Historical Essay

by Jeff Goldthorpe, excerpted from a Masters' Thesis in Sociology at San Francisco State University, 1988


The Trojan Donkey in front of the Hall of (In)Justice, July 19, 1984 Democratic National Convention

Photo: Keith Holmes

The context of the 1984 Democratic Convention made it damned near impossible for anyone to the left of Jesse Jackson--that is anyone outside the Democratic Party--to be heard. First, recall that it was the era of post-Grenada patriotic pageantry. Second, Jesse Jackson's run was long since over, and he was clearly backing what's-his-name, you know, Mondale. The old time labor-liberal was the best they could come up with and he looked pretty dismal. Even the establishment peace groups knew you couldn't hope for much, given that the new Cold War had begun under the Carter-Mondale administration. Mondale never promised more than a higher taxing, tighter-fisted welfare state. On the left, in contrast to 1980, a tepid anyone-but-Reagan line reigned, making enthusiasm about anything unlikely. Third, with delegate selection increasingly handled in the primaries, party conventions had become nothing more than a gargantuan commercial with a cast of thousands. For the underdog party, a good showing on TV was essential to a successful campaign.

San Francisco Mayor Diane Feinstein, who was in the running for Vice President (or whatever scraps might be thrown her way) was determined to keep it sanitary, bright and bouncy, like the famous starched ruffles on her corporate feminine blouse. Coming in as Mayor following Dan White's assassination of Mayor Moscone, she had worked out a cozy alliance with the conservative police department, developers and big corporations, keeping the queers, radicals and weirdos at the proper distance. This latter function was essential if San Francisco's image as a tolerant, colorful, eccentric city would not, in the camera's eye, dissolve into an anarchistic, perverted, un-American Sodom-and-Gomorrah-ville, as the conservatives already claimed was true. And any leftist, of whatever ideology that took the anybody-but-Reagan line, could only hope for the best show possible. Local political splits and alliances were unimportant in the big picture.

Any group could get a permit to use the huge parking lot north of the Moscone Convention Center. The Convention Center was therefore in full view but never close enough to touch, or for that matter, to throw a brick at. And you can be sure the authorities had the troop strength to never let anyone get close without a permit. They didn't have to use any threats from Mayor Daley's 1968 bag of tricks; rather they invited respectable demonstrators into the party so to speak, gave them (labor unions, gay rights groups and the Vote Peace '84) status as pressure groups, which, in the power scheme of the Mondale Variety Show, had no chance of getting more than sweet promises about Walter's future policies. Conventions are shows, not sites for the determination of foreign or domestic policy. The pressure group rallies of 150,000, 100,000 and 20,000 respectively, were to be polite and predictable above all. They were all tied to delegates and lobbying groups inside the Convention and thus were self-policing and had no interest in associating with any of the rabble to their left, no matter how numerous. With this split in the left, control remained firmly in the hands of Feinstein, Mondale and company.

On Thursday July 12, before the Convention opened, 1,000 demonstrators noisily picketed across the street from the hotel where the Moral Majority was holding a "Family Forum" meeting. Across the street were a large number of police. Some demonstrators from peace punk affinity groups attempted with minimal success to escape this stasis by circling a few blocks close by, and trying to surge into the street. As the bulk of the picketers moved toward Union Square for a planned rally, beginning to spill into the street and cross against a traffic light, the mounted police charged into the crowd, swinging clubs, trampling and brutalizing several people and arresting eight. Meanwhile, the roving peace punks did a "die-in" in an intersection a block back, holding up traffic for fifteen minutes. Others threw garbage cans into the street and set a dumpster afire. In the next day's Examiner, Deputy Police Chief Eimil commented that "a small group of people from ... the Revolutionary Communist Party and punk rockers associated with the Livermore Action Group ... are responsible for all the problems." The political marginalization machine had sprung into motion.

Some radicals tried to duck the dilemma of marginalization by avoiding the Moscone Center entirely. On the last day of the Convention, a Salvadorean leftist group working with some people from Living Theater organized a solemn, dramatic mass theater piece, a mock funeral procession through the crowded commercial district near Union Square. Some 750 participants wore black, many carrying coffins, flowers or enormous photos of Salvadorean death squad victims. Some marched as victims, hands tied at their back and were ritually executed by soldiers. This action accepted the terrain of marginalized protest and made its point to all those in the vicinity, never attempting the "impossible."

Livermore Action Group, which had already entered into a general crisis, tried to stand on a center ground that no longer existed. LAG could not accept a back seat on the bus of Mondale's party and its rally outside the Democratic Convention criticized the Party's concessions to Cold War militarism. But neither could LAG sponsor its characteristic activity: nonviolent civil disobedience. LAG was split. The overheated atmosphere of the Convention, the misgivings in LAG over the chaotic and occasionally violent action in the April Kissinger demonstration and the opposition by some to the rowdy, mobile, cat-and-mouse disruption tactics of the peace punks made LAG back off from its usual role.

The split led some of the LAG staff and affinity groups to join with an overlapping assemblage of peace punk organizers, squatters, Abalone Alliance people, a Solidarity/ Workers Power activist, and independent anarchists to form a group committed to doing disruptive direct action aimed at the Democratic Party Convention. Although the Revolutionary Communist Party had become very interested in this action, the anarchists were uninterested in such a mismatched alliance and successfully conspired to exclude them from the organizing group, if not from the actions. The group was unified against the influence in the Democratic Party of corporations involved in military and nuclear weapons production. They also criticized the local Democratic-corporate power structure. Their tactic, following the spring actions in San Francisco, was to do another series of Hall of Shame Tours starting from the Moscone Center, snaking through the downtown business district, denouncing corporations and banks, doing guerilla theater, and pulling off creative direct action without arrests. Fittingly they renamed their group Democratic War Chest Tours.

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