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William Rivers Pitt: Shoulder to Shoulder

Shoulder to Shoulder

By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Tuesday 03 August 2004


The banners have come down, the fences have been dismantled, and the city of Boston is returning to normal. All the shiny ones - Blitzer and Brokaw, Dobbs and Rather and the rest - have packed their matched luggage and fought the traffic to Logan airport. The delegates have left the hotels, the hostels and the college dorms for the wide roads to wherever they call home.

The mark left on the nation from the past week of the Democratic convention, however, is deep.


The Veterans for Peace convention in the Boston Public Library on Saturday afternoon, and a barrel-chested man absolutely collapsing with laughter in the lobby outside the speaking hall. "You won't believe it!" he shouted to a friend by the door. "I got promoted! I got a letter in the mail! I'm a corporal now!" I didn't get the joke at the time, but that was because I had not yet been properly introduced to Michael Hoffman, the barrel-chested newly-minted corporal, who is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and now the founder of Iraq Veterans Against the War (

A mid-sized protest taking place in the Public Garden, downtown, on Sunday afternoon. Nothing out of the ordinary, and certainly not threatening. Which is why the 50 cops in full body armor and face-shield helmets lining up outside the park seemed a bit ominous. They didn't come for the chowder. These guys looked ready for some hard business. There are also regular uniform cops all over. The now-infamous Free Speech Zone outside the convention site is every bit as intimidating and confining as the pictures make it out to be. The whole area around the Fleet Center was one big cage, and the helicopters were roaring overhead. Uniformed soldiers were perched on the high spots, on the bridges and overpasses by the building. The city was a clenched fist.

A local television news station reported just after midnight on Monday morning, the opening day of the convention, that four men were seen parachuting into Boston, that they landed on the roof of the Tip O'Neil building downtown, and that a multi-agency manhunt was now underway. The reports were little more than confused gibberish. By morning it is clear the whole thing was a drill, and that the local station had leaped before they looked.

Sitting with the press gaggle on Monday morning. Two reporters were sitting behind me discussing Kerry's stance on gay marriage. One reporter asked questions, and the other pontificated his opinion of Kerry's position, more editorial than fact. I looked over my shoulder and saw the first reporter, the questioner, scribbling notes furiously. It came to me that this first reporter was getting ready to write a story on Kerry and gay marriage, and this second reporter was going to be his main source of information. It makes one wonder how many stories we see in newspapers every day are generated by reporters talking to reporters, instead of reporters talking to sources and researching information for themselves. Depressing stuff.

The Veterans for Kerry event at the Sheraton Boston on Monday afternoon. "This flag," said Wesley Clark while pointing to a huge American flag behind him, "is our flag. No John Ashcroft or Don Rumsfeld or George Bush is going to take it away from us." A swift-boat crewmate of Kerry stood forth and said, "If John came to us today and said we had one more swift boat mission, and we were going to hell, John would have a full crew." Came then Max Cleland in his wheelchair and the one good arm remaining to him. "We're not going to hell with Kerry," said Cleland. "We've been to hell. We're going to the White House."

Al Gore ascending the podium at the convention on Monday night to a rousing standing ovation. The crowd wouldn't let him speak. "In America," he said, "any boy or girl can win the popular vote." This got a laugh, but his next words were deadly serious: The Supreme Court cannot pick the next President, this President cannot pick the next Supreme Court, and it matters who wins these elections. Gore addressed those who voted for Bush in 2000. Did they get what they had wanted? Did they get their compassionate conservatism? He then addressed the Nader folks: Do they still think there is no difference between the candidates? Does the erosion of our civil liberties and our environmental protections bother them? Bush takes it in the chops: Do we want a guy who confused Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda with Iraq? "To those disappointed with the outcome in 2000," he said, "I want you to remember them. I want you to focus them on putting John Kerry in the White House."

The future of the Democratic party in many eyes, Barack Obama, speaking Tuesday night to a rapt audience. He spoke of his diverse roots, the story of his name, and the story of his vision. For the next five days, from Boston to Seattle, every political person I met began our conversation with, "Did you see Obama's speech?" There was a buzz on Wednesday that the convention was "peaking too early," that the energy would crest and dissipate before Kerry got to the podium Thursday night. Barack Obama shook the very ground.

