Anti-War Movement Wrestles with 1968
A coalition of anti-war groups is vowing to protest this summer's Democratic National Convention in Denver under the rubric "Re-create '68," prompting criticism from some on the left who are loath to revisit what they see as a disastrous time for both the anti-war movement and the Democratic Party.
Capping a year that saw the assassinations of both the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, the 1968 Democratic National Convention erupted in violence as thousands of Chicago police officers, supported by U.S. Army troops and National Guardsmen, battled in the streets with activists protesting the Vietnam War. Inside the convention hall, the Democrats chose as their presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey, who went on to lose the general election to Richard Nixon.
"What's the political calculation that speaks to them of the wisdom of civil disobedience - which means a massive media spectacle - on the brink of a Democratic campaign that could plausibly put a Democrat in the White House who's committed to withdrawal from Iraq?" asked Todd Gitlin, an anti-Vietnam War activist who was at the Democratic National Convention in 1968. "If the objective is to put a belligerent Republican in the White House, they should keep up the good work."
The "belligerent Republican" of whom Gitlin speaks will almost certainly be Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who spent the summer of 1968 as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
Organizers acknowledge that their "Re-create '68" moniker has been met with skepticism as they've toured the country to gin up support among fellow activists. "A lot of people of course associate it with the DNC of '68 and react negatively," said organizer Mark Cohen. But the point, Cohen said, isn't to reproduce the violence associated with the 1968 convention, just the strong sense of countercultural protest that coalesced against the Vietnam War. "We don't call ourselves 'Re-create Chicago '68,'" Cohen offered.
Leslie Cagan, head of United for Peace and Justice, an anti-war group that has organized large marches in the past, said her group has endorsed the planned demonstrations in Denver.
Cynthia McKinney, a former Democratic congresswoman now running as a Green Party candidate for president, will be expressing herself at the demonstration, said organizers. They also plan to reach out to Ralph Nader, who is running as an independent, third-party candidate. The coalition is seeking the support of ANSWER, an anti-war organization with a more radical approach to street protest than UFPJ's.
A major march against the war on the Sunday before the convention will be followed by a week of action, some of which will include nonviolent civil disobedience.
Organizer Barbara Cohen speculated that some of the reticence about the name comes from a misunderstanding of the Chicago ruckus. "First of all, it was a police riot, and people should remember that," said Cohen, explaining that the group has no plans to become violent. "It's the feeling and the ambience from '68 that we want to re-create now."
Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the anti-war group Code Pink, said her organization will participate in the demonstrations in order to focus attention on Democrats it believes haven't done enough to stop the war in Iraq. "We'll use it as a time to pressure leaders like Nancy Pelosi, who we feel talks a lot about opposing the war but maneuvers Congress to make sure it gets funded," she said.
Michael Heaney, a Florida University political scientist who studies the anti-war movement, said he expects between 10,000 and 30,000 people to participate in the Denver protest, depending on which candidate seems headed for the Democratic nomination. Organizers said that, from a turnout standpoint, a victory by Hillary Rodham Clinton would be good for numbers - echoing sentiment on the right that Clinton is a boon to corralling outrage. "If Hillary gets the nomination, we're going to have very large numbers - a solid 50,000 people at every event," said organizer Glenn Spagnuolo, 37, who wasn't yet born in 1968.
What about the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul, where the GOP will nominate as its presidential candidate the Senate's chief advocate of the "surge" in Iraq?
Organizers say that they'll protest at the Republican convention, too, but that their focus will be on the Democrats in Denver. "I think it's even more important to be in Denver at the DNC," Cohen said. "Republicans aren't going to listen, no matter what we say, but the Democrats might actually listen."
Cohen was an activist with the radical Students for a Democratic Society in 1968, but she wasn't at the Chicago convention. "Partly, my ride fell through, and something else came up that summer," she said.
Rep. Diana DeGette, a Democrat who represents Denver, was only 11 in 1968, but she said that she's flummoxed by the notion that anyone would want to re-create the dark days of that year. "I can't figure out why, for the life of me, that somebody would want to re-create '68," she said. "Is it the riots or tear gas - or perhaps the assassinations? Or maybe the election of a Republican president? I'm not sure the name was completely thought out."
DeGette added, however, that her husband is a top official at the American Civil Liberties Union and that she is pushing for the demonstrators to have a "robust right" to speak their minds.
Gitlin, a former president of Students for a Democratic Society, fears that the protests in Denver will be too much about people speaking their minds and not enough about obtaining the results that they want.
"In the '60s," he said, "there were competing strains: the desire for results and the desire for self-expression. This seems to belong squarely in the self-expression camp."
Gitlin said that trying to re-create the feeling of another era "makes about as much sense as throwing a costume party. It's absurd to think you can re-create the culture of a moment. History is a succession of irreproducible moments
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