A Denverite rolls a cigarette as a pro-Hillary Clinton rally passes by in Downtown Denver.
If you're attending the Democratic National Convention, and you can get past the Stormtrooper-looking police in riot gear, and past the people selling Obama buttons for $3 a pop, and you can keep plugging along even after running across the guy riding his bicycle with a giant flag reading: "You are going to Hell", or the anti-abortion truck, emblazoned with gigantic "photos" of bloody, mutilated, aborted fetuses, then you might find an event offering some substance.
On Monday afternoon, for example, Pete Morton, Senior Resource Economist for The Wilderness Society, gave an interesting talk in the Big Tent. His thesis: Drilling more now will NOT lower oil or natural gas prices.
True, the energy industry (and a growing chorus of politicians) have been telling us that the more we drill in the U.S, the greater our "energy independence" will be. That will make our energy more secure, and the added production will help supply catch up with demand, thus lowering prices. Seems like common economic sense.
But for all kinds of reasons, it just doesn't work that way, Morton says. And he has a much more elegant solution to high energy prices.
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Denver, this week, feels a bit like Vegas. Okay, the lights aren't so bright. And I haven't run into any slot machines, yet. Or, for that matter, giant fountains spewing water into the dry desert air.
Still. You know how, along the Vegas strip, there's guys flipping those little cards at you, emblazoned with pics of naked women in compromising positions inviting you to call them? (And how the cards end up on the sidewalk, so you have no choice but to walk all over nude women. What symbolism!?) It's a bit like that in Denver this week, during the Convention, only politics are on sale, not sex. There are Obama buttons to be had, and Nobama buttons. Anti-abortion t-shirts, and the Evolve Tour's "condomvention." CNN is handing out free ice cream to delegates and credentialed press, and passersby gather to watch the likes of Daryl Hannah getting interviewed. It's a spectacle. From the platoons of cops on horses, to the man in drag, heels, and green wig, flirting with a troop of bike cops, to the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals in their pink pig costumes, calling for a tax on meat. The crass consumerism, meanwhile, permeates every detail; even the little plastic things that hold our press credentials are emblazoned with their sponsor: "VAIL RESORTS."
And yet. There really does seem to be something special going on here, and it's not just the dramatic way the evening light and towering thunderheads are reflected on the Pepsi Center's glass. Everywhere, from the Obamamaniacs, to the protesters dressed as Guantanamo prisoners, people are filled with passion for the machine that runs our nation: politics. They seem to believe -- if only for a few days in the waning days of summer in Denver -- that Democracy is alive and well.
A crowd stood at the corner of Blake Street and the 16th Street Mall on Monday, flanking a pushcart overflowing with t-shirts. A painfully cheery young man named Toby wore one that was blazoned with the Qdoba Mexican Grill cartoon cactus. On the front it said “Burritos for Obama.” Other t-shirts offered up quesadillas and nachos to the candidate instead.
“So,” we asked, “why are you a burrito?”
“A burrito is just kinda like all the good stuff wrapped in one, like Obama,” Toby, presumably a Qdoba employee, said. Not sarcastically. “It’s just something fun, funky and fresh.” (Each entrée, it turns out, refers to a personality type. If you have a lot of time on your hands and want to find out your own “q-dentity,” you too can divine your fate in a pile of refried beans.)
In exchange for a video promo in which they had to profess their love for Obama while holding up a t-shirt, passersby got to keep a shirt. Toby admitted that the Qdoba Restaurant Corporation will be selling slightly different t-shirts at the Republican Convention.
Further down the road, a sometime florist named Michelle was demonstrating the mobile hips of the Obama Action Figure. (“An action figure we can believe in,” said the box.) “Some people are buying them for their kids, some people are keeping them in the box for collector’s items,” she said, flexing one of Obama’s elbows. The figure retails for $15. McCain—“A Call to Action Figure”—exists as well, “but we’re not promoting it,” Michelle whispered conspiratorially.
Near the south end of the mall, hipster t-shirts and baby onesies hung from the roof of the Barackstar08.com booth. In February, Zoe Montalbano of Boulder was so inspired by Obama and his message that she designed a black and silver “Barack Star” tee and took the first 25 she printed to an Obama event, where fellow volunteers snatched them up. And, she explains, the demand for more was the impetus behind additional designs, such as the “Barack and Roll” tank top. One of the few vendors along the mall that didn’t appear to swing both ways, Zoe and her husband, Mark, donate 10 percent of the Barack Star proceeds to the campaign. To date, that’s added up to about $1,000.
By this time we were hot and thirsty. Up ahead, lay the Sno-ball Shack, an oasis in the median. This vendor is a permanent Denver fixture, not part of the ephemeral convention entourage. While pondering the gazillion flavors, we noticed a big sticker on the window: “Obama Ya Mama.” This mixture of passionfruit and guava (a rip-off of Bahama Mama) is a top seller, according to employee Elliot Sawyer, whose lips were stained orange. “I just get in there and mix them all,” he said.