The Take Back the Media conference on Wednesday afternoon at the Royal Sonesta hotel in Cambridge. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, Dennis Kucinich, Barbara Lee, Gary Hart and others were slated to speak to the assembled. Hart from the podium recognized Robin Cooke, the high British official who resigned his position in protest over Blair's support of the Iraq invasion. Cooke, who was in the audience, rose to acknowledge Hart, and the whole room surged to its feet to give him a pounding standing ovation. Ambassador Wilson took the podium, and asked forgiveness from peace advocate Kucinich for "harboring a small wish for violence against a certain journalist." Bob Novak probably had a chill go up his spine.

Medea Benjamin of Code Pink, who was also at the TBA conference, told me she got out onto the convention floor during Teresa Heinz-Kerry's speech the night before with a big banner denouncing the Iraq occupation. She and got the delegates to start a chant until security removed her. She had been at a Latino conference with the same banner that Wednesday morning, but was told she couldn't unfurl it. According to Benjamin, the guy tried to take the banner, and would have...except a rep for NOW had a bunch of women surrounded the little tussle and put a stop to it. "This is a free country," said the NOW rep. "Let her speak." From the podium, Heinz-Kerry, who was speaking at the Latino event, recognized Benjamin and the protesters with the word, "Peace."

John Edwards coming to the stage Wednesday night. An interesting thing I learned about Edwards recently: When he would go to trial as a practicing attorney, he would avoid taking depositions. I was in the legal biz as a litigation paralegal for several years, and depositions are the bread and butter of a lawyer's preparation for trial. You interview the prospective witness, either yours or theirs, and you find out what they are going to say. It is sworn testimony. You use it to make your case. Edwards never wanted to tip his hand to the other side as to where he was headed with his case. So he didn't take depositions, choosing to elicit the facts from the witness on the fly, and come what may. The amount of raw talent, critical thinking and sure-footedness this tactic requires is amazing to anyone who knows anything about the practice of law. When he takes the stage, the whole building erupts.

The city sitting quietly on Thursday morning; Boston officials spent six months scaring the cheese out of the residents regarding the traffic/terrorism/live-jaguars-falling-from-the-sky scenarios that they predicted would ensue if people who live here stayed here and tried to go to work. A lot of people took it to heart, and the town that morning looked like a deleted scene from 'Night of the Comet.' Ain't nothing happening but the rent. But the buzz was there to be heard, if you had the right ears for it. Carter, Gore, Kucinich, Dean, Obama, Clinton, Sharpton, Edwards and many others had risen to the challenge of speaking to a national audience about national issues by giving the best speeches of their careers, and the tingling nerves of this city awaited the final show. John Kerry would speak this night to accept the nomination.

The Progressive Democratic convention at Roxbury College. The theme was 'Building a Grassroots Movement within the Democratic Party.' Howard Dean took the stage, and the place erupted. Kucinich came out of nowhere and bounded up onto the stage, and Dean practically lifted him off the ground. Everyone was on their feet as the two men clasped hands and raised them in triumph above their heads. Tim Carpenter, deputy campaign manager for Dennis Kucinich, worked like a dray horse to get that one moment coordinated between the two former candidates.

Thursday night at the Democratic convention, and news reports had a top terror suspect being arrested in Pakistan. You had to love the timing. The New Republic ran a story a couple of weeks ago that had Bush's people leaning on Pakistan for big terror arrests during the Democratic convention. They specifically demanded arrests for the last week of July. Looks like Bush got what he wanted. Meanwhile, the cops cleared people away from a radio that someone left outside the front door of the Fleet Center. Could be a bomb, you see. Terra! Terra! Terra!

Stepping down to the lobby to get a coffee Thursday night. While I was down there, the fire department closed all access to the upper floors. The entrance to the escalators became a massive, frustrated bottleneck of delegates and press. Minutes rolled by, and the crowds stacking up at the escalators got hotter and angrier. It became clear after a while that the fire department had corked the bottle. No one but no one, not Senators or delegates or God Himself, was getting back into the upper floors of the Fleet...except me. Through my awesome powers of sneakiness, I saw a door open to a back stairway and bolted inside. I was back in the press bullpen five minutes later.

