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Echoes of Chicago ’68? The City and Activists Gear Up for the RNC

Official photograph of the Democratic National Convention at the Biltmore Hotel, Los Angeles, California, July, 1960— before the turbulence later in the decade. ©Audio Photo Services, Inc. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Official photograph of the Democratic National Convention at the Biltmore Hotel, Los Angeles, California, July, 1960— before the turbulence later in the decade. ©Audio Photo Services, Inc. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

A party’s pro-war leadership is at odds with its activist base. A nominating convention is being held in a city hostile to political protest. Radical factions threaten violent demonstrations, from which a reactionary political party stands to benefit.

Not every parallel is exact, but the issue is clear: Will New York City late this August witness a repeat of Chicago ‘68?

"The feeling in the air was apocalyptic," the New School’s James Miller says of the summer of ’68. By then, the Vietnam War had dragged on longer than any other in the country’s history. The Tet Offensive further deflated confidence; and 2,000 soldiers died in combat in May alone. Meanwhile, the draft threatened to add any able-bodied young man to this list. Resistance was strong: an anti-war demonstration at the Pentagon had drawn 100,000 in October of 1967. In ’68, political assassinations took the lives of Martin Luther King in April and of Robert Kennedy, an anti-war presidential contender, in June. The May protests and ensuing strikes in France were only the most prominent of that year’s many student-led international uprisings.

Demonstrators gathered in Chicago in August of ’68, angry with the Democratic Party’s past as well as prospective leadership. Tom Hayden, a leading organizer of the demonstrations, says, "In 1968, after four years of Vietnam and race rebellions under Democrats, a lot of us were alienated completely. We were abandoned by the Democratic Party." Lyndon Johnson, with overall public approval at 36%, decided not to run for a second term. But hope for a nominee who would pull the U.S. out of Vietnam faded quickly when Johnson endorsed his pro-war Vice President, Hubert Humphrey. Senator Eugene McCarthy ran on an anti-war platform, but with the party bosses behind him, Humphrey’s nomination at the convention seemed certain.

Ignoring Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s refusal to grant any permits, media-savvy protesters staged outlandish events to capture a share of the abundant convention press coverage. In response to pre-convention news reports of 6,000 police and National Guardsmen practicing riot control drills, the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE) attracted its own media attention with self-defense seminars in Lincoln Park, teaching karate, snake dancing and crowd protection techniques. The Yippies, having earlier threatened to levitate the Pentagon, now proposed to drop LSD in the city’s water supply and run away with the delegates’ daughters. They also planned a musical "Festival of Life" to coincide with the Democrats’ "convention of Death."

Demonstrators endured days of attacks from the police before the final standoff at the convention site on the night of Humphrey’s nomination. After criticizing the Superintendent of Police for his over-cautious handling of the race riots following Martin Luther King’s assassination, Daley ordered the police to "shoot to kill arsonists and shoot to maim looters." Consequently, many officers now believed that excessive force was condoned. Occasionally, the police also deployed the familiar "hold-and-bore" strategy of crowd dispersal, immobilizing groups for extended periods of time. In some cases, protesters broke the standoff, throwing objects including bricks, Molotov cocktails, and excrement at the police. John Schultz, who wrote an account of his experience during this conflict, recalls a common sentiment: "What were the demonstrators to do: sit there all night with no effect? Bore the media? Bore everyone?"

On the eve of the nomination, as the party insurgents’ Peace Plank was defeated, 15,000 gathered in Grant Park for a permitted rally. After a young protester was caught lowering the park’s American flag, police attacked an organizer, beating him unconscious. At this point, protest leader Tom Hayden told the crowd to split up and leave the park, exhorting "if blood is going to flow, let it flow all over the city." Many demonstrators headed toward the convention site so that the delegates and media could witness what was happening. With police blocking them on all sides, they broke up into smaller groups, but were stopped again by National Guardsmen with machine guns on the bridges leading to the site. By evening, 7,000 demonstrators had made it to the convention site. After a standoff, police ordered the streets cleared and began to beat protesters with billy clubs. Nearby television crews turned their floodlights on the scene, broadcasting images of police wildly beating anyone in their reach. The scenes of police crushing young, unarmed demonstrators overshadowed Humphrey’s nomination
ceremony on prime-time television.

In the end, on-site medical teams reported treating over 1,000 injuries, and 111 demonstrators were treated by hospitals. Of the 300 newspeople covering the protests, 60 were physically attacked by police. Chicago police reported 192 injured officers, with 49 receiving hospital treatment. The Walker Report, a subsequent federal study of convention-week conflict, labeled the events a "police riot." A federal officer reported witnessing police "hitting with vengeance and quite obviously with relish."

