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Denver 2008: A Repeat of 1968 Chicago DNC?

New America Media, News analysis, Ron Manuto & Sean Patrick ORourke Posted: Aug 25, 2008

Editors Note: As Democrats gather at their convention in Denver, NAM contributors Ron Manuto and Sean Patrick ORourke recall another historic conventionthe one that took place in 1968, after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and as the war in Vietnam raged. Manuto writes on civil rights and legal issues in California, and ORourke teaches courses in American public discourse and protest rhetoric at Furman University in South Carolina.

As the Democrats gather in Denver, the nation is at war, the party is divided, and the air is filled with the rhetoric of political change. But forty years ago, the Democratic National Convention opened in Chicago to even greater conflict.

For many, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy early in 1968 had intensified the despair over a stalled Civil Rights Movement, an escalating war in Vietnam, and a growing awareness of inequities in our system of social justice. To those for whom King and Kennedy represented hope, the events of 1968 brought frustration, even rage.

Middle America, which housed the largest portion of what Tom Brokaw called the greatest generation, had no understanding of these passions. Too many of them bought the facile explanations of the FBI that the growing level of national protest was the work of outside agitators, socialists and communists. In trying to suppress those movements, the powerful became guilty of the same fascist impulses of those they once fought.

Chicago was the perfect representation of an older America. It showed everything that was right and wrong with the nations blind search for light at the end of its tunnel. After World War II, nationalism altered the world order. It was a hard lesson, which we still refuse to completely understand. Among the disenfranchised, the push for equality altered Americas destiny, yet few understood how and in what ways.

Chicagos complexities and wounds were Americas. A system of corruption accompanied its every achievement, the unlawful often mothered the legal, and repression was sold as patriotism.

Mayor Richard Daley was a gruff, machine-driven authoritarian, and no one did anything in Chicago without his approval. In anticipation of possible protest and disorder, the mayor unleashed the Chicago Police Department. He had already ordered a shoot to kill directive against potential arsonists during the rioting after Kings death. So, he was not at all hesitant in crushing the demonstrators who had come to the city to protest the war. He illegally infiltrated anti-war groups. He also put into place and enforced an 11 p.m. curfew (without cause) and refused to issue permits for any rallies or speeches (again illegally).

What happened was not unlike a car wreck you see coming but cannot stop. The street clashes between the police and demonstrators around the Amphitheatre, where the delegates met, and those in and around Lincoln and Grant Parks, were unimaginable a few days before. A vast television audience could not believe what it was seeing, the sheer brutality of it. Though they fought back by refusing to comply, the demonstrators had their heads and bodies smashed. The police looked out of control. It was characterized later by the Walker Commission as a police riot.

Tear gas, mace and nightsticks were used with unrelenting fury against anyone in the way of the effort to clear the parks. Even news reporters, wearing white armbands for protection, found themselves under attack. Both Dan Rather and Mike Wallace were caught on film being roughly shoved by police.

Two days into the convention, Chicago became surreal. French poet and playwright Jean Genet, a master at exploring crime and perversion in his life and work, denounced the police as mad dogs. Their faces, he said, were not recognizable as anything human.

The violence so near the convention floor drove nearly everyone over the edge, even Mayor Daley.

When Senator Abraham Ribicoff gave the nomination speech for George McGovern, he went off script and said, If George McGovern were president, we would not have these Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago. Indignant and angry, Daley let loose a string of expletives and walked out of the Amphitheatre.

The Democrats ended up nominating Hubert Humphrey. He lost the election to Richard Nixon and Americas long slide began.

Today in Denver, the party is once again divided. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an economy spiraling out of control, and a national debt that has soared by trillions are just a few of the major problems savaging the nations resources and will. And although Barack Obama has won and will run in the fall election as the Democratic nominee, Senator Hillary Clintons closest supporters refuse to support Obama, blaming misogynists everywhere for her failure to win.

Of course, it is not 1968, when, in spite of the violence, one generation confronted another with anger and passion. But as in 68, it will again be interesting to once again see what ethic prevails. Disunity spells defeat. As ugly as Chicago was, people marched and fought over the collective fate of the nation, not a single interest or person.

What will happen this time?

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