If trouble breaks out between police and demonstrators at next month's Republican convention, the media will be quick to draw comparisons to the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. Mayor Richard J. Daley's rampaging police — who injured hundreds of unarmed protesters and bystanders — provided one of the great cautionary tales in American politics, and one that is already on the mind of the Bloomberg administration. In a recent interview, the mayor's communications director rushed to say, before I could even raise the subject, that his boss was no Mayor Daley, and that this was not Chicago in 1968.
As the co-author of a lengthy Daley biography, "American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley: His Battle for Chicago and the Nation," I can attest that the two mayors are not much alike. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who made $5 billion at the intersection of finance and technology, is a world away from Mayor Daley — the father of Chicago's current mayor — who plodded his way up an old-line Democratic machine, and lived his whole life in the working-class neighborhood of Bridgeport. And given the probity and professionalism Mayor Bloomberg has shown in office, a Chicago-style debacle seems unlikely here. Still, these two men seem to have a remarkably similar distaste for demonstrators — and for somewhat similar reasons.
Mayor Daley's dislike of protests was largely rooted in his view of politics. The Chicago machine was built on the principle that the way to have a voice in government was to pay one's dues at the precinct level by turning out the vote. Mayor Daley shared the machine's hierarchical, pragmatic values, and was offended by anyone who made demands on elected officials without helping to elect them.
When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. brought the civil rights movement to Chicago in 1966, his idealistic words about equal opportunity and fair housing were lost on the mayor. Mayor Daley could not believe that Dr. King expected to dictate policy to city hall when he did not control a single precinct captain.
Mayor Daley viewed the 1968 protesters in much the same way. When I started work on the Daley book, I shared the common misconception that Mayor Daley hated antiwar protesters because he supported the Vietnam War. But I soon learned that he opposed the war, and had quietly tried to persuade President Lyndon Johnson to withdraw the troops. The mayor's objection was in a way procedural. If the demonstrators wanted to end the war, it seemed to him, they should have done the hard political work to be where he was that week: inside the convention hall.
Mayor Bloomberg's roots lie in a social organization that's very different from the clubhouse, but equally intolerant of spontaneous outbursts. Until he ran for mayor he had spent his life in the corporate world, where — as in a political machine — people pursue a common goal by working through the system. Employees who try to harangue leaders into changing corporate policy are not engaging in free speech. They are being insubordinate.
In his handling of demonstrators, Mayor Bloomberg has acted like a corporate leader dealing with unruly subordinates. His police have confined them in metal "pens," and treated them with a roughness that makes protesting the government a grueling experience. The New York Civil Liberties Union is suing on behalf of a diabetic, wheelchair-bound New Yorker who says she was kept in a pen at a protest last year despite a medical need to leave.
In the negotiations over next month's anti-Republican protests, the city initially tried to force the 250,000 demonstrators who want to gather in Central Park into Queens. Its final offer is a site on the West Side Highway, an uncomfortable, out-of-the-way, narrow venue that will make it impossible to gather as a group to hear speakers. Mayor Bloomberg delegated the negotiations to the police, stepping in only occasionally to belittle the protesters' concerns.
It's easy to understand how Mr. Bloomberg's background, like Mayor Daley's, gave him a distaste for unruly protesters. But that doesn't excuse his failure to speak out forcefully about the importance of free speech. He is mayor of New York now, and one of the New York's proudest attributes has always been its openness to robust political debate. When he rolls out the red carpet for the Republicans, he should make clear that as long as protesters obey the law, they will be just as welcome as the delegates.
These are hard times for protesters. Sept. 11 provided an excuse for tossing out the Founding Fathers' broad notions of freedom of speech, petition and assembly, and for imposing "time, place and manner" restrictions that push protests completely out of view. When President Bush appears in public, the Secret Service now routinely forces demonstrators to move to far-off "free speech zones." When the president attended a gathering of world leaders last month on Sea Island, Ga., protesters were kept 10 miles away.
As mayor of New York, Mr. Bloomberg has a special duty to resist this trend. Because if political dissent can't make it here, it can't make it anywhere.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company