By Russell Morse
DENVER, Co. Half way through “On the Road”, Jack Kerouac finds himself alone and depressed in Denver. He works in a fruit market, lugging watermelon crates and goes to softball games, alone, at night. It’s a dark time for him and in the middle of his narrative, before he describes leaving for San Francisco in a car with two pimps, he stops to craft two lines of verse:
Down in Denver, down in Denver
All I did was die
Fifty years later, in the dry and sagging days of August, something else is dying in Denver. A disappointing turnout of aging protesters make their way through downtown’s streets, weaving past the common landmarks of modern America’s downtowns: Barnes and Noble’s, Virgin Megastore, Niketown, Chilli’s. They beat a drum or start a chant, but those are clearly limp acts of desperation.
They’re here to send a many-tiered message to the thousands of Democrats gathered for their 200 million dollar high school pep rally: end the war, stop torture, upset the setup, demolish corporate greed. As political conventions have evolved, though, no delegate will ever see a protester. No protester will get within a mile of the arena where the delegates are gathered. And the act of protesting itself seems to be an embarrassing relic from a different time, the protesters putting on some kind of re-enactment, playing dress up, about as relevant as civil war buffs or trekkies.
The major organizing body for protesters in Denver is calling itself Recreate68. I have a hard time getting my head around this name. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to recreate such a traumatic, violent, devastating and ultimately fruitless year in American history. Dr King killed, Bobby Kennedy killed, the Democratic party implodes and their convention is marked by chaos and violence. The next time America looked up, Richard Nixon was president of the United States and it would be a long time before anybody came home from Vietnam.
Members of the group that I’ve spoken with (both young and old) are careful to distance themselves from what most of us know of 1968, citing instead the “front line battle for social change.” That’s what they mean by recreate68. This is an admirable goal, except that there is such a pitifully low turnout of protesters that they would have a hard enough time just to recreate an episode of Ricki Lake from 1998.
In fact, the only ones who look prepared and excited to recreate the mayhem and violence of 1968 here in Denver are the police. Every street is lined with officers on bikes, hanging off of SUVs, clad in riot helmets and padded gear head to toe. They are an army (no exaggeration) with helicopters, guns, batons, jeeps, tear gas and horses keeping Niketown and the Sheraton and the Pepsi Arena safe from a handful of malnourished and dreadlocked sign toters. The police seem like they, too, are playing a bit of dress up but there is an excitement and intensity in their eyes that reads, “please give me a reason.” It is more than a little bit unnerving to be a pedestrian in Denver this week.
Many of the protesters are young, just as many are not. The leaders and most prominent voices are well past their idealistic prime. At the front of the march on Sunday for instance, was Ron Kovic, the 62-year-old paralyzed Vietnam veteran whose memoirs were the basis for the Oliver Stone film Born on The Fourth of July. The protests keynote speaker Monday night was Cindy Sheehan, the 51-year-old mother of a soldier who died fighting in Iraq.
This is not a march of the young and idealistic, flying in the face of authority. This is an exercise in confused and jaded futility.
No, the young people gathered in Denver right now are very much in line with the Democratic Party. They are clad in Obama t-shirts, driving Volvo’s covered in Obama bumper stickers and waving signs in the convention hall.
A young man named Biko Baker, the director of the League of Young Voters, made a point of saying that the young people he works with are excited about the election “...not because of the candidate, but because we want real change in our communities.” This may be his experience, but the scene in the Pepsi center suggests otherwise. The Democratic Party is overflowing with youth and, save for the occasional blond teen-aged girl with a Hillary button, they are all unapologetically in love with the idea of Barack Obama for president. This is a reflection of partisan loyalty and a continuation of young people’s enthusiasm for “the new hope”.
A few months back, working on a story about the sate of the anti-war movement, I spoke with a number of organizers who expressed frustration at dwindling numbers in their ranks. They told me they were losing people to the Obama campaign. The young and politically minded jumped ship for Obama’s movement, which felt like it was going somewhere.
And now I can see it. Cindy Sheehan is far outside the convention center and the kids have credentials.
Russell Morse is a New York based writer for New America Media.