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Activists push Democrats on a wide range of issues before the convention in Charlotte

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Ryan Thomson is a graduate student in sociology at N.C. State University. Clad in a green Mountain Justice T-shirt, he's an ardent environmentalist who was horrified the first time he saw a coal company engaged in mountaintop removal in West Virginia. In that moment, he became an activist. "It's a war zone up there," Thomson says.

Martin Unzueta worked for years as a print shop pressman in Chicago. He was fired when he joined a union-organizing drive. Then he found that, because he's an undocumented immigrant, any labor rights he might have had were nil. Now he's executive director of Chicago Community and Workers' Rights, a nonprofit advocacy group, and he's a passenger on the UndocuBus as it travels the country urging attention to immigrant issues. Risky? Yes, Unzueta says, much as civil rights protests were. "The Undocubus is our civil disobedience."

Jaribu Hill is a veteran civil rights attorney who heads the Mississippi Workers' Center for Human Rights and founded the Southern Human Rights Organizers' Network. Its goal is to link workers' groups across the South and press for labor protections at home and in the international economy. Like most labor leaders, Hill votes Democrat, though not always happily. "We support them because traditionally, we believed that they were better," Hill says. "And in a lot of ways they are. But that doesn't mean they get a pass. They have to be chastised—and very seriously chastised—about the wars, about the poverty that rages on and about the lack of opportunities for working people."

Hill, Unzueta and Thomson were among hundreds of political agitators who were in Charlotte over the Labor Day weekend, using the run-up to the Democratic National Convention to raise issues that the party either isn't addressing or—in their view—isn't addressing with nearly enough spine.

Home foreclosures. College costs and student debts. Militarism and drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Homophobia and attacks on women's rights. The list of issues was long, but the common theme was that, regardless of incremental progress on them by the Obama administration, the only sensible conclusion to be drawn about the state of the country—and the world—is that radical change is required to avoid calamity.

Call it the political convention outside the political convention. The fact that the official DNC didn't begin until Tuesday offered these progressive and left-wing forces a rare chance to pitch themselves to a national and international press corps. They did their best to seize it with a march through Charlotte on Sunday and a workers' assembly in a Charlotte church on Monday.

Charlotte proved a target-rich city for the activists' causes, in fact. Bank of America is headquartered there in a gleaming tower, and President Barack Obama will accept his party's nomination Thursday with a speech at Bank of America Stadium. Thus, organizers called their Sunday event The March on Wall Street South to emphasize their concerns about financial corruption and corporate control of the political system.

Duke Energy's headquarters in Charlotte occasioned bitter denunciations of the utility's role in mountaintop removal and climate change caused by its coal-fired generating plants. It's worth noting that Duke CEO Jim Rogers led the corporate fundraising effort for the DNC.

Also, North Carolina's status as a so-called right-to-work state with the lowest percentage of unionized workers in the country (less than 3 percent) was widely denounced by organized labor, and some of the traditionally pro-Democratic Party unions refused to even participate in the convention because it's in Charlotte.

Finally, of course, North Carolina is among the states most dependent on cheap immigrant labor in agriculture and in the construction, retail and restaurant industries.

It all adds up to falling wages in the U.S. and environmental degradation while corporate profits hit record levels and the rich get richer, the critique went.

Against this litany, however, the fact that Obama retains at least the grudging support of many progressive groups, and is admired by some, undercut turnout for the march. Only 1,000 people or so hit the streets in 90-degree heat, far fewer than organizers were hoping for.

Still, the energy level was high, with marchers launching a cacophony of chants and signs, especially as they passed the Bank of America and Duke Energy buildings. "Bank of America! Bad for America!" they shouted. "Coal Kills," one sign said.

Some marchers were openly contemptuous of Obama, both political parties and the U.S. electoral system. One, Laura Digioia, was part of the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City; she equipped herself with surplus military goggles as a result of her previous experiences with tear gas.

"I'll admit, I voted for Obama, and this is before I woke up," she said angrily. "At the end of the day, right-wing, left-wing, it doesn't make a difference, because when the corporations run elections, who you put in office doesn't mean a damn."

Others, like Marc Lee, a music promoter who was active in the Occupy Durham movement, still call themselves Democrats, and they went easier on the president. "Of the two candidates, I would lean more toward Obama than Romney," Lee began. "Obama was a community organizer himself, so all I want him to do is live up to goals and ideals that he had when he was an activist."

Thomson, like Digioia and many others, called corporate money in politics his top issue. But he paired it with the need for ordinary people to organize, join forces across traditional barriers of issue and identity, and displace what Thompson termed "an oligopoly that uses elected representatives" with a system of true participatory democracy.

Thomson, who helped to organize the march, said he doesn't consider himself a Democrat but knows that many other activists do. So please don't call it a protest march, he said, and for sure don't call it a protest against Obama and the Democrats. "It's an attempt to call attention to certain things," Thomson said, "and to say we can't go on this way, it isn't working, it isn't sustainable.

"And rather than our diversity, the fact of our solidarity—the fact that we're all here together—that's the point we're trying to make this week."

Strangely for a political party seeking labor's support, the Democrats used Monday, Labor Day, not to showcase workers' issues but instead to present Tar Heel singer James Taylor, who headlined a downtown Charlotte festival complete with a booth hawking Obama bling. But no sooner had Taylor taken the stage than a heavy downpour washed out the event.

While it was going on, Unzueta and Hill were among 200 labor and immigrants' rights advocates participating in a Southern Workers Assembly across town at Wedgewood Baptist Church.

The purpose, said Ajamu Dillahunt, a veteran Raleigh labor leader representing Black Workers for Justice, was to lay plans for a workers' movement in the South that can reach out beyond union members to workers who aren't organized—and to the millions of unemployed, including ex-offenders who can't find work because of their records.

"We're not here to necessarily criticize the Democrats or Republicans," Dillahunt said. "It's both political parties—they need to know there are all these unmet needs out there that must be met."

Dillahunt said the national political dialogue about unemployment and jobs "is pretty abstract," when what's needed is a major federal jobs program along the lines of the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. "We need a jobs program, and quality jobs with a livable wage with benefits, paid sick days and so on. We've got to have that now," he said.

If Obama is re-elected, Dillahunt said, progressive Democrats who've given him a pass so far will demand action in his second term. And if Romney wins? "Then it's a matter of survival," he remarked, grimacing slightly. "I'm not hoping for that.

"But either way," he said, "we've got our work cut out for us."

This article appeared in print with the headline "United in presence, varied in purpose."

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