Politics & Policy

Voting With Their Feet

Bostonians fled their city in droves.

On Monday, day one of the Democratic Convention, Bostonians voted with their feet and stayed away from their city in droves.

That’s why the long-expected commuter nightmare failed to materialize. To take just one example, officials estimate that commuter-rail ridership from the northern suburbs (normally 24,000 per day) fell by 60 to 70 percent. And road traffic by all accounts was off by orders of magnitude.

My own observations confirm the sense of absence. I began with a late-morning T ride into the city accompanied by only a handful of fellow passengers–far fewer than one would encounter first thing on even a weekend morning. The same holiday atmosphere–Where is everyone?–was evident during a leisurely walk beginning at Copley Square in the Back Bay, continuing across the Public Gardens (no waiting lines at the swan boats) and Boston Common, through the financial district and City Hall Plaza to the popular Quincy Market.

By my own guesstimate, normal lunch-hour foot traffic was off by perhaps one-third on this gorgeous, delightfully cool summer day. Equally striking were the diminished ranks of local workers in business attire, as compared with the obvious tourists (elderly couples, parents with kids in tow) and easily identifiable members of the DNC nomenklatura displaying oversized ID badges around their necks.

There were other reminders that the DNC was in town: MoveOn.org followers hawking puerile or vulgar anti-Bush campaign buttons (but not pro-Kerry ones, mind you), and earnest youngsters from the Kerry campaign importuning passersby, “Excuse me, sir, would you like to support Sen. Kerry?” (“Not on your life, kid.”)

Security was far more visible than usual, especially around the Fleet Center and in the two closest T stops. The most intrusive measures–frankly reassuring in the aftermath of the Madrid train bombings–involved baggage inspections on Orange Line trains before they passed through the shuttered North Station subway stop located directly under the Fleet Center. These were carried out by polite but no-nonsense squads of transit cops in full battle-rattle: black tactical jumpsuits, body armor, and stubby M-4 carbines.

Elsewhere the overwhelming impression was of a city policed with a commendably light touch, the necessary iron fist well-clothed in a velvet glove. Local cops in particular, along with many others drafted in for the DNC, deserve much credit for maintaining their customary approachability, courtesy, and sense of humor. The upshot is that people were able to go about their business more or less normally. This is no small thing, given the scale and stakes of the security challenge; but it’s an accomplishment likely to escape the notice of Big Media.

The demonstrations that took place offered a study in contrasts. Falun Gong members gathered in Copley Square to call attention to the Chinese regime’s persecution of their fellow believers. Their chosen form of protest was group meditation, accompanied by a folk singer relating their plight. It was dignified, even moving.

Such was decidedly not the case with the so-called Bl(A)ck Tea Party (capital A stands for anarchy, by the way). What a motley crew! Numbering perhaps 150 overall (far fewer than they appeared in TV accounts), this group’s membership appeared limited exclusively to aging hippies and out-of-work bicycle messengers (judging by their tattoos, body piercings, and aggressive disregard for conventional hygiene).

As they marched around the city, their approach was announced as much by scent as by sound, at least for onlookers caught downwind. The marchers chanted slogans deriding Bush and Kerry in equal measure, succeeding only to communicate an unbecoming attitude of unfocused anger (perhaps prompted by the belated discovery that life is hard, expressed by the banner “Rent Equals Theft”). Cops along the route greeted them with equal parts bemused contempt and concern that the marchers were in fact the “presentable” public face for the truly violent nihilists who may surface on Thursday, the last day of the DNC and the moment of maximum public exposure. Stay tuned.

But first prize for the cleverest performance art goes to a plucky band of college Republicans occupying a strategic traffic island en route to the Fleet Center. To call attention to Kerry’s flip-flopping, these intrepid activists had constructed–what else?–eight-foot-tall flip-flops from DayGlo foam rubber, complete with holes for head and hands, allowing a lively exchange of views with passing DNC types. Hats off to this committed, personable, and necessarily thick-skinned bunch, led by Alison Aikle from D.C.!

At the end of the day, the abiding impression is that of a depopulated city relieved that the worst had not come to pass. A body language of shrugged shoulders and gritted teeth may best sum up my numerous conversations with other Bostonians. Small-business owners–especially restaurateurs and coffee vendors–seemed particularly disappointed by the lack of business. The economic bonanza endlessly touted by city officials seemed not to take into account the lavish 24/7 hospitality always available for delegates and other official guests at these events.

There was also a sense, especially among private-sector workers, of being cast against their will as unwelcome extras on the set of somebody else’s historical theme park or TV backdrop. Never in the history of televised spectacles–to paraphrase Churchill–have so many put up with so much inconvenience for the sake of so few.

Yet locking down the entire city to produce a four-day infomercial is itself instructive as an unintended example of the propaganda of the deed. After all, what’s the subtext of Democratic economic policy, if not, What’s yours is really mine? How else to interpret Hilary Clinton reminding us exactly one month ago that the Democrats are “going to take things away from you on behalf of the common good”?

All in all, a learning moment for voters and taxpayers everywhere.

John F. Cullinan is a native Bostonian and sometime Washingtonian.


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