Shadow Convention picks up biblical themes


LOS ANGELES, Aug. 15 — Congressional leaders, activists and religious leaders invoked Biblical notions of justice to spotlight the need for campaign reform, reduce poverty, and end the “failed war on drugs.”

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) warned the overcrowded Shadow Convention audience in downtown Los Angeles that the 2000 Democratic and Republican conventions are “the worst display of money and corruption in American history.”

The Shadow Convention, sponsored by Common Cause, Public Citizen, political columnist Arianna Huffington, and Call to Renewal, brought together journalists, policy experts, and lots of T-shirt-clad 20-something activists, for four days of intense discussion.

Each day focused on different topics — campaign finance reform, the failings of the war on drugs, poverty — that both the Democratic and Republican conventions prefer to avoid.

Patriotic Hall, just five blocks south of the Staples Center where the Democratic National Convention is held, has also become a mecca for liberals dissatisfied with Clinton administration policies. Jewish speakers and themes of social justice were prevailed through out.

Feingold, the principal sponsor of major campaign finance reform with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), argued that “we have devolved from a representative democracy to a corporate democracy in this country.”

Feingold called on the DNC to stop soft money fundraising at the convention. “I’m sorry to say it, but the big story at the Democratic Convention is really influence buying and pedaling. Soft money is a legal version of what corporations are prohibited by American law from doing overseas. Under the Foreign Practices act you could never do this, but here, it’s legal.”

“This is not a system of one person one vote, or one delegate one vote, but a system of one million dollars, one million votes.,” argued the popular Jewish senator. “It is a system of legalized bribery and legalized extortion.” Feingold urged the DNC to stop accepting soft cash during their convention.

“Some will say, and do say that the times are a changing’ in the wrong way and that we can never turn it back, and maybe that’s true in our brave new corporate democracy,” said Feingold. “But let us at least have the Democratic Party turn away from this distortion of our democracy.”

The Shadow Convention atmosphere, however, remains a peculiar mix of C-SPAN, ironic humor and earnestness. The shadow convention auditorium, lined with randomly placed signs that say things “Disillusioned” “Ignored” like “Disregarded” or “Not a CEO”, illuminates the theme of political alienation described by speakers.

Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), introduced by Rev. Jim Wallis as “speaking with the voice of an Old Testament prophet,” grounded his calls for clean elections with the civics he learned as the son of Jewish immigrants believing in the American dream. “It hurts my heart when people tell me that both parties are bought and paid for.” Wellstone is sponsoring an amendment to expand Feingold-McCain bill to allow states to ban soft money from Congressional races.

Wellstone praised the Shadow Convention and contrasted it with the Democratic convention. “Some of my friends weren’t happy with my being here,” said Wellstone. “But this convention combines the focus on reform, with getting big money out of politics, with economic justice.”

“How is it, with this record economy, that so many Democrats say we can’t change our social arrangements, that we allow our children to be the most poverty-stricken people in America?” asked Wellstone. “Both parties are controlled by the same set of heavy-hitters.”

“We must continue to make incremental progress without losing sight of the ultimate goal of full public financing,” declared Wellstone, who was interrupted five times by standing ovations.

Praising the selection of Senator Joseph Lieberman, Harvard professor Cornel West said, “a blow against bigotry is a step forward for humanity.” Yet, West continued, “I’d be a lot more excited about a Jewish brother like Senator Wellstone .”

Juxtaposing the wealth of the world¹s richest residents with the poorest nations, West, author of Race Matters, claimed that “the three richest people have the same wealth as the bottom 48 countries.” West proceeded to quote Supreme Court “Justice Louis Brandeis: “We can have a concentration of wealth in the hands of the few or we can have democracy, but we can’t have both.”

The overflow of people at the Shadow Convention led to a sit-in atmosphere where people found space on the lobby floor to watch speakers on huge TV screens. Volunteers, wearing T-shirts with the slogan “We vote every four years; money votes every day,” ushered celebrities and speakers into rooms. Free newspapers, large banners, and leaflets filled the tables. An inflatable 15 foot nuclear warhead read, “U.S. Spends $35 Billion/year on 12,000 nuclear weapons. 1= 120,000 Hiroshima bombs.”

Ben Cohen, founder of Ben and Jerry¹s Ice Cream, distributed free ice cream bars to activists. Unorthodox ideas and cynical humor mocked the DNC convention as a corporate-sponsored, collection of focus-grouped words and slogans.

“Where today are the great prophets, the warriors for justice, the great leaders of a better nation?” asked former Sen. Gary Hart continuing the theme. “I do not know. But I can tell you this. They are not a few blocks away attending the cocktail parties of the rich and famous.”

“Without the prophets, the warriors, the leaders, this is the legacy we leave our children,” said Hart. “A nation so preoccupied with its private ambitions it cannot be troubled to vote. A society so entranced with its private amusement and acquisitiveness that it permits a fifth of its children to languish in poverty. A country so tolerant of political corruption that it will sacrifice the democratic values of the United States of America — and the republic for which it stands.

Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Jewish political journal Tikkun magazine, argued for “an emancipatory spirituality” on Monday that would reconnect people, challenge the status quo, and inspire hope. Noting that the left politics often focus on “those left out,” Lerner preferred the hopeful message “there is enough” material possessions for most people. “America is a spiritual wasteland whose temples of material prosperity are built to the idols of money and power that do not satisfy the soul.” Lerner warned that the progressive politics must include a spiritual dimension and critic of consumerism.

“People are finally starting to wake up to the fact that the drug war makes no sense,” said Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of The Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation, a sponsor of the Shadow Convention proceedings on the drug war. “The war on drugs is not a war on crime, as politicians would have us believe. Instead, it is a war on the poor, a war on public health, and a war on our basic Constitutional rights.” California voters will consider Proposition 36 in November, which would divert non-violent drug possession offenders to treatment instead of incarceration.

According to Nadelmann, taxpayers will spend more than $40 billion this year alone to enforce the drug laws — a dramatic increase since 1980, when federal spending was roughly $1 billion and state spending just a few times that. “Yet illicit drugs are cheaper and purer than they were two decades ago, and continue to be readily available.” Nadelmann also praised the Shadow Convention as a “having a higher percentage of menschs than any other political movement.”

Los Angeles Police closed down the Shadow Convention for two hours on Monday officially to inspect a possible bomb threat. The audience then regrouped into the streets where another group of police officers demanded that they leave the streets. Author Gore Vidal, organizer Huffington, and journalist Christopher Hitchens convinced the police to allow the convention to resume — inside the Patriotic Hall. Pacifica radio KPFK had to cancel the broadcast of the Monday¹s events at the Shadow Convention.

“We are dismayed and disturbed by the police actions last night,” said Huffington. “President Clinton speaks about one nation united, but there is a lie. There is one country for the people at the Democratic Convention, and another country for the rest of us.”

Recommended from JTA