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Clanging symbols - Why the protesters' message didn't echo.

by Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial Thursday, Aug. 24, 2000 at 5:30 PM

Why the protesters' message didn't echo.

Sunday, August 20, 2000 Go to: S M T W T F S


Clanging symbols

Why the protesters' message didn't echo.

The query was posed to a group of lawyers representing protesters arrested during the Republican Convention.

A reporter wanted to know: Why had the demonstrators decrying police abuse and corporate power elicited so little sympathy from Philadelphians?

The subtext of the question was obvious: This is a Democratic town, traumatized by the sort of post-industrial globalization the protesters denounced. There is a history of tension between the black community and the police. It's a city full of working class and poor people, lots of whom the protesters no doubt consider part of the "oppressed." So where was the local outrage?

The quick-and wrong-answer was shouted out by a protester: "It's you media, who aren't telling our story!"

Sorry, it isn't that simple.

The truth is Philadelphians know that real solutions require smart thinking, hard work, and money, not emotional ranting about evil corporations.

Philadelphia is desperately trying to sell itself as good place for businesses, families and jobs. This it must do to survive, so it can generate the taxes to address its schools, blight and crime.

The convention was widely embraced as a chance to showcase the city. Nationally broadcast chaos on the streets was a nightmarish thought. So does anyone really wonder why Mayor Street said he'd have zero patience for protestors who got out of hand? Bluntly put, shoot rubber bullets in Los Angeles and no one crosses the city off a list of places to vist. Not so Philadelphia.

For a practical application of Philadelphia's fiscal realities, and a grasp of how far the protesters must journey to reality, consider the city's prisons. The demonstrators-released after giving their names-say they're now going to work for better jail food, improved access to lawyers, and drug rehabilitation.

All great goals. But the hard part is figuring out where the money comes from. The state won't just give it to you. The city doesn't have it lying around. Philadelphia isn't, say, Seattle, where the much-hated corporate/global economy throws off the tax dollars needed for just those kind of services.

All that helps explain why so many of the protesters arrested on Aug. 1 after blocking streets, overturing Dumpsters or assaulting police were viewed as annoying out-of-towners with a holier-than-thou attitude. Their refusal to give police their names, while on the other hand demanding to be released, enhanced the image. (None of this it to minimize protesters's valid complaints about absurdly high bails nor to deny that police still need to justify the Aug. 1 raid on the protesters' puppet warehouse.)

The post-convention rhetoric by protesters fudges a key distinction. Protests on Sunday and Monday went smoothly and were sympathetically covered. Those who walked down Broad Street on July 31 to protest economic inequality had no permit but made their point well without violence.

To the limited extent the Aug. 1 demonstrators could explain what they wanted-an incoherence that went far beyond the missing puppets seized by the police-their message lacked the bright, clear moral line a protest needs.

The globalization of the economy has mixed impacts, here and abroad. Drug companies may be greedy-but they employ thousands in this region and produce life-saving discoveries. Abhor bio-tech food? That same agri-business has given this country the world's lowest food prices. Does that mean bio-tech foods and drug companies are uniformly good? No. It just means reality is uncomfortably complicated.

Philadelphians seeking social change -and there are lots of them-know that blocking traffic and throwing trash in the streets mostly distracts from the clear thinking and commitment needed to create meaningful reform.

And they know that a blanket, cynical rejection of governments, as offered by some demonstrators here and in Los Angeles, cuts you off from their very entitities you need to work the changes needed on the scale needed.

Perhaps, the demonstrators arrested on Aug. 1 will figure that out someday. Let's hope so, because their passion is needed, even if their immaturity is not.

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Listed below are the 10 latest comments of 5 posted about this article.
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Yes Officer... to Whom Are We Speaking? Donald W. Pleast Thursday, Aug. 24, 2000 at 8:43 PM
A couple of points Rawbeets Thursday, Aug. 24, 2000 at 10:45 PM
Before preaching.. Kind Friday, Aug. 25, 2000 at 5:55 PM
Phila Inquirer Editorial Watchdog Friday, Aug. 25, 2000 at 6:00 PM
blah, no need for half truths Tim Monday, Aug. 28, 2000 at 12:47 AM
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