Behind Barbed Wire, A 'Free Speech' Corral
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 28, 2004; Page C01
BOSTON, July 27 -- Bob Kunst is working up a head of steam. "Do you think this is a real election?" he thunders into the microphone from the stage of the Democratic Convention's protest pen. "This is a phony thing. We're being sold a bill of goods!"
Kunst, a 62-year-old activist from Miami Beach, has passion and a few good points to make about democracy and the Democratic ticket. But even at noon on a day so fine it feels like there's no weather at all, the masses aren't rallying outside the FleetCenter. In fact, let's do a quick count: Not including a couple of reporters and a dozen cops and National Guardsmen working security, there's exactly . . . no one listening. The convention delegates and media types arriving at a security gate outside the FleetCenter are so far away that Kunst is merely an amplified ghost, heard but unseen.
This is not entirely Kunst's fault. The officially designated "Free Speech" zone and all-purpose protest area for this celebration of the Democratic way isn't exactly front and center. It's wedged between a parking lot for buses and a bunch of trailers, and set beneath the blue-green steel supports of a condemned stretch of the T, Boston's mass-transit line. The area's perimeter is marked by a sawtooth pattern of Jersey barriers, and it's caged top to bottom with cyclone fencing and barbed wire. A black plastic tarp keeps officially credentialed types in the FleetCenter compound from seeing inside the pen.
It feels dank and grimy and sullen. You expect orange jumpsuits, gun towers and clanging metal gates.
Many of the protesters expected at the convention have shunned the pen, taking their drums and causes to the more wide open spaces on the Boston Common. The disadvantage, of course, is that the Boston Common is a mile and a half from FleetCenter, which means it's not much better than Siberia for attracting the 15,000 media people inside.
Much of the energy inside the protest pen over the past two days has been expended on protesting the pen.
Along with a few antiabortion statements chalked on the asphalt, convention demonstrators have scrawled their rage on almost every available surface, including the speaker's podium:
"A Pen? It's a Prison."
"How is this free?"
"Is this what democracy looks like?"
Jes Richardson, who has just arrived in the pen, takes one look at what he has gotten himself into and declares, "This is awful. It worries me. It worries me that it has come to this."
Richardson is 56, from Marin County, Calif., and seems like a rather sunny fellow. He's certainly a peaceful one. For the past few months, he has been lugging a 9 1/2-foot papier-mache likeness of Mahatma Gandhi around the country in his Honda Civic (the head, he explains, fits in the back seat and the body goes on the bike rack). He has been to seven "swing" states, registering voters along the way, but he's not stumping for any candidate. The wheeled puppet is Richardson's way of advocating peace. In addition to a nine-foot staff, the giant Gandhi comes with a sign with the Indian leader's most famous quote, "We must be the change we wish to see in the world."
The cops guarding the pen let Richardson wheel Gandhi inside, but they made him take down the staff and the sign. So now Gandhi's hands hold nothing, but remain balled, as if he's ready to box.
What would Gandhi think?
Up on the small stage, which fronts an area no larger than a townhouse development's tot lot, Kunst is finishing up his lengthy polemic. He's wearing a T-shirt that says "FedUp, No more [expletive]." The unprintable last word is a corruption of the president's name.
Kunst is bitter. He followed all the rules, he says. He shows a reporter the permit he got from the city, which entitled him to speak for exactly 50 minutes at a scheduled hour. But he never counted on the pen, which he describes as the most extreme crowd-control measure he has seen in decades of marches and protests. Barbed wire? He remembers it once before.
"In Europe," he says, at a vigil at the Nazi death camps.
Soon, another protester takes his permitted place at the microphone, a boombox at his side. To a thumping beat, and no one at all, he sings "Ain't Too Proud to Beg."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company