Sorting Out The Shadows

Golden rule of the Shadow Convention: the bigger the verbal bomb, the louder the applause.

Under the vaulted ceiling of Patriotic Hall, just a short jog down "Fig" - or Figueroa St. - from the Democratic Convention, a throng of activists at L.A.'s version of the Shadow Convention 2000 is being regaled by a host of celebrities, intellectuals and politicians this week.

But unlike the Big Kahuna convention at the Staples Center, there's little air conditioning with two vents pumping in the outside air from all the way across the main room. Many swear words are in the air here - many from the podium. Things are sweaty, crowded, and edgy. People from various fringe groups are passing out buttons and bows, shouting out URLs like "" to anyone who will listen.

Something about the concept of the Shadow Convention - the first one held during the recent GOP gathering in Philadelphia - seems to bring out people's true estimation of the world around them.

"I'm not just a pot supporter, I'm a user," said comedian Bill Maher, who - in keeping with Tuesday afternoon's theme of sentencing and criminal justice reform - railed against California's "three strikes" laws.

Also addressing this theme were Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and acting couple Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon.

For his part, Maher took the podium and, for ten solid minutes, threw rhetorical molotov cocktails around like so many campaign promises being pitched a block away. The stuff he was talking about never would have passed muster on network television.

"When I see George Bush or Al Gore, I think of my friend in jail," Maher said, referring to a friend of his currently serving out a "three strikes" sentence for marijuana possession.

"Gore and Bush … they know what drugs are all about," said Maher, host of the ABC show Politically Incorrect. "One of them had an inappropriate relationship with Bolivia for a while. Pot didn't make Gore any dumber and cocaine didn't make Bush any smarter."

Looking, well, a little wild-eyed were also Robbins and Sarandon, who read anecdotes about California inmates serving sentences of 25 years or more - just for being in possession of tiny amounts of drugs. As they ticked off the anecdotes, the crowd ooh'd and ah'd.

"Are we fighting a drug war?" asked Robbins. "Or is this - as Jello Biafra said - American's version of ethnic cleansing?"

And of course, the phrase "ethnic cleansing" brought the crowd to its feet.

Something resembling a somber note was sounded by Jesse Jackson, who used his 20-minute appearance before the Shadow set to talk up the Democrats and remind black voters about how African-Americans and Jews have struck up historical allegiances in the past, especially on civil rights issues. Jackson's tacit support for Joe Lieberman, Al Gore's orthodox Jewish running mate, seemed to be a oment of genuine politicking. The Reverend's companion speaker, Rep. Waters, had on Monday openly doubted the value of Lieberman as a Gore running mate.

Yet even Jackson, whose power seems to come from deep inside his chest, rather than in his turning of phrases, launched a salvo of verbal fireworks for the receptive crowd. He said of black voters, "Hands that once picked cotton will now pick a president," and implied that people like Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan - who just picked a black woman for a running mate - are trying to endear themselves to black voters because most politicians now realize how important that voting bloc really is.

But Jackson's generally staid demeanor seemed unable to resonate long in the Shadow Convention air. Not with so many twisted messages bouncing about.

It's hard to be too serious, when you're following after remarks like these:

"I never did drugs in high school," Maher said. "You have to … you know … get used to reality before you can f*** it up."