Protesters Reflect Frustrated Mood Of American Voter

Governors feel the heat at summer conclave

MALCOLM GRAY stands in the middle of a throng of cork-sandled protesters and police in riot helmets outside the hall where US governors are meeting. Like the others, he has come with a particular pique - the death penalty.

Across the street, the causes are more conservative. A row of styrofoam tombstones eulogizes ''Waco'' and ''Ruby Ridge.'' Shading himself beneath a steel transformer, Dick Day advertises a favorite group, the National Rifle Association, on his cap.

Mr. Gray and Mr. Day are about as far apart as ideology and Williston Road will permit. One thinks the government is waging a war against the poor, the other a war against the Constitution.

They reflect two extreme currents of thought swirling across the country as politicians in Washington and state capitals rethink the role of government.

Yet, for all their differences, the two men do agree on one thing: ''The US political process ... is so out of touch with what grass-roots folks need in America,'' says the ponytailed Mr. Gray. ''People are fed up,'' Day concurs. ''We wanted change; what we got was 'Republi-crats.' ''

Several thousand protesters gathered at the National Governors' Association meeting here July 29 to Aug. 1. The unusual size of the protests was a testament to the national frustration with government at all levels.

Though protests seem out of sync with Burlington, Vt., a post-

place in this postcard-scenic city where no one seems to drive faster than the speed limit, they reflect the growing pressures on state and local governments. Mayors, governors, and state legislators know they will have to deal with cutbacks in everything from welfare to food stamps to education.

For his part, Gray has two concerns: Mumia Abu-Jamal and the Contract With America. Both are issues of government injustice, he says.

Mr. Abu-Jamal, a former cab driver, radio personality, and founder of the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panthers, is scheduled for Pennsylvania's electric chair on Aug. 17 after years on death row. A black man, he was convicted of killing a white police officer in 1981. Supporters like Gray say his trial was racially tainted and that evidence suggesting his innocence has been ignored.

Gray's other worry is better known. ''The National Governors' Association has become a forum for the Contract With America,'' he says. He thinks Republicans in Congress are cutting money for art, education, and needy families, and are giving it to the wealthy and corporate America. He is concerned that the states will now simply ratify that agenda.

The bottom line for people like Gray is that the Abu-Jamal case and the Contract show that a small minority, endowed with power and money, is overriding the will of the people. Perhaps more importantly, he says, the two-party political system no longer provides people with a means for redressing the inequities or injustices they feel.

''I wonder if politics is still a viable solution to creating national change,'' Gray says. ''The Roman circus atmosphere of the last couple of elections has soured people on politics.''

He sees a lack of leadership. ''The difference between Democrats and Republicans is very small, but important. The difference between Bill Clinton and [Speaker] Newt Gingrich is critical. But Democrats have lost the ability to project and alternative. Where's Roosevelt?'' he says.

For Dick Day, there are different injustices. Day belongs to a growing community of Americans who say they feel that the Constitution is under siege; that the federal government is ceding control of the country to the United Nations and selling off Americans' right to property and privacy.

For evidence, Day points to the 1993 federal raids in Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, where citizens lost their lives as a result of federal law-enforcement actions. He points to gun-control laws such as the Brady Bill and the assault-weapons ban. He points to trade agreements like NAFTA and GATT.

''We are heading down the road to a police state,'' he says. ''The government is destroying the Constitution. They violated the property rights of those people in Waco by creating a scenario to justify the raid. In order to break the Constitution, they first have to take away property rights.''

Ironically, Republicans in Congress had hoped that holding hearings on the Waco raid would help dispel such concerns, but Day says the testimonies last week only underscored that the government is hiding the truth.

For both Malcom Gray and Dick Day, the election of 1996 will be about economic concerns. Mr. Gray worries, for example, about the impact of Republican plans to eliminate heating assistance for the elderly. Mr. Day worries that international trade agreements will ruin US economic sovereignty.

Both are disenchanted with the Republican and Democratic parties, but say they see no alternatives.

For these two men, and people around the country who share their concerns, the liberal and conservative concerns of modern politics seem to intersect at a place called uncertainty.

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