Many of us remember the days when you could cheer on a visiting politician as well as the days when you could demonstrate your disagreements when a candidate or office holder came to town—standing along the parade route holding your homemade sign.
Then George Bush got elected and 9/11 happened; or rather George got appointed and 9/11 was allowed to happen or was engineered. (The latter question may never be answered.) I don’t remember exactly when it changed, but demonstrations were essentially banned in this country. Those who would hold signs or speak loudly were relegated to “free speech zones” which were, of course, nothing of the sort. Blocks from the action, they railed at themselves while the president was prevented from hearing anything other than the voices of his oligarchs. Signs extolling him reflected himself to himself in all his terrible beauty. The average person with a point of view even slightly different was excluded and might even be arrested. (Attendees wearing t-shirts with nontraditional views were occasionally arrested and regularly expelled at Bush rallies.)
Beyond the quelling of free or unpopular speech, the rapid growth of canned productions and phony debates has extended out from Madison Avenue and Hollywood to political campaigning in every locale. The more money a candidate has, the more canned the campaign may turn out to be. It seems silly that any candidate with a large war chest and hefty popular percentages would need to engage in these tactics, but my experience tells me that they do.
So, last Sunday, September 30th, a friend and I attended the Hillary rally in hopes of having some small, even minute, effect on her awareness of our fears concerning the spread of an even greater war in the Middle East. Hillary, as most folks know, has made some very bad votes in the struggle to keep us out of Bush’s mad wars and to ward off his ongoing attacks on our constitution.
We didn’t know whether we’d be allowed to carry our signs since, as I’ve said, this seems to be a practice frowned on by our current office holders—those who’ve taken an oath to defend our constitution. So we made our signs out of pieces of cloth, the antithesis of the canned campaign, and we carried them in our purses. We even wore our pink t-shirts declaring our desire to impeach the imperial president under our jackets.
But first, where to park? The campaign had taken over the intersection between the Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building and the Elihu M. Harris State Office Building and the two blocks surrounding those in all directions. The Oakland Police Department was monitoring every inch of every entryway. You had to have a ticket to get into the “rally” and a paid ticket for the spots close enough to successfully cheer on the candidate. The parking lots and businesses (oh joy, finally thousands of folks downtown but you’re shuttered thanks to the Secret Service?) were closed for security’s sake, too.
We parked a few blocks away and waited in line to gain entry to the streets of Oakland a block away from the podium. We pressed forward to try and see the speakers and found ourselves up against the barricades designed to keep the paying customers from the hoi polloi. We became uncomfortable in the tightly packed throng, so we crept through the crowd to the edge of the fences set up against the sidewalk and climbed through the yellow police crime tape to find some breathing room. A young woman jumped at us, “you can’t walk here.” We explained that we were only looking for a way out but she insisted that the sidewalk was restricted to constituents loyal enough to pony up the twenty bucks. After a brief exchange, we headed away from the crowd.
I began to think our quest to express our concerns to Hillary was hopeless, but my friend was not ready to give up. We repeatedly asked the OPD officers we encountered why we could not walk through the streets that had been blocked that were far from any candidates. We were told that the Secret Service called the shots and needed this much security. It seemed odd to me that folks who paid $20 did not need to be secured.
We went back to the “free” rally and saw that bleachers had been set up near the entrance and were almost full of supporters. Everyone seemed to be holding an identical Hillary sign. There was a quite tall young man orchestrating the crowd’s response. Like the cheerleaders who warm-up the audience on the Jay Leno show—getting them to applaud or laugh on cue—he would indicate when to wave the signs and chant, while the audience followed along dutifully. Since there were huge klieg lights shining on the bleachers, we thought maybe we could unfurl our signs there and be seen by some in the crowd, after which we could go home.
We rose almost to the top where families with restless kids climbed about the bleachers. Hillary kept them waiting until almost the end of the rally’s posted times, so that many of these families with small children gave up and went home. We climbed a little higher. Hillary finally started to speak. We opened our purses and hung our small handmade signs in front of us while sitting in our seats.
The audience warmer caught sight of us and climbed up to us. By the way, our signs said nothing negative about Hillary. They were along the lines of “No Attack on Iran/Iraq” and one about the mercenaries in the war. Hillary’s staffer/audience warmer climbed to where we were in the crowd and told us that we were not allowed to hold up our handmade signs. We asked why and he told us that it was a private event and only official Hillary signs could be used by the attendees. We differed. He insisted that they had a permit from the City of Oakland. We said, fine, but we want to make sure that Hillary has a chance to see our concerns. We said that there is little chance to express our views to national candidates and that we thought this was still important to do. We were told that we should email her but that this was still a private affair. We told him that this private event was being held on a public street of the city in which we lived and we would not give up our rights. We stated we were not opposing Hillary or causing any disruption, not even making any noise. We couldn’t understand the problem.
Then he told us that if we would not desist, we would be escorted out by the police. He climbed down after which we saw an extended discussion with a number of police officers in front of the bleachers. We were later told by a photographer from the San Francisco State journalism program that they tried to prevent her from taking pictures but she did not allow them to stop her. Other people were using their camera phones to document our interaction with the Hillary clones.
The police did not come so the staffer/shill sent up some other groupies—or, as someone called them, “Stepford staffers”—to stand in front of us. The young man followed my other, shorter friend around the bleachers blocking her every move. Three Stepford groupies stood around me holding Hillary signs as I continued to attempt to move my sign into view. They told me that not only was this a private event but that this was just about Hillary—it was “her turn to shine” and no one was to distract from the message that Hillary was the one who counted.
Having made our statements we climbed down and started to leave. I was gratified that many in the crowd encouraged us not to let them “get to us” or “stop us.” The police officer ostensibly in charge said to us “It’s free speech, right? You have the right.” I’m glad somebody knows this.
For me, at least two questions arose from this experience. One is: how is Hillary’s campaign (and I’m not implying her positions are the same as Bush’s) different from Bush’s approach to freedom of speech for the average American? And two: how do canned campaigns affect our freedoms, our creativity, and our diversity? Americans have been giving up their rights as individuals and organizations—not only to express their opinions but to advocate for them—at a frightening speed.
If the Democrats nominate Hillary, I’ll probably vote for her. I would, however, have difficulty actively campaigning if it meant becoming a Stepford wife to the first woman president.