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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

From the Fringe of the Debate
distributed 10/5/12 - ©2012

Relax! I'm not going to join the throngs of reporters and pundidts who are dissecting and spinning Wednesday evening's debate with the presidential candidates. You've probably had your fill of fact-checking, number-crunching and performance-analysis.

I will offer something different today: an eco-justice view of the event from a neighborhood perspective. The debate was held 1/4 mile from my home. The things that happened around the University of Denver campus -- on the day of the debate, and for weeks in advance -- strike me as interesting indicators about our culture and our values.

Here's the core of the situation. Two guys in suits -- with color-coded blue and red neckties -- spent about 90 minutes on a stage, "moderated" by another guy in a suit. About 1,000 people were in the auditorium to witness the show in person, including 300 students from the host University. Practically, the debate itself could have fit into a good sized church. For the global TV audience, the setting would have looked identical.

The fact that the "two guys in suits" are the President of the US and his opponent changed the dynamics. Crowds of people converged on our usually quiet neighborhood, and the institutional preparations were astonishing. Four themes stand out from my local experience as a "participant observer."

Media infatuation. 3,000 credentialed journalists were on the DU campus Wednesday, including 700 foreign journalists (from just four countries). None of them talked to the two candidates, and most of them never even got inside the building. The ones who had passes to be inside watched the debate on TV, just like the rest of us. (55 rented TV sets were in the gym where the journalists were set up.) Only those inside got to be part of "spin alley", where campaign representatives provided instant damage control and hype.

The streets and parking lots nearby were filled with huge satellite trucks from the networks, and smaller trucks with satellite dishes from local and regional stations. A vast area of stair-stepped platforms was erected so that the visiting news crews could get nice pictures of the outside of the building -- carefully aligned to highlight the University's distinctive architecture and its promotional banners. The TV crews got a pretty backdrop, not any special access to news.

For the vast majority of those reporters, the only thing that they accomplished by coming to Colorado was the ability to be shown "reporting LIVE from Denver" -- as if that added anything at all to their insights or information.

It makes me wonder and worry how much the news media is just a conduit for images and self-promotion. Do we feel "connected" through a familiar face who is "there" on our behalf, without learning anything essential? Why does it matter if your newscaster is on the scene, if they're not engaged with the event and the key figures?

Security. The two candidates sharing a stage in front of the global media brought out the full paranoia (or perhaps prudence) of the security world. The north end of the campus was sealed up and locked down for days in advance -- two miles of eight foot tall, heavy duty fencing was put up for the event. Hundreds of police offices and federal agents patrolled the area. Students with gym lockers storing sweaty clothes and shoes -- at the other end of the huge complex housing the debate -- had to unlock and empty their lockers so the Secret Service could do bomb checks.

Interstate 25 -- with eight lanes of essential regional transportation adjacent to the campus -- was completely closed down for five hours. (This, apparently, forces any suicide car bombers to drive on the side streets.) 50,000 commuters had to deal with detours.

The next morning, President Obama went to a well-publicized rally in a Denver park, with 12,000 people crowded close to the stage, and lots of "press the flesh" handshakes. I wonder how much of the intensive security that we encounter -- around the debate setting, or at the airport -- is an appropriate response to the dangers of a world where terrorism and random violence are all too common. An overblown emphasis on protection fosters a climate of fear and uses up resources that might be far more productive in other areas.

Political participation. The debate was not a public event. It was a production for TV audiences, and it had little connection with the surrounding community. And yet people came to Denver and the campus, hoping that they could be heard giving voice to their convictions. Crowd of people gathered near the debate building to cheer and jeer when the two candidate motorcades arrived. There is a hunger among the ordinary folk to be engaged in the political and civic conversation.

The major city street through the campus (which did have traffic running) was lined with people carrying signs and shouting slogans. There was a hope that some of the gathered reporters might wander three blocks to photograph and interview the activists -- but only a few reporters did venture onto those sidewalks. (Yup, I was there for an hour as part of a substantial group pleading that climate change be addressed by the campaigns.) Just out of that climate group, I know of people who came from California and Florida, and a group of Evangelical college students from Texas, who were drawn to the debate site as a place where it was important to speak up and to bear witness.

The presidential candidate from the Green Party walked to the campus to protest the fact that she was not allowed to take part in the debate. Only the two major parties were given voice in the debate format or by the mainstream media. (Democracy Now! did a Wednesday evening program with the Green Party and Justice Party candidates.)

With 3,000 journalists crammed onto campus, the voices of ordinary citizens generally were not heard or broadcast. I talked with activists that are passionate and well informed, and they felt excluded from the media and the political process. It is not that people don't care and don't have ideas. There are many people in our communities who crave a broader discussion of the issues and a legitimate forum where their ideas can be included in the debate.

Environmental impacts. All those journalists, security folk and ordinary citizens had an enormous environmental impact that was invisible to the global TV audience. It was distressing to me to see such wasted resources and energy.

Clustered in among all the network TV trucks were rows of huge electrical generators, because the campus wiring was not adequate to handle the media's power load. It took 3.2 gigawatts of power to back up all that technology (enough to power 3,200 homes). For the sake of a 90 minute debate, utility workers installed 56 miles of electrical cable and 100,000 feet of telephone and internet wiring. (Thanks to Denver's 9News for gathering these sorts of numbers.)

TV stations drove their trucks long distances to Denver, and reporters flew in from all over the world. Some protesters -- yes, even climate protesters -- made long trips to be present for the event. Police SUVs and shuttle busses idled by the hour.

All of this was considered absolutely normal. When there is a big event, we expect abundant power and good telephones. Flying cross-country is just something that most people do without moral qualms. The routine preparations for weeks before the debate highlighted for me how far we are from a society that even considers sustainability, let alone values it.

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It was an eye-opening experience for me to live on the fringes of the presidential debate. Unlike the Democratic Convention in Denver four years ago, which was a public event with tens of thousands of participants, this one directly involved a relative handful of people. And yet the presence and the impacts were huge.

There are three more debates scheduled in the next month, and each one of them will have a similar effect on their host cities. The narrow media focus, the intense security, the attempts at broader political participation, and the obscene environmental impact will be repeated at each of those settings. All that will happen because those are hallmarks of how our society functions these days.

I don't have an action strategy or a specific agenda to offer today. I am grateful to an opportunity to see behind the scenes of the debate event, and to gain some insights about how our society functions. May we all be open to such moments of revelation.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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