Surrounded by a cluster of fast food joints, the Jantzen Beach Double Tree Hotel sits just off I-5, near the Columbia River. It's a dumpy, gray building with weeds growing from the cracks in a parking lot that surrounds the hotel like a moat--unassuming, if not somewhat desolate. But last weekend, it served as host for a heavily guarded Republican Western Leadership Conference.
Quietly conducted behind doors closed to both press and observers, the conference plowed their tightly shielded agenda devoted to strategizing the expansion of Republican power on the West Coast. A kind of locker-room planning session before the big game, the GOP spent a long weekend plotting a 2004 election sweep and the takeover of the traditionally Democratic states of Washington, Oregon, and California.
Two summers ago, a visit from President George Bush at a fundraiser for U.S. Senator Gordon Smith drew thousands of protesters to the downtown Hilton where the big-ticket event was hosted. But last week's meeting--much grander in scope than a mere fundraiser, and much farther reaching in its goals--boldly passed right under the noses of most activists and liberals in town without anyone sneezing. For nearly two months, rumors had been circulating that President Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney would attend the conference. Postings on IndyMedia had called for rabid and massive protests at the conference, but when neither the marquee Bush or Cheney materialized, it seemed as if the fight simply dissolved from the army of activists. That lack of resistance can perhaps be construed as the current passive nature of left-wing activists in Portland, supposedly one of the liberal strongholds in the country, or for the myopic view that the Republican party is not larger than the current White House inhabitants.
Due to ultra-tight security, it is difficult to know exactly what happened at the conference. Bush's campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, did discuss the current re-election campaign, and Hawaii's Governor Linda Lingle talked about how she pulled off the first Republican victory there in 40 years. In addition, James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, spoke on the administration's environmental policies. To the chagrin of regional environmental groups, Bush is using the devastating 2002 Oregon wildfires to promote his "Healthy Forests Initiative," a bill that accelerates old-growth logging and diminishes the role of public oversight.
Yet, in spite of this who's who in the Republican party, activists only mobilized paltry protests.
On Friday evening, across from the hotel in a circle of grass cradled by the I-5 off-ramp, a group of cloaked protesters gathered. Calling themselves the Cascadia Magic Activists, some serenely meditated and others beat drums. With storm clouds blotting out a full moon, the group cast an unbinding spell over the Republican conference.
On Saturday morning, a few protesters from the Cascadia Forest Alliance dressed as trees and owls to protest the GOP's environmental policies.
By far the most bold protesters from the weekend were several members from Portland's branch of "Code Pink"--a group of feisty, older women who adopted their name earlier this year in mock response to Attorney General John Ashcroft's color-coded terrorism alert barometer. Despite the tough hotel security and rumors of Homeland Security officers patrolling the Double Tree grounds, the group infiltrated the conference when four of the women "disguised" themselves as Republicans and checked into the hotel. One of the women, Beverly Nelson, said that they did obtain a schedule, but had it plucked from their hands by security almost seconds later.
"They were watching us the entire time, which tells you how close we are to a police state," said Nelson. She says that they tried to spy on a panel on how to attract women, Hispanics, and African-Americans to the Republican party, but were again stopped by security. "They told us, 'We don't want anyone posing as normal breaking into the conference!'"