BOSTON -- Even before the 2004 Democratic National Convention kicked off in a puff of pomp and patriotic smoke, much of New England had already grown sick and tired of the whole ordeal. A three-city-block radius of prime expressways and urban thoroughfares around the Fleet Center downtown had been closed off, as well as sections of the city Transit line to deter any would-be terrorist mischief. Senior citizens living in the neighborhood were told to keep forms of identification on them at all times, lest they be mistaken for Al Qaeda sleeper cells. Worst of all, the state security apparatus had erected a "free speech zone" in damp quarters hidden under the train tracks and surrounded by barbed wire and netting, into which the authorities will seek to confine the thousands of protestors expected to crash the big party.
Analogies to Guantanamo Bay -- even Auschwitz -- abounded.
"I would expect to see this in other countries, but not in America. This is not what we're about," said John Tompkins a Bostonian whose family of three was legging out a three-mile detour on their typical evening stroll for ice cream.
"It doesn't sound very good," echoed Congressman Dennis Kucinich, after speaking at a panel at the Boston Social Forum on Saturday. "It doesn't sound very consistent with a Democratic society."
Before the Convention got under way on Monday, approximately 60 organized protestors gathered in the Free Speech Zone at 9 a.m. to act out scenes of oppression reminiscent of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Activists wearing DNC shirts ordered others in street clothes to don black hoods while their hands were bound behind their backs. The "prisoners" were then forced into the Free Speech Zone and forced to kneel in uncomfortable positions. Sound familiar?
According to Gan Golan, a graduate student majoring in urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a local member of the Save Our Civil Liberties group, the "prisoners" wore civilian clothing and not the orange suits of Guantanamo Bay infamy to show that they are normal, everyday people.
"This insulting protest pen proves that Democrats are unwilling to differentiate from Republicans on issues relating to civil liberties and our inherent right to protest," Golan said. "Many of us naively thought this wouldn't happen in Boston, but the lockdown is becoming an established pattern at mass protests. Over the last few years we've seen police gradually increase security and the potential for violence, even though the U.S. protest movement is one of the most nonviolent in the world. We don't throw Molotov Cocktails here! By trying to put free speech in a cage, Boston has unwillingly declared the whole city a protest zone," Golan foreshadowed.
Sure enough, roughly two hours after the powerful street theater display, city police used physical force to pry Code Pink's Medea Benjamin away from a "Bring the Troops Home" banner, before removing it from a fence adjacent to the Free Speech Zone outside the perimeter of the Fleet Center.
"First they give us a concentration camp, and then they won't even let us hang our signs!" the well-known activist protested. "In this post-September 11 atmosphere, free speech is equated with terrorism."
This journalist heard an officer radio in for reinforcements, and just when arrests appeared imminent, the banner was moved to a different wall, and Code Pink's anti-war speech was allowed to continue. An emotional Fernando Suarez, of San Diego, told of losing his son Jesus, a Marine who was killed in Iraq on March 27, 2003 when he stepped on unexploded U.S. munitions. The Mexican family had emigrated from Tijuana in 1997 so Jesus could reap the benefits of serving in the American military.
"My son and 900 other boys and girls died for Bush's lies, and my question is 'why?'" Suarez asked in passionate, heavily accented English.
Why the Orwellian Free Speech Zone, Why the war in Iraq and Why not a just, democratic society are questions protestors will be asking here all week. Meanwhile, everyday Bostonians lashed out at the city's lockdown in their own nuanced ways. Mark Pasquale, owner of the Halftime Pizza joint located across the street from the virtual war zone had unveiled a banner, stating, "D.N.C / Thanks For Nothing! / Go Bush" in response to the convention's decision to feed all the delegates, cops, journalists, and groupies inside the Fleet Center, thus depriving him of deep dish revenues. Many locals, like the Tompkins family, planned to leave town, or camp out with friends or relatives in the suburbs until the hoopla is over at the end of the week. And over at Fenway Park the tension reached a boil on Saturday night.
As is the case with any Boston headache, the hated New York Yankees baseball team was at the heart of the problem. Pinstriped prima donna Alex Rodriguez, who chose playing in the Bronx over the Red Sox this year, had nasty words for the Bostonians after he was hit by a pitch in the third inning of Saturday night's game. The beefy catcher Jason Varitek punched A-Rod in the face with his mitt, and what followed was a bench-clearing, dust-raising, bloody musical fit for Broadway.
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry made a surprise appearance at Fenway Park the following night, a move that virtually begs comparisons between this hard-nosed baseball team and its embattled city.
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