LAPD officers gather near the Staples Center, site of the Democratic National Convention, August 15, 2000. Photo Credit: Bob Riha, Jr. via Getty Images
By David Kurlander
The Democratic National Convention last week aimed to unite a party that has in recent years been moving in different ideological directions. The Convention programming played out amidst particularly passionate inner-Party debates concerning wealth disparity, universal healthcare, the Green New Deal, and the Defund movement. At moments during the proceedings, these dissonances became apparent: The DNC’s inclusion of Never Trump Republicans like John Kasich alienated certain progressives and some pundits viewed Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s nomination of Bernie Sanders as a symbolic warning. This tug-of-war, while particularly pressing given the current state of the nation, is obviously not new. In fact, these internecine struggles played out far more publicly twenty years ago at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, during the nominating convention of Al Gore…
Tensions ran high in the City of Angels during the first six months of the new millennium. In March 2000, the LAPD disbanded a group of CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) gang intelligence units after an investigation revealed shocking corruption, including the orchestration of bank robberies, theft of massive amounts of cocaine, and even involvement in murders. Three months later, after the Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA Championship, riots broke out outside the same arena where the Convention would be held in August. Frustrated merchants postulated that the police were wary to intervene given the fallout from the CRASH revelations.
On August 13th, the eve of the Convention, over 3,500 protestors marched for Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther and journalist on death row following his conviction for the killing of a Philadelphia police officer in 1981. Abu-Jamal contended that he had been framed. Arguably the most high-profile advocates for reopening the Abu-Jamal case were the members of the immensely popular rock band Rage Against the Machine, whose 1999 album, the aptly-titled The Battle of Los Angeles, had topped the charts over even Mariah Carey’s arguably overhyped Rainbow.
The band, with some help from MTV, mounted a legal battle to secure a Staples Center parking lot, where they played a raucous set on the first night of the Convention, around the same time that President Clinton addressed the crowd inside. Guitarist Tom Morello, in response to a Los Angeles Times query before the set about the potential of their music to spark civil unrest, said, “We’re certainly not the danger to society that the rogue elements of the LAPD are…We don’t beat homeless people, we don’t steal, we don’t kill people.” An hour after the band’s set concluded, several hundred of the attendees refused police orders to disperse and began throwing bottles. Ten were arrested, and images of rubber bullets and skirmishes between protesters and mounted police reached the airwaves.
The members of Rage Against the Machine did not consider themselves Democrats, a point that frontman Zack de la Rocha made clear when he yelled, before breaking into the group’s anthemic “Bulls On Parade,” “We are not going to allow these streets to be taken over by the Democrats or the Republicans!” But there were self-avowed Democrats singing a similar tune. Earlier that day, several blocks away at Patriotic Hall, a “shadow convention” of relative party insiders led by once-conservative donor and journalist Arianna Huffington convened to talk about money in politics. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. and future Los Angeles Mayor (then a candidate) Antonio Villaraigosa railed against the participation of massive companies—particularly tech and oil concerns—in the Convention. Jackson said in closing, “And it is soon coming, when corporate America is locked out of the convention and we the people are inside determining our nation’s destiny. This is the last convention that we are locked out.” A significant number of those in attendance even pledged to vote for third-party candidate and consumer protection advocate Ralph Nader.
Two pieces of corporate symbolism were of particular note for protesters and the press. The first was Apple, which had distributed one of its newly released iMacs to every state delegation at the Convention. The company had also orchestrated a fourteen-story grayscale mural across the street on the side of the Hotel Figueroa, featuring portraits of Cesar Chavez, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt with a bottom-right slogan: “Think Different.”. A few days before the Convention, activists unfurled a 1,500-square-foot American flag with the stars replaced by corporate logos.
The other company in the crosshairs was Occidental Petroleum, which had waded into international controversy after drilling on land in Colombia claimed by the U’Wa Tribe. Clinton Energy Secretary Bill Richardson had traveled in 1999 to Cartagena to meet with national oil ministers, to whom he expressed support for Occidental’s plan. And Democratic candidate Al Gore’s family held hundreds of thousands of dollars in the company’s stock due to the close association between Gore’s father, Tennessee Senator Al Gore Sr., and former Occidental Chairman Armand Hammer, a famed political gadfly who had also served for decades as an unofficial envoy to the Soviet Union.
The tumult outside of the Convention was decidedly out of step with the idealism within. Senator Ted Kennedy reflected on his own brother’s 1960 Los Angeles-based DNC and made Gore’s commitment to universal healthcare the centerpiece of his emotional address: “I now believe we have the greatest chance in my lifetime and the lifetime of our nation to secure the promise of health care for all.” Gore’s running mate, Joe Lieberman, expressed pride at being the first-ever Jewish-American candidate on a major party presidential ticket and described his political activation as a 20-year-old Freedom Rider who registered Black voters in the Deep South. Gore ended his acceptance speech by saying, “In this City of Angels, we can summon the better angels of our nature.”
The struggle to build a cohesive Democratic coalition takes on different forms—broadly undergirded by disagreements over the role of money, whether in petroleum extraction, campaign donations, or in upholding structures of racial inequality—in each election. This time around, perhaps there can still be a more stable reconciliation of those outside the Staples Center and those within, and perhaps those better angels that Gore spoke of can be summoned in the process.
For the full Rage Against the Machine set, check out this YouTube video (contains explicit language and violence). And head here for the complete C-SPAN coverage of the 2000 Democratic National Convention.
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