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Election '08: Raging Against The Scene

As Bill Clinton took the stage at the Pepsi Center in Denver to douse the final flames of conflict between the Clinton and Obama camps, another tense showdown was reaching a climax in a fenced off area at the intersection of Speer Boulevard and Market Street, just beyond the scope of the eyes and TV cameras focused on the political theater inside the Democratic National Convention. There, in a bottlenecked and barricaded stretch of street, 50 members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, dressed in full uniform, many displaying an impressive array of service medals, stared down an overwhelming deployment of police on foot, horseback and perched atop the raised platforms of massive SWAT vehicles. With guns, truncheons and tear gas pointed at them, one of the veterans took a microphone and told the police, "We don't want to hurt you and you don't want to hurt us."

Whether that would hold true seemed very much in doubt as the police reinforcements filled in and the veterans, backed by a huge crowd of demonstrators, refused to give ground or cave in to their demands that one of their leaders be allowed to read a letter addressed to Barack Obama and the convention from the podium. The letter demanded an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, full benefits to veterans regardless of the terms of their discharge, and war reparations to the people of Iraq.

As the tension mounted, a young man named Joseph Wise, who was not part of the demonstration and who appeared more likely to be swilling beer at frat party than participating in civil disobedience, was overcome by the spectacle of hundreds of riot-clad police lining up against peacefully demonstrating war vets.

"This is despicable. This is absolutely ridiculous, over the top, storm troopers here," said Wise, who revealed that he is in fact an accountant and not an anarchist.

I asked if he was nervous. "No, I'm not nervous... until the paint balls with the mace start flying."

I asked him why he was here. "We have two parties and no choice," he said.

His friend, James Thompson, who looked just as much the ex-college jock as Wise added, "Does anyone here [at the convention] who supports Jesus Obama know he supported the FISA bill?"

At that moment, one couldn't be faulted for thinking that if these are the Everymen of today, maybe there's hope.

The situation seemed at an impossible standstill just after six p.m., with the huge throng having reached the end of the road after a three-hour, four-mile march from the Denver Coliseum. I asked one of the vets' leaders, Lance Corporal Jeff Key, if the vets would feel vindicated -- given the size of the demonstration, which estimates place at anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000, and the unity and discipline of the disparate assembly -- even if they don't get into the convention.

"I'm not leaving. I'm a Marine," he said. "People are doing evil in our names...There are people who are deeply offended by what they're doing in our names. This needs to be broadcast, not whispered."

Key is a rangy six-foot-four guy with a granite body and a charming Southern demeanor. His story is illustrative of many of the vets I spoke with. Back in 2000, in a fit of idealism, Key joined the Marine Corps at the age of 34. By 2003, he was deployed to Iraq, believing, as he said, that he owed it to the Iraqis to liberate them from Saddam Hussein.

Key comes from a god-fearing, country-loving, blue-collar Alabama family ("If we were around cotton, it was to pick it," he joked). Like the rest of the marching vets, his idealism turned to disillusionment as the truth of this war sunk in. Where Key's story parts with most of his comrades, though, is that he came out as gay to Paula Zahn on CNN and admitted that he used the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy to get discharged, honorably, from service.

The drama in Denver began hours earlier when 9,000 mostly young people got fired up for the day's mission at a concert by Rage Against the Machine and local favorites, the Flobots. Held at the Denver Coliseum, a 56-year-old warhorse of a venue owned by the city and county of Denver and used mostly for rodeos and ice shows, the Rage concert served as much as a staging ground for the rally as it did a reintroduction for many to the band's hard-edge agitprop.

Indeed, one marcher, who seemed to be everywhere at once, declined some of the more popular chants, such as "Tell Me What We're Fighting For: Stop the Torture Stop The War" or "Tell Me What Democracy Looks Like: This is What Democracy Looks Like" for the more personal "Rage Is Back! Best Band Ever!" which he shouted during the entire procession. His singular obsession was topped, perhaps, only by another guy who insisted upon "Steven Colbert For President."

