THE MUSCLE-MAN in the Big Dogs T-shirt is telling the gays they will burn in hell. "Didn't an all-loving God destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah?" he asks, relaxing in the Denver sunshine. A young black woman, her hair frizzed and her eyes glittering, howls and jeers. He doesn't mind: his smooth face doesn't wrinkle, his sunglasses stare.
And didn't God also "devour everyone he caught?", says the preacher, just as his big banner - Homo Sex is a Sin - slides down on his head. The gays and the liberals - Democratic delegates with their Obama badges and their ID tags - roar with pleasure. Behind the preacher a bugler blasts his horn. A dozen different tunes mingle from the nearby cafes of the 16th Street mall. Life is good.
"If it wasn't for gays your dad would have been lonely," says a young man. "Just step out of the closet, you won't get hurt." The mood slides from banter to rage and back. "Maybe you came from a monkey," the preacher says pleasantly. "Not me." The young woman is crying now and lunges at the preacher's big blue chest. Both sides pull her off. "She doesn't sound very gay," he says. "She doesn't look very gay." "I'm all about love," she sobs, "and you're all about hate." Friends comfort her under a green tree with silver lights strung along its branches. Two young lesbians stand in front of the preacher, lock themselves in each other's arms, and smooch for a good while. Then they laugh and run off. "Don't say you didn't enjoy it!" a young man with ginger hair hollers at the preacher.
It's carnival time in Denver: the Democratic National Convention is in town for the first time in a century. There are 15,000 journalists in attendance, and every form of political life. Asked what he wanted for his birthday, Barack Obama reportedly said: "Colorado." The Rocky Mountain state is neither Republican red nor Democratic blue, but purple. It is a crucial battleground. So the Democrats are here to bring hope and a massive show of harmony. American party conventions are pure PR, scripted jamborees to grab the cameras' attention. Or, as a taxi-driver put it, "they're bullshit".
Inside the Colorado Convention Centre, delegates blend hope with euphoria. "We can disagree without being disagreeable," coos a speaker at a seminar for young religious Democrats. "We can find common ground even on the hardest issues - including abortion," says another. "We're all on the same path now," Hillary Clinton, a happy canary in her bright yellow suit, tells a crowd of cheering Hispanics.
Out on the streets, it's a zoo. A hideous banner flies on the forecourt of the convention centre: "A Vote for Obama is a Vote for Dead Children." At one end, a livid picture of the senator; on the other, a maroon-coloured aborted foetus, its skin webbed and viscous. "Are you so committed to a party that you would sanction murder?" roars a man with a megaphone. Party officials grab him and push him away.
THE DELEGATES spread happiness and dollars, and the town sings. "I'm livin' the dream," shouts a waiter, shepherding his guests through the crowd. But further down the mall a crowd. But further down the mall a woman in a red dress holds up a sign. "I'm a barber, not a protester, and this is ruining my business." A couple of fundamentalists - that group of Americans so helpful to George Bush and the Republicans - are blocking the way to her door.
"Lady, I have just one word for you - kitchen," says the younger preacher, whose blue T-shirt says: "Jesus Saves." The liberals shout at him. "If the ladies would go back into the kitchen, there would be more jobs," says the preacher. "But you're attacking my business, my job!" she replies. "With your mouth you can't keep a man. You're a feminazi!" he bawls.
The preacher's dad has a white beard and a better sense of humour. Will Jews really go to hell, as he says? "Yes!" he cries. Isn't that rather narrow-minded of God? You bet," he replies, and has a biblical text to prove it. "Strait is the gate and narrow is the way." But then he smiles and gives the Kiwi reporter a card. "Get out of Hell Free," it says, the h-word in red. The other side of the card warns, though, that there is little time to lose. "Choose Christ and have eternal life: or reject Christ and burn in hell." An African-American in an Obama T-shirt has been watching all this with an air of concern. He comes from Louisiana, he says, and the Democrats hope to win there this time. Why? "Katrina," he says. The hurricane devastated Louisiana and George Bush and his government were slow to come to the rescue. The folks won't forgive the Republicans for that. "I've been in Denver for four years," he explains. "I can't go back. No home to go back to."
