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Protesters make it a mission to get inside GOP convention

by Thomas Ginsberg, Philly Inquirer Wednesday, Jun. 21, 2000 at 12:49 AM

Not all the protesters heading to Philadelphia and Los Angeles for the Republican and Democratic conventions intend to be on the streets.

A small number hope to be working inside the convention halls, among the delegates, and they have mounted an infiltration effort that has led to a quiet game of

hide-and-seek with security officials.

These aspiring troublemakers have joined thousands of people in applying for volunteer jobs ranging from driver to greeter to tour guide to ticket taker. Their goal is to

see tour schedules, hear gossip about private parties and - against all odds - even arrange a surprise protest in front of TV cameras.

Call them moles, or dreamers, the protesters concede their effort may be a long shot. Convention planners take them seriously, but in stride.

Tim Fitzpatrick, spokesman for the GOP convention, said security officials were aware of the infiltration effort and were confident they could prevent any problems.

"Volunteers have been an essential part of every modern convention and we will take appropriate steps to screen [them] to ensure for a safe and enjoyable

convention," Fitzpatrick said.

"It's an issue people are cognizant of, although it's not a red alert," said Benjamin Austin, the Los Angeles host committee spokesman.

Convention officials in both cities are still screening thousands of potential volunteers for about 10,000 positions in Philadelphia and about 5,000 in Los Angeles. They

expect to approve and assign the workers during the next few weeks.

A lot is at stake if even one person pulls something off. Little would be worse at a modern, highly orchestrated convention than a surprise event that steals the spotlight

from the candidate or forces the party off its script.

"If their goal is to wreak havoc like in 1968 in Chicago, that's one thing," said Rich Galen, a GOP consultant. "But that's not likely to happen. Unless they get into the

hall or disrupt the convention . . . a protest is not likely to be an issue for George W."

Getting into the hall is precisely the goal of one hopeful infiltrator at the Republican convention, who spoke on condition that no personal details be printed and that he

be called Mark [not his real name].

Mark said he applied for a convention job over the Internet. He proved he was being considered by producing a newsletter that the GOP only sent to actual

volunteers.

Explaining his own politics as tending toward democratic socialism, Mark said he hoped to get useful gossip from delegates or even help protesters disrupt the four-day

event, which starts July 31.

If he gets lucky, Mark said, he will be able to alert barricade-builders on the street when a delegation goes for dinner. Maybe he will find out which soiree the nominee

attends. Or maybe, and he really doubts this is possible, he would somehow unlock a door for fellow protesters during a keynote speech.

"If I were in a position to help protesters, like opening a door, I would," Mark said. "Anything I could do, I would do."

There is no way to know how many activists are volunteering in Philadelphia or Los Angeles, where the Democratic convention begins Aug. 14, although everyone

agrees the number is probably tiny. Nor is there a way to know how many might get through the screening process and be hired.

Still, Mark, a veteran of the anti-World Bank protest in April in Washington, D.C., said he felt compelled at least to try because of the potential payoff.

"These parties are doing more and more what big business wants," he said. "I think shutting down these [conventions] is a great tactic, but the important thing is it helps

to build a movement."

There always has been a risk of politically motivated misdeeds by volunteers at past conventions, but this year may be different because of the vigor and sophistication

of anti-establishment protests across the country in the last year.

Proponents of infiltration have used the Internet to appeal for like-minded people who possess the right attributes to attempt the undercover work: presentable looks,

respectable employment and no obvious link with a suspect group.

"It would be an excellent thing to hear what's going on inside," said Diane Imelda Fleming, a Philadelphia activist who posted an e-mail urging others to infiltrate,

although she said she would not be doing so herself. "It's not feasible or safe for volunteers to do counter-action [inside the convention] because you'd risk severe

penalties. But anything short of that would be useful."

To screen volunteers, convention officials asked for a Social Security number so they could do basic background checks. They also asked for a preferred schedule and

(hinting at the dress code) T-shirt size.

Any volunteer who may get near the candidate or dignitary will face a far stricter check by the Secret Service.

But for most of the rest - apart from people with criminal records or other obvious problems - it may be tough to find every well-disguised infiltrator. The basic check

would not likely sift out a guy such as Mark, an educated, self-described "yuppie-type" with a respectable job and no membership in any radical group.

Officials say they will be very careful in how volunteers are assigned. Only trusted, known volunteers will get sensitive jobs, such as checking credentials or working on

the convention floor.

"The volunteers who will be working at levels where a level of trust is needed will have been trained and we'll have known them for a while," Austin said.

Hundreds of law enforcement officers, coordinated by the Secret Service, will be inside convention halls to watch for any suspicious activity. The Secret Service is

securing every doorway at the arenas and setting up security checkpoints with metal detectors for everybody, including volunteers.

Not all activists think the effort is worthwhile.

"I kind of doubt that many people will bother to try to get jobs inside the conventions," said Mikal Jakubal, a West Coast activist with experience as an infiltrator during

a 1998 steel-mill strike. "It's not all that useful. And most people, if there's an action, want to be out on the street."

Indeed, Mark is under no illusions.

"I think it's a fair amount of work and annoyance for what may be a slim amount of information."

So why do it?

"I would just like to get some information useful to myself about the actual political culture of this party," he said, "to show how superficial and corrupt it is."



Thomas Ginsberg's e-mail address is tginsberg@phillynews.com

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