RNC Turns the Screws on NYCby Christian Roselund and Michael Carpio
As the city gears up for the Republican invasion, and the prospects for massive protests loom, the NYC 2004 Host Committee is scrambling to get ready. A non-profit created to fill the city’s contractual agreement with the Republican Party, the Host Committee is assembling the volunteers who will help the Republicans do everything from go back and forth to the airports to find their way around inside and outside of the convention. While questions are being raised about the means by which they are gathering the volunteers, some activists are using this same recruiting effort in order to plan a different strategy of combating the RNC.
Host Committee spokesman Paul Elliot says that although the group has surpassed its goal of 8,000 volunteers, and now has over 10,000, it is still continuing to accept applications. This is a dramatic improvement from the 4,000 who had been raised when former Mayor Ed Koch went on television in June to ask New Yorkers to volunteer and "make nice" for the Republicans. Elliot attributes this success to a "multi-layered approach" that includes "partnerships with a number of organizations." Elliot declined to name specific organizations, saying that the Host Committee had "reached out to literally hundreds." Meanwhile, a number of websites for non-profits belied this relationship by recently carrying links to volunteer for the RNC.
Some inside the non-profits contacted by the Host Committee claimed that the requests were less than, well, voluntary. A staffer who works for one of the larger volunteer-based organizations in the city, speaking on the condition of anonymity, explained that "When someone you depend on for asks you for a favor, you aren’t in a good position to turn them down." Many non-profits are dependent upon city funding and goodwill, and this staffer described the way that organizations like his were approached to put links on their sites as an "offer we couldn’t refuse."
Volunteer work for the RNC has also been promoted on volunteerNYC.org, a joint project of the United Way and the Mayor’s Volunteer Center. Jeanette Reed, speaking for the United Way, has claimed that the presence of the RNC as the "spotlight" volunteer opportunity on the site "does not constitute an endorsement" or even support of the RNC. She would not comment on whether or not United Way had been under pressure to form the partnership.
Despite the Republicans’ considerable war chests—$216 million for Bush’s campaign, and $91 million for the convention—it’s curious that the party is recruiting assistance from non-profit organizations. At the same time, the national party has also been objecting to the relationship between various non-profits and the Democratic Party. The FEC recently upheld the ability of non-profit "527s" such as moveonpac.org—which recently ran a full page ad in the New York Times featuring Al Gore deriding Bush’s handling of the war—to raise and spend money without regulation, a ruling that many prominent Republicans opposed.
A larger issue, however, is whether or not the RNC should be getting any help from the city. The Republicans’ choice of New York City and the timing—much later in the summer than recent conventions, and less than two weeks before September 11—both suggest that the GOP intends to capitalize on the sympathies of the nation. While this raises the issue of appropriateness, others are questioning whether or not the city should be so accommodating in the first place.
David Lynn of Philadelphia, who runs the protest site shadowprotest.org, has a simple solution to deal with what he thinks is unwarranted support of the conventions both here and in Boston. His proposal to those who want to protest: sign up as a volunteer, go to all the orientation sessions, "smile a lot," and then don’t show up for the job. Mr. Lynn won’t comment on how many people he estimates are planning this form of sabotage, but he says that there has been "a lot of interest lately."
The activist news site indymedia.org has had postings in recent weeks describing how easy it is to infiltrate volunteer sessions, and many other sites, such as rncnotwelcome.org, promote the tactic. Lynn explains that his site originated after he learned that the city of Philadelphia took out insurance against being sued for violating the civil rights of protesters in the 2000 Republican Convention. Lynn now promotes his "phantom volunteer" strategy as a form of protest that cannot be insured against. Lynn asks, "What will they do if the volunteers don’t show up? Will they cancel events? In any case, they will be in a pickle."
While Paul Elliot claims that the Host Committee doesn’t anticipate mass infiltration, Newsday recently reported that the host committee is now accepting up to 16,000 applications for the 8,000 volunteer slots. Elliot denies that this is in response to infiltration. He does say that there is a "rigorous process by which volunteers are screened," but won’t give specifics. The Host Committee’s website contains the volunteer form, which it claims takes 12 minutes to fill out. And when you show up for orientation, be sure to have the proper identification, as the form is similar to that used by the DMV. The Host Committee does acknowledge that it would be possible for a determined activist (albeit one without an arrest record, we assume) to make it in.
David Lynn explains on his website that beyond disrupting the convention, one of the results that he hopes to achieve is to force conventions to pay their volunteers. His site contains a detailed analysis of the costs of paying volunteers the minimum wage, which he calculates would cost $149,000 for the RNC, less than .5% of the convention’s $91 million budget. Using figures from rncnotwelcome.org, it thus appears that the Host Committee will be paying more for portable toilets ($186,000) than it would cost to pay staffers of the RNC.
Mr. Elliot has said that the host committee has not considered paying its volunteers, and that it would not respond to requests from Mr. Lynn’s organization. However, he is quick to comment on the "many ways that the convention is good for New York," and he points out how the city’s economy needs a boost. NYC & Co., the city agency that promotes New York’s tourist industry, issued a press release stating that it expected an additional $150 million to pour into New York’s economy, a comparatively small amount given that tourism generates $21 billion annually. Mayor Bloomberg has claimed that the convention will "generate thousands of new jobs for New Yorkers," which seems like an inflated number—and whether any of these jobs will last beyond Labor Day is doubtful. Standing to gain are Manhattan’s hotels, restaurants, cabs and entertainment venues, which include New York’s sex workers and strip clubs, who expect very brisk trade when the party of "family values" comes to town.
Beyond the temporary shot in the arm, deeper economic issues arise. There is an dark irony in citing the economic benefits of bringing to town a political party whose four years in power have produced the greatest sustained job losses since the Depression. New York City has suffered at least as much as the rest of the nation—its 6.6% unemployment in May was down from over 8% all winter. Meanwhile, only 52% of the city’s black males between the ages of 16 to 64 are employed. These are numbers that neither President Bush nor Mayor Bloomberg seem to care much about.
Also at stake are the security concerns surrounding the convention. The Host Committee’s Elliot stressed that the RNC, along with the Democratic National Convention and several other events this year, is a "designated national security event," yet according to city Comptroller William Thompson’s office, the city will be paying over $50 million in security costs for the convention, mostly in police overtime. Such escalating costs are one reason that Mayor Bloomberg publicly blew up at Ohio Republican Bob Ney in June over the issue of federal anti-terror funding.
How much the overall price tag—both financial and symbolic—will be for the RNC may not be known until November 3. But add together the free labor, the security costs, the over ten million in public funding used for the convention, and throw in four years of Republican misrule, and one can only say that New York City is getting used.
Christian Roselund is a writer based in Brooklyn.Michael Carpio