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DemocracyFest: Progressive Confab Focuses on Local & National Action. Overshadowed by Mideast Troubles.

Reported by Marie Therese - July 18, 2006 -

I just returned from DemocracyFest held on the campus of San Diego State University, a gathering of progressive grass-roots organizers. Despite the fact that there were virtually no televisions available in the rooms, the most frequently discussed topic was the situation in the Middle East. It seemed to cast a shadow over what was otherwise a non-stop upbeat energy infusion for the attendees, who traveled to the conference from all across the United States.

On Friday and Saturday Air America Radio (AAR) broadcast live just across from where the News Hounds display table was set up.

AARBlog San Diego talk show host Jon Elliott, broadcasting from DemFest 2006

Despite the fact that the Air America DJs adopted the "Israel has a right to defend itself" stance and tried to focus on the upcoming elections and clean campaigns, it seemed to me that the only thing the callers wanted to talk about was the conflict in the Middle East. Many of them were very negative about the level of force used by Israel in response to the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier.

I was there primarily to promote News Hounds and Brave New Films' upcoming documentary Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers.

While sitting at the News Hounds display table, I met a wide cross-section of Americans and visitors from other countries as well, from curious college students to passionate Catholic nuns, from motivated local activists to antiwar protesters.

I spoke with a man in his 30s whose sister-in-law is trapped in Beirut. Because she trusted the administration's statements that it would protect the fledgling Lebanese democracy, she made the trip to visit relatives, including her mother, whom she had not seen in ten years. He and his brother were obviously extremely worried and quite upset with the Bush administration's passivity and lack of a plan to evacuate American citizens.

An engineering grad student named Javad, an American citizen of Pakistani descent, told me that he is constantly targeted by law enforcement wherever he goes in the United States. We discussed the Middle East from the point of view of the average person and how it seemed that many of the principals involved in the current conflict are fundamentalists but that the majority of the people who are killed and injured are moderates, mostly women and children. Javad was one of a number of passionate people who were trying to convince attendees that there was some kind of government collusion in the tragic events of 9-11. Their POV is universally dismissed and ridiculed on both conservative and progressive radio stations, yet I found them to be thoughful citizens trying to come to terms with an event that seems to raise more questions than have been answered.

San Diego is a military town. At one point, there were three women at my table. The woman on the left has a nephew in Iraq. The woman in the middle, Dinah Mason, has a daughter in Iraq. The woman on the right has a son-in-law who was badly injured in Iraq. They were all Democrats and all opposed the war. So much for the right-wing claim that they and they alone represent the interests of military families.

Periodically, a constable would bring the Bush Chain Gang out for their daily perp walk. The Gang includes massive sculpted busts of Bush, Cheney, Rice and Rumsfeld worn by volunteers dressed in the black-and-white striped uniforms of the chain gang preceded by a Constable who announces their crimes loudly.

BushChainGang.jpg Photo courtesy BushChainGang.org

Some of my favorite exhibitors were:

Wreck the Nation: The Game of Political Misbehavior - a board game for 12+ that combines fact-based current events with a satirical view of those who have the power and have abused it!

Jubilee USA - a group requesting that the G8 honor its pledges to ease the debt load on developing nations. According to their website, "Jubilee USA Network is an alliance of 75 religious denominations and faith communities, human rights, environmental, labor, and community groups working for the definitive cancellation of crushing debts to fight poverty and injustice in Asia, Africa, and Latin America." I met an octogenrian, a woman who did not give me her name, but told me she was a nun. Here she is in the middle of two interested parties, still active, working in sweltering heat on a Saturday afternnoon, attempting to persuade people that keeping one's word is more important than politics.

DebtForgive I only hope I am as committed and active when I'm her age!

The conference started off with a bang on Friday morning as Al Franken broadcast his show from Montezuma Hall in the Aztec Center.

AlFranken3.jpg Photo courtesy DemocracyFest

He was in great form. An enthusiatic and loud audience laughed when Christy Harvey of The Center for American Progress told us that San Diego's former Congressman Randall "Duke" Cunningham, currently serving time in jail, was recently honored by the United States Congressional Historical Society for his hard work, service, time and sacrifice on behalf of his constituency. There was much amusement when Franken read an announcement that Pete Coors was arrested for drunk driving. Coors Beer is one of the few companies that has refused to participate in the "Drink Responsibly" campaign.

On a more serious note, Franken interviewed Jerry McNerney, who has a good shot at dislodging Rick Pombo, the Republican Congressman from California's 11th District. Pombo has an abominable record on the environment. McNerney, who made his money in wind power technology, noted that he entered the race as a result of something his son, an Air Force officer, said to him: "Dad, I did my part.... Now you do your part."

During an interview with Jeffrey Severinghouse, Professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Franken noted that the Republicans seem to be engaged in "desperate debunking" of global warming. Severinghouse referred to this small group as "denialists", claiming they are not really skeptics, because skeptics have an open minds while the "denialists" will brook no argument contravening their preconceived notions.