Despite being “just a local boy from Denver,” Michael Herold’s merchandising ploy stood out with the best of the corporate behemoths. His brother-in-law’s truck sat on corner of the 16th Street Mall, covered with patriotic bunting. In the back stood a life-size cardboard cut-out of Obama encased in a giant plastic bottle.
“I just dreamed it up one day hiking,” Herold said. “I thought, what could I do that was wholesome, something just nice.” What he did was fill dozens of regular-sized plastic bottles with Obama buttons, bracelets, stickers, sunglasses, party horns and flags. Sales, he said, have been pretty good, even at $15 a pop.
Among the more enterprising vendors were Nathan Moore and Sanjay Bapat, creators of the Gay Republican Hypocrites playing card deck. The pair stood at the so-called “perimeter” of the Pepsi Center, hawking their wares. The cards feature "politicians who were anti-gay and got caught in homosexual situations," Sanjay says. Westerners Ted Haggard and Idaho senator Larry Craig were among those pictured.
Moore and Bapat – straight supporters of gay rights who graduated from the University of Texas this spring – came up with the idea while drinking, and followed through with it partly because they thought it “might help them meet chicks.” They sold enough cards to buy plane tickets to Denver but have not yet sold enough to pay their way home. Convention officials have refused to give them credentials to get into the Pepsi Center.
"We don't think the Democratic Party is friendly to small business," says Sanjay. Pro-business Democrats can prove them wrong.
This summer, I walked in the Paonia Cherry Days parade on the Fourth of July— past many of my former classmates, teachers and community—carrying a hand-painted “Obama’08” sign. The experience filled me with excitement and determination, not to mention a keen sense of my own vulnerability in this small, mostly Republican community.
I spent most of my childhood in the North Fork Valley of western Colorado. In a sixth-grade discussion about world religions, when the teacher asked who in the class was Christian, all the students but me raised their hands. It was the first time I felt what it was like to be different.
When I left at 15 to be an exchange student and subsequently attend an international school, I entered an environment where diversity was the norm: All viewpoints were encouraged, considered and challenged. It was there that I became infected with Obamamania. In February, I had the opportunity of seeing the candidate speak, which solidifed not only my hope but my faith in him.
I will vote for Barack Obama because I agree with most of his platform and policy proposals. But I avidly support him because of his ability to overcome the current standard of partisan politics, a financial framework that enables corporate control, and the nation’s feeling of apathetic hopelessness. His campaign demonstrates the potency of grassroots empowerment. I have seen it ignite my generation, too many of whom were declining into political cynicism and complacency.
Four years ago, during the race between President Bush and John Kerry, I was struck by the strength of that complacency. I was living in the North Fork Valley, acutely aware that the disinterest of my peers was reflected in the polls: only a 47 percent voter turnout of people aged 18-25. There was a pervasive climate of citizen disempowerment that encouraged a view of politics as something too distant from ordinary peoples’ lives to really matter.
While it is naïve to say that this primary season, and the campaign style of Barack Obama, have reversed that trend, it is certainly true that they have had a profound impact on American politics. The very fact that the two primary Democratic candidates were a woman and a black man has played a large role in activating entire demographics. People want to be involved, they want to feel the excitement of being alive at a groundbreaking moment in history. And millions have followed Obama's call to exchange cynicism for hope.
What I find most inspiring about Obama is that he does not promise to change the course of the nation on his own: He demands that we, the people, change, too. Rebuilding the reputation of the American Dream and reviving the vision of the U.S. Constitution will take the determination and engagement of all citizens.
It was easy to be an active Obama supporter in my school community, but I had some doubts about doing the same once I returned to the valley. My memories of the local conservative majority -- with their not-very-funny jokes about getting shot if I was not careful -- gave me a certain sense of trepidation. A couple of weeks before the parade, while I was canvassing in the county seat, I met several people who did not like Obama because he is “black” or “Muslim” and as one man claimed, “believes in murder” -- i.e., abortion. So on July 4th, I took a deep breath before I walked onto the main street of Paonia.
To my surprise, for the most part we were met with resounding cheers, even timid clapping from pockets of people I would have presumed unsupportive. The few boos were overwhelmed by all the smiling support.
When you stand up for something in front of your home community, there is a much greater sense of exposure and consequently a deeper sense of satisfaction. I realized after the parade that while my experiences growing up in the valley had informed my hesitancy, they had also cultivated the very values that have led me to believe in Barack Obama: a deep appreciation for grassroots movements, integrity, authenticity and genuine gratitude—for the freedom of opportunity and kinship of community.
(The author will be a freshman this fall at Brown University in Providence, R.I.)
Downtown Denver, Aug. 25, where there are nearly as many journalists as there are riot-gear-clad cops. The High Country News team has just arrived. Stay tuned for more coverage from the Democratic National Convention in Denver.