After the televised rioting, many questioned how the Democratic Party could run the nation, given its lack of control in Chicago. Nixon, claiming to represent "the non-shouters, the forgotten Americans," defeated Humphrey by 1% of the popular vote. The war lasted another seven years. Protest organizers, including Hayden, were indicted on federal charges for crossing state lines with the intent of inciting violence, leading to the Chicago Seven trial. The Democratic Party instituted changes in the nomination process, leading to the present primary system.

Over a year before the 2004 Republican convention, United for Peace and Justice applied for two permits during convention week: a 250,000-person march on August 29 and a rally on September 2 at the World Trade Center site. The NYC AIDS Housing Network also has plans for an August 30 demonstration in Times Square. William Dobbs, a spokesman for UPJ, says the permit process has been "sluggish," with the NYPD still not ready for negotiations. He adds: "it’s not just whether permits are granted, it’s also whether the protesters are seen and get to interact with others. It’s important to be able to move, as opposed to being stationary, for the success of making one’s political point."

Protesters against Bush’s war with Iraq, NYC, March 2003. Photo by Jan Chelminski.
Protesters against Bush’s war with Iraq, NYC, March 2003. Photo by Jan Chelminski.

In preparation for the convention, the NYPD is working with federal officials and consulting with other cities on a strategy to keep the city functioning, with demonstrators safely away from the convention site. Hayden encourages organizers to lobby elected officials immediately to maintain civilian control of security planning.

While the NYPD’s support for the First Amendment is questionable, the Department is likely to avoid the overkill tactics of Chicago in ‘68, as well as those seen more recently in Miami with the FTAA protests. Brute force was on display at Miami, where the police were instructed and armored to push away demonstrators, and many people were shot at close range by "non-lethals." As demonstrated on March 22, 2003, the NYPD is capable of managing mass dissent as a sort of low-budget Macy’s Parade. After endangering demonstrators on February 15, the NYPD suspended its controversial strategy of penning in and immobilizing demonstrators.

But the stakes are much higher when there is a fortress to guard, giving the police an excuse to become hostile. An important distinction between the tense February 15 and the pacific March 22 demonstrations in New York is that the earlier demonstration was in spitting distance of the United Nations headquarters. Working in tandem with federal officials, Mayor Mike Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly sought to prevent the specter of hundreds of thousands of people being photographed marching on the United Nations.

Comparing Cancun’s model of handling WTO demonstrations with Miami’s FTAA model suggests that a moat can be more effective without the alligators. In Cancun, Hayden reports, the police "de-escalated state violence against the protests. They allowed militant street confrontations, though not outside the convention center. They used fences as barricades, but allowed them to be pulled down. They arrested only a handful of people, if any. The police were not armed, though they had shields, visors, helmets, etc., and of course there was army backup somewhere out of sight. Few if any protesters were beaten, gassed, hurt, or arrested, and thousands of people were in the streets."

Most observers predict that the NYPD will deploy similar low-profile tactics. "I doubt the NYPD are interested in a riot," says Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. He adds, "Daley’s police certainly wanted a riot in ‘68 . . . Mayor Bloomberg certainly won’t want New York to suffer a loss of reputation like Chicago in ’68 (or, for that matter, Miami in ’03)." The NYPD is likely to opt for more refined methods of deflating demonstrations. Beyond reintroducing the penning strategy, they could also follow the "arrest now, acquit later" model used during the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia. Although 400 convention-related arrests were made in Philadelphia, approximately 95% of the charges were dismissed because of lack of evidence.

TV ratings of political conventions have dropped steadily for 20 years, and broadcast networks have recently slashed their coverage. With the convention itself both prepackaged and stale, dissent could become the hottest topic for the media. Yet protest organizers need to treat this opportunity with caution, anticipating how police tactics will interact with planned events and color media coverage. With infiltration of organizing meetings a fact, police are sure to know demonstrators’ routes and plans in advance, and adjust their strategies accordingly. Miller believes that "the more pacific the protests, the less political leverage they will give Republicans." "Violence," Gitlin agrees, "would be right out of Karl Rove’s playbook."

Rather than smashing windows, Hayden advocates more creative means of protest. "Having 9/11 families involved in planning from the beginning, as well as including Gulf War and Iraq vets in the protests, will be important," he says. In general, Hayden views "imagination, ridicule, humor and puppets" as the best weapons of protest.

At this point, one can only begin to imagine what kind of re-election tricks the Republicans will pull out of their $200 million war chest. The race is likely to be a tight one. The story the demonstrators create in New York can strongly influence how many legions of people run away from Bush.


Nazgol Ghandnoosh


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2004

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