Baltimore high school student Benjamin Becker is his class valedictorian, he plays three sports and speaks Spanish fluently. Like many star students, the 16-year-old is in Los Angeles this week to work the Democratic National Convention.
But Ben is working the convention from the outside, on the protest line.
He has spent the last three weeks oof his summer vacation in San Francisco and Los Angeles, with his parents’ blessing, living with protesters and organizing bus trips the International Action Committee, which is protesting everything from Iraqi sanctions to the death sentence of Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Though he seems awfully young to be concerned with such issues, Becker says, “It doesn’t matter how old you are when things like this are going on.”
He doesn’t fit the mold of the disaffected youth challenging society from its margins: Ben is a young man who would fit equally well in the hallowed halls of an Ivy League school or a Major League baseball diamond. Or a jail cell, like the one where he ended up after the International Monetary Fund protests earlier this year in Washington, D.C.
At home in Baltimore, he attends City College High School. He plans to go to college after graduation, and is considering Columbia University in New York.
A baseball fanatic, he batted .389 last year as second baseman on his school’s team. He also plays soccer and runs track.
Ben designed a Web site for his baseball team and as part of a school project translated the school’s Web site into Spanish, an interest prompted by a three-week stay in Costa Rica last year as part of a student exchange program.
But more than the activities he participates in, one clue as to why Ben is in Los Angeles this week could be in an activity he has no part in: student government.
“When he looked at the Republican and Democratic parties, he really believes that they aren’t that different,” said his mother, Liz Lowengard.
Even burgeoning third-party movements like Ralph Nader’s Green Party don’t capture his imagination.
“I don’t think governmental changes are going to do it,” Ben says, when he discusses to the issues like the death penalty and police brutality.
But not everyone agrees with Ben that protests are going to do it.
Sandy Brock, a Maryland delegate to the Republican National Convention, said she respects people’s rights to protest, but she described the demonstrations at the Philadelphia convention as “totally ineffective.”
“They were just there to be disruptive,” she said of the protesters.
Brock, who works closely with Maryland’s Youth for Bush committee, said that young people who she talked to with that group “didn’t understand [the protest] and they regretted that it would reflect the youth today.”
Ben’s mother, director of the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education, a statewide program devoted to making education more accessible to disabled students, said she and Ben’s father have long been involved with what she calls “radical politics,” and that Ben attended his first protest in a stroller.
She credits Ben, though, with making up his own mind about his political beliefs, saying their involvement in the protest movement only showed him there was another alternative.
“He believes that real changes, like the civil rights movement, are made the way he’s doing it,” she said.
While his mother admits to being a little nervous thinking of her son in the middle of a protest 3,000 miles away, she says she is “mostly proud” and is confident that Ben’s experience helps him understand his surroundings. In addition to activism, she noted that Ben plans to use the trip to survey West Coast colleges.
While he has no intention of being arrested in Los Angeles, Ben says he is “definitely aware that things like that could happen.”