The Democrats think they can win back a big chunk of Dixie, which deserted the party for the Republicans in protest at the civil rights legislation of the early 1960s. The old racism has mellowed, they argue, and the black and Hispanic population there is rising. It's not true, they say, that Southern whites won't vote for a black man.
Texan delegate Johnny Villarreal doesn't think racism has lessened. "It's still there, it's just quieter, sad to say." However, the Hispanic population is rising in Texas and it is starting to gain power. And Hispanics tend to vote Democrat.
But not all of them. Evangelical Hispanics tended to vote Republican; Bishop Wilfredo DeJesus was one of the most famous of them. He is the head of a large Hispanic church and voted for Ronald Reagan, the Republican president who spearheaded the right-wing counter-revolution back in 1980, as well as both Bushes. There were two reasons, he tells the Sunday Star-Times: "The sanctity of marriage and abortion." But in recent times he had a theophany, or epiphany. As a Puerto Rican - the island is a territory of the US - he thought the immigration issue "wasn't on his plate". He heard people all over Chicago talking about the Republican crackdown.
He heard about a huge raid at an Iowa meatworks, targeting 400 immigrant families. The children were born here and were Americans. The parents were not. They were told they couldn't work here and nor could they leave: they would face prosecution next year. How would the families eat? DeJesus and others organised a convoy of trucks to take food to them, and his anger grew.
Now, at a seminar of liberal pastors at the convention, he makes a passionate speech in favour of liberalised immigration. He has fallen out with the Republicans, and he hopes other Hispanics have too. "Woe unto those who make unjust laws," he tells the audience, citing Isaiah.
The other speakers have the same message: not all Christians are Republicans "or monsters", as one young woman puts it. "We can't expect people without boots to pull themselves up by their bootstraps," says Rev Jennifer Kottler, who is fighting for an increase in the minimum wage from $US5-something to $US10. "Poverty is an affront to God."
Obama, notoriously, does not do so well among the white working class as Hillary Clinton did. They don't seem to connect with the highly educated former law lecturer, with his liberal views on social issues. This is part of the reason, despite economic woe, an unpopular war and a vastly unpopular president, Obama and Republican presidential candidate John McCain are level-pegging in the polls.
But will Clinton bring back the workers to Obama? The convention has made a great splash of unity between the former rivals, but there are persistent media reports of back-door grudges and tension. Bill Clinton, it seems, is still really pissed at the man who defeated his wife.
Certainly not all the Hillary Clinton voters are coming over to Obama. Small angry bands of "Clinton for McCain" supporters prowl through downtown Denver. One guy wields a megaphone while standing on a ute with "Nobama" and similar signs on it. "Either Hillary or McCain," he roars, "but not this fake or phoney in the middle." Where Obama seems to be doing much better is among the young. "I'm sick of the old white guys," says Lauren Ward, a 24-year-old working in a wine shop in trendy Boulder, half an hour's drive from Denver. Many other people of her age agree, she says, but adds a note of caution. Her grandmother opposes Obama, fearing that "if he gets in the blacks will take over".
DENVER IS hosting not just Democrats (and the odd Republican), but an army of other political faiths. A rainbow sprawl of radicals and liberals gathers at Civic Park, overlooked by the golden cupola of the state Capitol. One slightly sad group is the Industrial Workers of the World, or "Wobblies". Once a large and powerful movement, now it is small and stranded. American union members have plummeted in the last three decades, just as in New Zealand - but from a far lower base.
In the Wobblies' tent is Charlie Marshall, who was a radical law student at Iowa University under lecturer Geoffrey Palmer, later prime minister of New Zealand.