When the concert ended, the crowd hit the streets around 3:30 p.m. carrying signs proclaiming Rage For Peace, Fund Them Home, Grow A Spine, Drop Beats Not Bombs and the like. Some held tombstones fashioned of cardboard with the names of fallen soldiers and R.I.P. marked on them. I asked an earnest-looking guy carrying one of the tombstones if he knew the dead soldier on his sign.

"No, they just gave this to me," he said.

"What made you want to come out here?"

"Rage Against the Machine," he replied.

"They told you what to do and you followed?"

"Yeah."

Near the beginning of the march, I caught up with Liam Madden a 24-year-old vet who was a Sergeant with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit. Madden, it became clear as the demonstration proceeded was, with Key, the other leader of the demonstrating vets.

"The war in Iraq is illegal," he told me as the throng set out from the Coliseum along a somewhat barren stretch of road in a derelict commercial strip of the city about four miles northeast of the shiny, newly minted Lower Dowtown (Lo-Do) district hosting the convention. "The War In Iraq is illegal. The Democratic party can no longer hide behind the veil that they're the anti-war party when they've funded the war and continue to fund it. They authorized it. The vets who have fought the war want their brothers home now... It's fought and based on lies. It's unacceptable."

The procession proceeded through downtown Denver along Arapahoe Street where patrons of upscale restaurants and bars came out to cheer the vets and their supporters. As the march approached the Pepsi Center, it was funneled through the tight pedestrian walkways of the Auraria Campus, home to the Metropolitan State University of Denver, UC Denver and Colorado Community College. The police presence increased as maneuvering room to get out of harm's way shrunk.

A woman named Jessica Noble marched with her kids Hailee, 12, and seven-year-old Aubree. One couldn't help but wonder if they were in the right place at the right time.

"Revolution starts with youth," Noble assured me. "It's going to be a memorable thing for them."

Hailee agreed. "It's good. It's about peace."

It wasn't so clear it would be about peace as the crowd bottlenecked at Speer and Market a few hundred yards from where Clinton was assuring the world that Obama was ready and able. At a standstill and a standoff, and with police multiplying like cancer cells, Key and Madden assured a growing horde of media types that they would remain peaceful regardless of what the police did and were ready to be arrested if necessary.

Meanwhile, organizers had been desperately attempting to reach the Obama camp by phone, which seemed like a Quixotic quest at best. Tensions festered for about an hour before Key asked if a police liaison would allow one of the vets inside the convention. After some drama-filled negotiations between the police and Keys, Madden and march organizers, punctuated by vets with bullhorns pleading for peace in the background, an announcement rang through the crowd that the Obama camp had agreed to meet with the representatives of the vets.

A triumphant cheer filled the air as demonstrators and soldiers hugged. Many cried and a palpable sense of release blew over the scene like a cool breeze. It had been a long, hard day. A visibly exhausted and relieved vet named Joshua Earl smoked a cigarette and allowed some tears to steam down his cheeks.

"We worked so hard for this," the burly 26-year-old Denver native told me. "This is a real victory."

I wasn't so sure. The announcement had the feel of a Kabuki dance aimed at sending the spent crowd on its way with some good vibrations in their soles. As the demonstrators started thinning out and Key told the media this was "a wonderful example of how diplomacy can work" some pressed him about when and where the meeting would take place. Key insisted that Phillip Carter the Obama campaign's veteran's director, an Iraq War vet himself, would be deciding when and where the meeting would take place.

"How sure are you?" I asked.

"I'm sure. I'm a Marine and I accomplish my missions," he said.

Satisfied that the war of wills was over, most of the crowd and media drifted off into the night.

Still, there was the matter of the letter getting inside of the convention. Key and Madden lingered around the perimeter of the police line, apparently still in negotiations. With most of the crowd gone, I wondered where was their leverage. Even the cops started dissembling. Now I was sure the resolution was more stagecraft worked out between the cooler heads among the cops and vets than a victory.

Damn, I'm a cynic. Sure enough, three crisp suits stealthily approached the west end of the police line where Jeff Keys and Liam Madden met them, had a few words and handed over a piece of paper. One of the suits was Phillip Carter. Keys said he was taking the vets' letter into his staff. This little war was over for now.

"Although we were prepared to be arrested and suffer physical harm, I'm excited. We accomplished more than I thought we would," said a clearly drained Madden.


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