Thursday night, and John Kerry giving the speech of his life. This was not the young man before Congress speaking of the horrors of Vietnam, but the wiser man tempered by a lifetime of public service. Many believe there were better candidates in the primary field, and perhaps they are right. But John Kerry just left it all on the convention floor, melding seamless national security themes into one of the most progressive addressed I ever heard on a national stage. Those who worried on Wednesday that the event was peaking too early were disabused of their fears. Kerry accepted the nomination, and the balloons dropped. Fade to black, roll credits.


It would be easy to paint the convention days in Boston as being only about the Democratic Party. This would be a gross distortion of the time, and would ignore three events happening on the periphery - the Take Back America Conference, the Boston Social Forum, and the Progressive Democratic Convention. The duality of the convention experience was striking. As we came to the end of things on Thursday evening, I was trying to wrap my mind around the seemingly different worlds I had been traveling between.

My mornings and afternoons were dominated by an immersion into progressive activism that was at least as important as what was happening in the Fleet Center. Then, in the evenings, I would dive into this ant- hive of big-time mainstream politics. I had to elbow past Wolf Blitzer and Tom Brokaw to get to the bathroom, and I nearly got plowed under by Terry McAuliffe's entourage on Wednesday. The differences were not so large, however. The delegates on the floor were against the Iraq war. They were the same people I met at the progressive events during the days. The speakers championed women's rights, the environment and a foreign policy that does not shoot first and ignore questions later.

If these two worlds can ever get it together, they would sweep the field. Period. Dennis Kucinich is trying to bring it all together on the progressive end, as is Howard Dean. The Kerry campaign, despite all the martial symbolism evident in the convention, crafted an overall message that resonated deeply with the progressive principles held dear by the delegates on the floor, and by the people gathered at progressive events across the city.

The Democrats did a good job of crafting that message for the progressives outside the hall. In order to close the sale, however, progressives must craft their own long-term battle plan. The first step of this plan is to help John Kerry win this election, no matter how it may gall. Candidate Kerry can be pushed, but the pushing will amount to little. Pushing a President Kerry, however, is a whole different kettle of fish. A Kerry victory is not the goal, but only the means to the goal.

The goal is the midterm elections of 2006. John Kerry, if elected, will spend his first two years wrestling with an opposition Republican Congress, a fight they will not fare well in. Six months after they take office, the Kerry administration will be absolutely salivating for a friendlier majority leader on the Hill. They will be ready to give away whole shelves of the store to get it.

A cohesive progressive movement, fused and funded nationally through one of the organizations birthed out of the campaigns of Dennis Kucinich and Howard Dean, can be central to the effort to deliver Congress to the Democratic Party. That delivery will only come under the terms set by that organized, powerful, free-swinging progressive movement. If the progressives don't get what they want, the Kerry administration can chew on a Republican Congress and spit at the taste of it.

That's how progressives can change the Party. That's how progressives can fulfill the hopes, dreams and goals of Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich. In order to do this, however, the men and women who supported these candidates need to thank those candidates, bow deeply before them will the greatest respect and gratitude, and then put those two candidates on the shelf.

And then they need to find that seam in the Democratic party, stick the prybar in, and heave. The seam is 2006. Put the Kerry administration in a place where they desperately need a national progressive push to take back Congress, make sure the organization is there to deliver that Congress, and then hand Mr. Kerry a laundry list of legislation to be passed by the new Congress.

Killing the Buddha

There is a famous line from the Zen Buddhist tradition. A monk, after years of meditation, reached what he believed was a moment of supreme enlightenment. He described the experience to his master, who told the monk that his experience was nothing special, and might even interfere with his spiritual journey. The master told the now-dismayed monk that if he should meet the Buddha, he should kill him. Why? Because the Buddha you meet is not the true Buddha, but only an expression of your longing for what it is you seek. If you do not kill that Buddha, he will only stand in your way.

There is a curious phenomenon within the progressive community. Progressives are, by and large, a fiercely independent lot. They want no truck with the DNC or the DLC, and are immune to those who plead, "You have to support Kerry! Do you want to help Bush?" If you order a progressive to do something, if you demand they follow a particular party line, they will in all likelihood tell you to find the nearest sand pile and go pound it.