In 1972, "because he was such a great orator he [Palmer] gave the introductory speech, warning us to knuckle down. This is back when students were talking about taking over classrooms! He was a little out of touch", Marshall says.
The Wobblies continue to hope and not to vote: voting changes nothing. "The working class, the folks who brought you the weekend," says a badge. People didn't get the weekend by voting for it. The weekend didn't come by legislation, says Marshall. "It came because the workers fought for it."
The radicals want to bring back those days, and an organisation called Recreate '68 has helped organise a rock concert in the nearby amphitheatre. A young black woman tells a crowd of about 200 that it was great that Obama was getting a shot at the presidency. "But do I have to choose either Clinton or Obama just because I'm black and I've got breasts? He's not my president."
The crowd in the park includes grandmothers from CodePink, the female anti-Bush protesters, as well as anti-war liberals and the occasional right-winger. "Americans Must Help Americans First. End Foreign Aid" says the sign carried by a greyhaired man. A Hispanic with a black ponytail, Zorro hat and bright blue suit wheels his bizarre bike - gold and black with fur-trimmed mirrors - through the park. "I just want to put a smile on people's faces," he explains.
One group doesn't smile: the "anarchists" or anticapitalist protesters, with their distinctive black gear and bandannas covering their faces. Groups of cops wait in the park, and a helicopter persists overhead. When the march starts, the riot police spring into the street to stop it. They are truly intimidating, in their huge helmets and perspex visors, their black boots and long black batons and pistols. The tall guys look like Darth Vader. The women are shorter and almost as scary, especially the one whose hand never leaves the trigger of her rifle.
They shout "Move! Move Back!" and advance towards the oncoming protesters, a high-tech and sombre version of the 1981 red squad. Suddenly a fire hose soaks the front rank of the demonstrators, and there is the smell of mace. The police force them back into the park and then line the sidewalk of Bannock St, penning them into the "free speech zone". A crowd of demonstrators runs across the park; groups of cops follow them, others block the street, and pandemonium ensues.
"You look like Nazis! You look like fascists!" one young man sings out to the police, and others taunt and photograph them with their cellphones.
Back on 16th St, the great shopping centre of Denver, there is a stand-off. Three lines of cops, some mounted on horses, confront a small and angry group of protesters. A young man with dreads and a skateboard prances in front of them, dancing towards them and hurling insults. When he gets too close, the police shout, "Get back!" A young fellow starts singing the Beatles' song of that name. It looks like trouble.
A man with a silver beard seated in a wheelchair comes out of the Sheraton Hotel and approaches the protesters. This turns out to be the famous Ron Kovic, a former marine shot and paralysed in Vietnam in 1968. His book, Born on the Fourth of July, was made into a celebrated film starring Tom Cruise.
"I support you in what you're doing," he tells three young protesters who sit at the foot of his wheelchair. "But please don't provoke the police." He was at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, which dissolved into huge riots. "We don't want a repeat of 1968. We don't want broken heads." He was a veteran of many protests and police had thrown him out of his wheelchair many times. "But our protests must be peaceful." This somehow seems to help break the spell. The police slowly relax, and some leave. Soon there is only one line and at the shopping mall end passersby are starting to chat with them. Three young black girls sass a young cop. He smiles. Down 16th St, the restaurants are humming, and music and the smell of food fills the warm air. As the dark comes down the bulbs shine on the trees, a filigree of light along the boulevard. People are playing chess under the branches. One of Denver's modern rickshaws glides down the street, its two passengers talking into their cellphones. In a Subway a pair of young Democrat volunteers sit and chat, two buckets of Democrat trinkets on the table in front of them. The young woman is dressed as an angel, with a long white dress and white paper wings. All is calm.
Anthony Hubbard flew to the US courtesy of Flightcentre, www.flightcentre.co.nz
- Sunday Star Times
Click for the latest subscription offer
What to do - and who to call - if your delivery doesn't arrive