Four days in Denver
The other side of the cameras at the Democratic National Convention

by Shan Wells

The Durango Telegraph’s editorial cartoonist, Shan Wells, spent last week in Denver taking notes and making sketches.


• Three idling ambulances are lined up next to the Pepsi Center. They are flanked by a Trojan condom display, manned by young women enthusiastically giving out bright yellow samples emblazoned with “Evolve.” Later on, a woman hands me a condom printed with the words, “Protect Yourself from John McCain.” No need for bumper stickers, good old rubbers are the vehicle of choice for sloganeering this year.

• The Secret Service folks are incredibly nondescript. They are all skinny, white guys that look like Ed Norton but with flak jackets and high-holstered Glocks. No doubt they could break me with their pinky, but it’s a blow to my preconceived notions.

• I move outside to the protest at the 16th Street Mall, where the big boys have come to play. These are professional haters who have balls big enough to scream “God hates fags.” I’m not enough of a challenge for them to even notice, but I do my best, and wind up almost getting into a fight anyway. After their group is ringed by a tense wall of swat team cops, I decide that comptroller speeches weren’t that boring after all. The area is bad for the health of the easily enraged.

• Back in the Pepsi Center, the network pundits are in full view, speaking from small stages filled with cameras and futuristic touch-screens, around which the milling crowd swirls and eddies. Randomly, I notice three things: James Carville is wearing yellow jogging shoes, Katie Couric looks remarkably glum when she’s not on camera, and Anderson Cooper is a very tiny, albino, doll-man.


• It’s possible to swap out my upper-section press credentials for a floor pass that can be kept for 45 minutes. I decide to get in line for this treat at roughly the time Hillary’s being cued up to speak, which turns out to be a lucky move. All access to the hall is abruptly shut down by the fire marshals. Consequently, the floor pass is mine for the night. A reporter from the Dallas Morning News and I slap an evil high five, celebrating half of our colleagues being shut out of the most important speech of the convention.

• A small, balding man in an expensive suit shoots pass me in the corridor. My body reacts strangely, hands clenching in a short spasm of anger. In the few seconds it takes my brain to catch up, baldy dives into the Fox News box. It’s Karl Rove. Amazing. His aura apparently promotes reflexive acts of bodily assault by liberals.

• The real heroes of the convention are the volunteers that distribute placards during the key speeches. Although the floor is insanely crowded, they slide through as if greased. The dispersions are impeccably timed. Clinton’s appearance triggers an avalanche of white “Hillary” signs, which just as quickly are replaced with “Unity” flags. In short order, the pit is a swarming mass of red, white and blue slogans. Mission accomplished, the volunteers retire to prepare for the next rhetorical onslaught, sides heaving.

• On stage, a man with wounded eyes from Michigan is telling us how he lost his job and insurance and was diagnosed with diabetes. Few are listening. On the nearby steps, a besuited anchorman begins a four-take monologue about the delegates’

costumes. “There you have it, everything from masks to tambourines tonight at the Pepsi Center.” Meanwhile, Michigan man finishes his somber tale, and limps off the stage to scattered applause. It’s rough symbolizing a lousy economy. Even the people on your side don’t really want to hear about it.


• I decide to brave the protest circus again and am not disappointed. Almost immediately, I stumble onto a huge peace protest, led by dozens of vets against the war. The usual black-armored riot police are omnipresent, but one cop looks strangely out of place. She is at least a foot and a half shorter than her peers. I want to ask her a question, but I instinctively fear her, and so settle for a quick picture. What kind of total bad-ass would you have to be to make the SWAT team as a 5-foot woman?

• The theme of imminent riot is continued as I funnel into the Convention entrance, now reduced to one checkpoint due to the chanting marchers barely a block away. Herds of armored cops are poised in tight packs, their raised helmet shields accentuating the focused attention given to the protestors. Walking between the two groups feels reckless. I’m disturbingly reminded of lions watching wildebeest.


• Invesco Stadium is considerably easier to get into than the Pepsi Center, if you don’t count the extra wait for the High Line public transit being shut down by protesters. Forced to disembark 2 miles from the site, I walk down the blocked-off central Denver freeway cloverleaf toward the massive stadium. Tens of thousands walk with me along the great empty asphalt loop, a pilgrimage of modern times complete with the devout and the doubters, costumes, music and artifacts.

• Finding a safe space on the massive stadium floor is difficult. The fire marshals are vigilant, so everywhere I stop is only good for a few minutes before I get shooed along. Eventually, I locate a good spot 20 feet from the podium. When Obama makes his appearance the crowd’s roar and stamping is so loud that it triggers primal terror, causing me to forcefully resist dropping into a fight-or-flight crouch. The candidate finishes, and a wind cannon behind me fires off a dazzling burst of confetti and streamers, shocking the crowd and knocking my hair into my eyes. A blizzard of floating paper color surrounds us, mixed with the pop of fireworks and the heartfelt declarations of the delegates, many of whom are tearing up. Instantly, they are surrounded, vulture-like, by media hot for the humanity of the moment.

• Then it’s done. The crowd flows toward the exits. Every night of the convention, I’ve collected souvenirs, all of which are partisan in nature. Tonight, I have a small American flag. If the candidacy of Barack Obama means anything, it could be seen in a symbol that resists being appropriated too long by any one group or ideology, because it belongs to us all. In the past, I’ve denigrated flag-waving as a xenophobic exercise, but tonight I see I was wrong. Tonight’s flags are for the oppressed and the invisible, for joy and peace, and for a constant renewal of what makes us truly a people. We’ve had fear and anger for the better part of a decade, and perhaps that’s why Obama can conjure up 80,000 people to hear him speak. He reminds us of our better angels, and what we could do if we just dare to try. •



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