacked with those pastel stone bead bracelets that are supposed to promote health, love, good fortune, good skin, good karma and, if you wear enough of them, good biceps. "Why don't you ask real questions, like about what the government is doing to the people?"

This is Generation X-Files, a loose congregation of the paranoid who prefer to disclose as little as possible about themselves lest the dark sentinels of the State try to locate and suppress them. They want their protests to be seen (preferably on CNN, according to Dog) and heard, but the demonstrators themselves prefer to be portrayed as a dashingly pseudonymous band of underground warriors against the establishment.

Protests used to be high concept: people were for civil rights and against U.S. involvement in Vietnam. They wanted to make love, not war. Stalwarts of the free speech movement at Berkeley or proponents of integration in Mississippi were only too glad to stand up and be counted -- and arrested -- by name. Now activists would rather resist the system through mystery and disguise: Who was that masked protester?

The system the activists in their various aliases work to confound has placed them next to the Staples Center but separated from the Gore-stickered convention delegates by a chain-link fence ("like a bunch of animals, man," says Dog). Inside their enclosure they listen to speeches on rain forest reclamation, on how Wall Street is a vampire sucking the blood of democracy, and on how veganism is the only moral way to live. There's an inflated Liberty Bell and a George W. Bush puppet with a huge hypodermic needle that turns out not to be a reference to his much-rumored youthful use of recreational controlled substances but a protest against the use of lethal injection in Texas.

A guy with neat, short hair and one discreet little earring in the shape of a dove holds a bouquet of leaves. Nasdak (he spells it this way to avoid confusion with the tech stocks index) admits that yes, he has another name, but why should he go around telling people? There's too much personal information out there anyway, he says, and suggests this cult of personal secrecy comes from the Internet: People make up names, ages, even genders on the Internet. "It gives you freedom outside the box."

Nasdak wants to draw attention to global warming, "which sucks, you know." He blames America's "addiction to fossil fuels -- it's way worse than drugs." On an old hotel building behind him someone has painted a four-story mural with the faces of Cesar Chavez, Robert Kennedy, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. "Think Different," it says: not a reminder of America's proud tradition of progressivism but an ad for Apple computers.

Activists on the left aren't the only ones inclined to veil their identities from what they see as the powers that be. Outside a spot-lit and sequinned party at Paramount Studios, a dozen protesters held posters of mangled fetuses and verbally accosted entering guests with "Abortion is murder" and "This is Bill Clinton's family values."

But when asked their names and hometowns, they went quiet. "You people in the media are part of the problem," said a thin, pale teenager who held a picture of a bloody baby. She eventually said her name was Amy and that she was from Santa Monica, but when asked if she were in school and who her parents were, she said: "That's none of your business. All you need to know is my mother chose not to kill me."

Meanwhile, back at protest central, the tear-gas fumes from Monday night's altercation with the Los Angeles police had almost dissipated. The cops and the activists tolerated each other pretty well until after a Rage Against the Machine concert when somebody threw a bottle or shot a rubber bullet (the police and the activists tell somewhat conflicting stories) and a mild melee erupted. The whole thing just served to reinforce the dominant us-and-them scenario.

Dog surveyed the litter philosophically as a band of Gapatistas (a group that hates the Gap) danced around. "I'm thinking of going to France," he said. "They dump manure in McDonald's parking lots and everybody loves them. I think I'd like it there."

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