One would assume, from this, that your average progressive is not much for following leaders. Here is the curious phenomenon: That is not true. What began as a movement to bring vitally important issues to the fore of our national conversation became, instead, about the politicians who were the focus of that movement. Instead of being about health care, NAFTA, GATT, the Iraq war, the 'War on Terra' as a whole, the Patriot Act, and all the other issues that demand attention, the movement became about the candidates themselves.

Perhaps unwittingly, progressives transferred the power they themselves held in hand. Thus, the energy created by those two campaigns is being divided and splintered. In the beginning, before all of this, it was about the people themselves, the movement, and the ideals and policies they wished to see put into effect. It still is about that, but the Buddha needs to be killed before any of that energy and hope has a prayer of seeing the light.

Three organizations have risen from the Dean and Kucinich campaigns: Democracy for America, Progressives Democrats for America, and Progressive Vote. Right now, these three organizations are trying to meld themselves into a cohesive entity, a force to be reckoned with, a platform for power politics within the Democratic Party in the best traditions of what Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich were hoping to achieve.

Because the progressive base still holds these men sacred, and because these groups still identify themselves with those lost campaigns, the energy that could come from such a melding is falling to ashes due to infighting that is, basically, an extension of the fighting in the primaries.

American progressives need to do three things.

They need to kill the Buddha. They need to leave aside the candidate they were following with such devout energy and hope. They need to remember that they, the people, are the point of the exercise, the power players, and not the candidates they followed.

They need to join and then fundraise for one of the three progressive organizations which rose from the campaigns, and do everything in their power to help those organizations work together. Candidates come and go, no matter how righteous. Advocacy organizations - think NOW or NARAL - last through it all if properly formulated and funded.

They need to settle upon a coherent goal. Again, 2006.

Former Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi, in his book 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,' wrote, "An amazing thing happened in the presidential contest of 2004: For the first time in my life, maybe the first time in history, a candidate lost but his campaign won. When Governor Dean stood in my office and admitted that even he hadn't expected to be thrust into the lead for the Democratic presidential nomination, he was saying what I'd known for months. This was bigger than him. Certainly bigger than me. Bigger than the Democratic Party. Bigger even than determining who ran against George W. Bush in the general election. This was nothing less than the first shot in America's second revolution, nothing less than the people taking the first step to reclaiming a system that had long ago forgotten they existed."

Kill the Buddha. Seize the power.

How My Mom Saved Democracy

One overarching theme emerged from the pre-convention events, the convention itself, the activities happening outside the convention, and the crowd that came out for the Rolling Thunder event I attended in Seattle on Saturday: Don't wait for a party or an organization to take care of a problem you see before you. Take care of the problem yourself. Find a small corner of the planet and make it yours. Work it yourself.

Three people active over the last week exemplify this ethic.

There was Andy Stephenson, former candidate for Secretary of State for Washington, who has spent every day of the last months traveling the country with voting activist Bev Harris to alert the people and their elected officials of the dangers posed by touch-screen electronic voting machines. Stephenson and Harris are the operators of, a non-profit consumer protection group dedicated to putting a stop to these inadequate machines before they undermine the basic foundations of our democracy. Andy was in Seattle on Saturday, sunburned and exhausted after 30 days straight on the road. He wasn't stopping.

There was Linda in Seattle, with brown eyes like pools of solemn eternity, who works now with NARAL to protect the rights of women everywhere. It is difficult, aggravating work, but she rises every morning to put her shoulder to the wheel. She goes home every night burdened by how much farther up the hill she must roll the rock when she wakes in the morning, but fulfilled by the inches she moved the damned thing that day.

And then there is my mother. This past Sunday, she took her arthritic back and arthritic neck on a marathon door-to-door canvassing operation through some of the poorest neighborhoods of Cheshire County, New Hampshire. The exercise was to register these people, and to convince them to go to the voting booth in November. Cheshire County went for Bush by 7,200 votes. 23,000 eligible voters in that county did not vote. The math is clear-cut.

My mother knocked on over 100 doors in neighborhoods riddled with poverty, speaking to people half a paycheck away from catastrophe. Half of them were adamant about not voting - they were proud to say they never pulled the level because they believed their voice carried no weight. The people most battered by the system had lost any hope that they could change it. The other half were worried about the Iraq war and the economy, in that order.

