Forty years ago, John Froines was a Sixties radical leading anti-war hippie protests to the Chicago Democratic Convention. After the 1968 convention descended into riots and more than 25,000 troops and police were deployed on the streets, Froines became one of the famed 'Chicago Eight'. He was put on trial for inciting the disturbances in one of the most controversial cases in American history.
Now, as a distinguished chemistry professor in California, Froines sees a country again mired in a seemingly endless foreign war. Once more the Democrats are headed for a bitterly divided political convention. Yet Froines thinks the world is now in even worse shape than it was in 1968. 'We are in a much more serious time,' he told The Observer. 'Our problems are much more intractable.'
Perhaps that is why the 40th anniversary of the Chicago convention, the riots that surrounded it and the resulting trial are being examined as never before. Not only were the events of 1968 pivotal, but they have never seemed more relevant to the shape of American politics. If you substitute Vietnam for Iraq and Chicago 1968 for Denver 2008, the parallels can become eerie.
Paving the way is a new documentary on the trial of Froines and his fellow protesters. Called Chicago 10 (because the director, Brett Morgen, included the defendants' two lawyers), the film is a powerful portrayal of the case and the riots themselves. It features a mix of documentary footage with an animated version of the trial starring voiceovers from Nick Nolte, Mark Ruffalo and Roy Scheider. The film was a hit at the Sundance festival in January and has drawn some rave reviews.
It powerfully mixes the story of the riots with the resulting 'conspiracy trial' in which eight activists were charged with plotting unrest. But Morgen's documentary is not alone in re-examining the subject. Another non-fiction film, The Great Chicago Conspiracy Circus, has also been released this year. At the same time, famed scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin - creator of The West Wing - is working on a project about it with director Steven Spielberg. British actor Sacha Baron Cohen is set to play Abbie Hoffman, a leading demonstrator who specialised in jokey pranks as a form of protest.
It is easy to see why there is such interest. The Chicago convention was held under the shadow of Vietnam and after the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Dr Martin Luther King. President Lyndon Johnson had already declared he would not seek re-election, and the Democrats were utterly divided about choosing a successor. In the middle of all this marched thousands of anti-war protesters and so-called yippies - militant hippie activists - determined to invade both Chicago and the convention centre. 'This was really the penetration of street protest and the anti-war movement right into mainstream politics,' said Howard Brick, a history professor at Washington University in St Louis.
For Chicago's hardline Mayor Richard Daley, it seemed as if a revolution was in the air. Three days of police brutality followed, with razor wire in the streets and running battles downtown. Its culmination was the trial of the Chicago Eight, which descended into farce and even saw one defendant, Bobby Seale, chained to his chair and gagged in court. For many, the riots and trial represented both the culmination of Sixties' radicalism and its death knell.
In particular, some of the footage of the final protests has become iconic in the symbolism of anti-war movements. One scene shows a woman being forcefully herded into the back of a police van as she sings 'We Shall Overcome'. 'They knew they were marching into trouble, but refused to be silent,' Morgen said.
But the core of Morgen's film is not so much in what it says about events of 40 years ago but about what is going on today. He used a modern musical score in the film, not a Sixties soundtrack. Indeed, the parallels between 1968 and 2008 are legion. The war in Iraq has filled American TV screens for five years and spawned a second anti-war movement. Often, it too is made up of returning veterans, just like Vietnam. The war has also laid waste to a presidency, bringing George W Bush down to historical lows in popularity, the way Vietnam wiped out Johnson's political future.
As Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton appear set to go to Denver to fight out a bitter nomination battle, so the Democrats approached Chicago without a nominee but with two strong candidates splitting the delegate count almost down the middle. Even some of the militancy of the Sixties anti-war movement has been reborn. A homemade bomb was recently thrown at a military recruiting station in New York. One newspaper reprinted a list of similar attacks across the US under the headline: 'Peacenik thugs'.
But those longing for - or fearing - a re-run of the Sixties should relax. The differences between 1968 and 2008 are as profound as the similarities. The current anti-war movement does not have anywhere like the political power or media visibility of its Vietnam era counterpart. Marches are smaller and less frequent and no groups, such as the yippies, or leading protesters, such as Hoffman, have emerged to national prominence.
At the same time, police have learnt the lessons of Chicago. In 1968 the protesters were allowed to march right up to the barricades. Now they are often herded far away from the events they are demonstrating against or, as happened at the 2004 Republican convention in New York, arrested in large numbers before trouble breaks out.
Another key difference is the absence of the draft. Thousands were conscripted into the Vietnam war, outraging them and their families. Iraq is being fought by a volunteer army, perhaps explaining why it has not registered as a defining issue in the 2008 election campaign.
Protesters are also different. The landscape of the 2000s includes globalisation, environmentalism and the rise of Islamic radicalism. It is also a post-9/11 era, in which protest, and especially direct action, is frowned on and seen in the same light as terrorism. Some experts think modern culture, with its emphasis on consumerism and individuality, is also less open to mass protest. 'Our culture now is so dominated by diversions and individual distractions,' said Professor Edward Morgan of Lehigh University, Pennsylvania, an expert on the Sixties political protests.
Sixties protesters accept the world has changed. For Froines, it is a more troubled and complex place. 'I worry very much about the nostalgia for the Sixties. This is a very different time and people should not wallow in that nostalgia,' he said.
Indeed Froines now worries as much as any other ageing baby boomer about the rise of China and Islamic terrorism: 'Those are some of the real problems we face, not just Iraq.' But he believes one lesson from Chicago is still universal: the power of individuals to get together and change things: 'I have not changed that view in 40 years. It is still essential.'
© 2008 The Guardian