Later on, the usually unflappable Franken was caught off guard by the crowd's negative reaction to guest Ruben Navarette, a nationally syndicated columnist and member of the Editorial Board of the San Diego Union-Tribune. After making comments that seemed to indicate that he favored the Bush approach to immigration rather than the far more stringent House approach, Navarette made comment indicating that he thought the San Diegans should get over the Busby-Bilbray election and move on. That elicited a loud chorus of boos. As Navarette tried to explain his position, the audience noise was so loud that he could not be heard over the din. After a commercial break, he and Franken spoke in far more general terms about immigration.

San Diego has a large and vocal group of people who feel that the recent special election between Democrat Francine Busby and Republican Brian Bilbray was tainted because the Republican-appointed Registrar of Voters allowed poll workers to take the Diebold polling machines home for days at a time, in violation of new and stringent voter protections enacted in the wake of the 2000 election debacle.

Brad Friedman, of The Brad Blog gave an impromptu press conference at 6:30 PM Saturday. Here's a picture I snapped with my phone while waiting for the conference to start.


Friedman announced that, thanks to Chairman Howard Dean, the DNC had entered the fray, demanding that an investigation be made into the practice of polling machine "sleepovers" in an effort to ensure that this and all future elections are clean and verifiable. Californians will be able to vote on a Clean Campaign Initiative (Prop 89) this fall, thanks to the hard work of people like Amy, Jim and Mary, who manned the table next to mine.


Check out the CA50 website NoSleepovers.org. Their stated goal is to challenge the Busby-Bilbray results so that challenges will not need to be mounted in the other 400-something Congressional districts.

Then there is Mary Stanley, a wonderful woman, 80-something, from Fresno, California, who travels to various conventions selling a wide variety of liberal woman-centered T-shirts and other political trinkets.

MaryStanley TShirtsBlog

Although the T-shirt business is hers alone (she does not have a website), all of her profits go to the National Women's Political Caucus.

robertpic On Friday night the multi-talented Robert Greenwald, founder of Brave New Films and a good friend to this blog, aired The Big Buy: How Tom Delay Stole Congress. I had not seen it before and would recommend it to anyone who wants to know how the Republicans decided to use redistricting keep the House of Representatives as their personal fiefdom in perpetuity.

Since my main goal was to tell as many people as possible about the blog, I was ony able to attend one daytime lecture. Entitled "Making Media Matter" it featured moderator Craig Elsten, news anchor for "The Stacy Taylor Show" on San Diego's KLSD AM1360 Progressive Talk Radio; Mark Karlin, editor and publisher of Buzzflash; Josh Silver, executive director and co-founder of Free Press and Blair Golson, Managing Editor at Truthdig.org, a new site started by its editor-in-chief Robert Scheer.

SilverKarlin L to R: Craig Elsten, Blair Golson, Mark Karlin, Josh Silver

It was great to finally meet Mark Karlin personally. About a year ago he and I were interviewed by Thom Hartmann. He had kind words for News Hounds.

After we all shared a laugh at Jon Stewart's incisive take on Republican Senator Ted Stevens' massive ignorance of the internet, the panel discussed what most of those who read this blog regularly already know: A few corporations manage the news, editing out distasteful images and adhering to the government script, because, as Mark Karlin put it, it's hard to sell macaroni and cheese to viewers who have just seen footage of bloody, dead bodies. The panel was unanimous in agreeing that Congress MUST pass legislation guaranteeing the neutrality of the internet.

The main event was the Saturday Night Blowout, featuring Al Franken, DNC Chairman Howard Dean, Maxine Waters, Paul Hackett and Mark Maron with music by Bradley Hart, Cindy Lee Berryhill, Laurence Juber and the Gary Hoey Band. OK, so now the musician in me just has to say that the Gary Hoey Band was awesome but guitarist Laurence Juber was in a class by himself. The man has phenomenal technique and a breathtaking range. Check out his site at LaurenceJuber.com.

All in all, DemocracyFest was a wonderful experience. I met so many committed, dedicated people from across the country, people who have not been fairly represented by their President, the President's party, FOX News or the wild-eyed denizens of right-wing radio. My roomates included a family of four - grandmother, mother and two daughters - from Houston, Texas, devout members of the Unitarian Universalist Church. We had long discussions about religion and its role in the modern world.

My other roomate was Judy G. from Elgin, Illinois.


Contrary to the propaganda put out there by the right-wing media, the people I met could not be distinguished from anyone you might meet in the local mall. They were not "rabid left-wingnuts" who foamed at the mouth and bayed at the moon. Nor were they determined to sell the country to Al Qaeda. On the contrary, they included college students, eager to learn, relatives of soldiers, mothers and daughters, grandmothers and grandfathers.

I want to thank each and every one of them for taking the time to speak with me, sharing, for one brief moment, a little bit of their story with a total stranger.