My mother took her sore back, sore neck and sore feet to bed Sunday night daunted by the hidden poverty she had found. She was frustrated that the people most in need of help had given up on working towards changing the system. She was elated because she registered two people. She had found her patch of earth, and will be returning every Sunday between now and the election. If she gets two people every weekend, she will have earned her ticket to heaven.

'Be like my mother,' goes the lesson. Wear out the shoe leather. Find your corner and work it. Don't wait for someone else to do it for you.

The Galloway Ethic

On the night before the Democratic convention began, I was walking home from a bar called Bukowski's when I came across a New York City Port Authority police officer who was standing outside his hotel having a cigarette. We struck up a conversation about baseball - the Yankees were in town to play the Red Sox, which was why he was here - before matters turned to the coming election.

I told him I was covering the Democratic event, and would be covering the Republican convention at the end of August. "Watch your ass," he said. "My sources tell me there is definitely going to be a terrorist attack in New York during the convention." I pressed him for who or what his sources were, but he would not tell me.

A couple of days ago, it became clear who his sources were: Tom Ridge and the Department of Homeland Security. Today, the color-code threat indicator sits on Orange for New York, Washington DC and New Jersey, reportedly because of "unusually specific" information about an imminent threat.


On the Thursday of the Democratic convention, word came that a 'major' terrorist had been arrested in Pakistan. Supposedly, this arrest is what brought the new information that led to the heightened alert. But the cop I met had this in mind over a week ago, so it stands to reason that such an alert has been in the works for a while now. There is also the 'July Surprise' New Republic article from several weeks ago, which reported Bush administration pressure on Pakistan to produce terror arrests during the Democratic convention. They got what they wanted.

Let's be as clear and plain as possible: The Bush administration is using the threat of terrorism, and the federal government itself, to manipulate public fear on the eve of the election. They have done so time and again, and will continue to do so until November. The short-term purpose of this most recent alert is to dissipate the building energy that is being directed at New York by hundreds of thousands of protesters who intend to surround the Republican convention in a ring of rage.

The protests at the Democratic convention were small. The Republican convention will be a different affair altogether. The Bush administration would like to put a stop to this looming publicity crisis, and apparently have no qualms about using September 11 against the American people, again.

The only answer to this disgusting manipulation is to refuse to be afraid. I, for one, will be in New York with a truthout crew to cover all the events within and without the convention. On the off chance that there is actual substance to these threats, I will keep in mind the ethic of Joseph Galloway. Galloway was a UPI reporter who, in 1965, cajoled his way onto a helicopter so he could cover, in person and while the bullets flew, the battle of the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam, a place that became known as the Valley of Death.

Galloway knew then what I know now: One must be a witness to history so the story is told properly. Fear is one thing, but cowardice is another. Allowing the administration to manipulate the people again, on this matter, is out of the question. We will be there, and Joe Galloway's ethic will be with us.

Walking the Earth

It is difficult to put a capstone on the events of this last week. The city of Boston was filled with the soul and spirit of activists both within and without the Democratic Party. Most seemed more than willing to support John Kerry's campaign. The oft-repeated theme of unity was more than just happy words for the press corps. Those who know in their bones that the Bush administration is a death ship stood shoulder to shoulder even in their differences.

But it is not enough, not by a long chalk. The people in Boston knew that a John Kerry victory in November is not an end to things, but merely a beginning. The people in Boston knew that victory in November is the same as a runner who has trained for years for a race, and has won only the privilege to stand at the starting line and stare down the long track ahead.

I offer this poem to those that stood in Boston, to those that marched and organized and cheered. Daniel Berrigan gave us these words, and they stand eternally as the cause and the effect, the beginning and the end.

Some stood up once, and sat down.
Some walked a mile, and walked away.
Some stood up twice, then sat down.
"I've had it" they said.

Some walked two miles,
then walked away.
"It's too much," they cried.

Some stood and stood and stood.
They were taken for fools,
They were taken for being taken in

Some walked and walked and walked.
They walked the earth,
They walked the waters,
They walked the air.

"Why do you stand," they were asked,
"and why do you walk?"

"Because of the children," they said,
"And because of the heart,
"And because of the bread."

"Because the cause is the heart's beat,
And the children born
And the risen bread."


William Rivers Pitt is the senior editor and lead writer for truthout. He is a New York Times and international bestselling author of two books - 'War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know' and 'The Greatest Sedition is Silence.'

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