A Street Protester Looks Back at 1968


Street protests in Chicago outside the 1968 Democratic Party convention offer a sharp and revealing comparison to the approaching August 2008 Democratic convention in Denver.

The contrast between the two conventions captures the essence of political differences between then and now.

In 1968, it was events outside Chicago’s Amphitheatre that captured the world’s attention. In 2008, it will be what’s happening inside Denver’s Pepsi Center that will have the spotlight.

Of course, Obama’s nomination acceptance on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech will be loaded with historic symbolism. This is sure to be shamelessly exploited by a duplicitous party hierarchy that has itself unquestionably contributed to the erosion of civil rights over the last four decades.

In addition, a very professional stage production will undoubtedly be designed to keep focus on theatrics inside the convention.

This is a significant departure from 1968 where attention largely remained on explosive struggles against war and racism, some of which were dramatically played out in numerous street actions outside the Democratic convention under conditions most observers described as a ‘virtual police state.’

Why the big difference between the two conventions?

Civil rights and war were center stage in 1968 because a mobilized, independent protest movement of millions propelled these causes.

Throughout the 1960s, thousands of neighborhood, labor, religious, campus, civil rights and women’s groups were active in organizing teach-ins, marches, picket lines, student strikes, rallies and mass protests for civil rights, women’s rights, and peace in Vietnam. It was a time of regular and sustained organizing and protest.

The impending deliberations at the Chicago convention forty years ago took place against this backdrop of social upheaval. Clearly, the demands of the peace and civil rights movements eclipsed the dull, tepid and deceitful party platform discussions inside Chicago’s Amphitheatre.

This certainly is not the case in 2008.

Protest Politics and the Democratic Party

The two establishment parties never want to see social movements take shape outside their control. Dissent is to be shuffled back and forth between the two parties like a B-Movie ‘Good Cop, Bad Cop’ interrogation. This is as true now as it was in 1968.

It is generally known that President Kennedy dispatched his brother Robert to convince Martin Luther King Jr. to call off the 1963 March on Washington. To his credit, King understood building an independent mass movement was far more powerful political leverage than relying on individual assurances from Washington politicians.

King was committed to keeping his movement from being controlled by the same politicians he sought to influence. In one notable example he explicitly defied the advice of powerful, well-funded Democratic Party liberals that he dodge the war issue.

Instead, in 1967 King delivered his first impassioned speech against the Vietnam War. He responded to his detractors by saying that “Silence is Betrayal.” That year King led 400,000 of us on April 15 from New York’s Central Park to the United Nation’s building. (New York Times, 4/16/67)

Unable to stop the growth of these independent civil rights and antiwar movements, the government sought to actually disrupt and destroy them through their criminal COINTELPRO campaign.

But while the protest movements remained viable, they had a profound impact on politics in America. For example, the Texas “good old boy” President Lyndon Johnson was the unlikely promoter of the most comprehensive anti-discrimination laws since Reconstruction.

But that is the point. Johnson supported profound social legislation despite his biases. Enormous political pressures arose and overwhelmed his otherwise retrograde impulses.

Similarly, unable to sidetrack the independent antiwar protest movement, the vulgar reactionary President Richard Nixon withdrew the last US soldier from Vietnam in 1973.

Politics was driven by powerful social forces operating in the streets, not from within the Oval Office. Unfortunately, this dynamic has long been absent.

Who Defines the Political Agenda?

In 1968, civil rights demands to fund a “War on Poverty” and antiwar demands for “Immediate Withdrawal from Vietnam” were clearly defined through years of debate and discussion among tens of thousands of activists.

Eventually, this debate spilled over into the homes of millions of Americans. After several years of experience with the rising human death toll, the call for “Immediate Withdrawal” was generally accepted by the American people. Many Americans also came to support the principle of “self-determination” for developing countries, opposing the idea of “pre-emptive” interventions.

All this has often been dismissed by right-wing politicians as the “Vietnam Syndrome,” but it is the reason no US occupation troops remain in that country today.

In 2008, we are still plagued by issues of racism, war and poverty, but the solutions will be more defined by compromising politicians, many of whom will be assembled in Denver.

As a result, discussions about getting out of Iraq invariably contain exemptions for permanent US military bases and the right to intervene to protect U.S. “interests.”

Today’s peace movement slogan of “Immediate Withdrawal from Iraq & Afghanistan” is largely ignored by establishment ‘insiders’. That’s because the massive antiwar movement needed to promote this slogan onto the national agenda is not there in 2008 as it was in 1968.

Antiwar protests are planned for Denver in August, but they are not likely to distract much from the agenda inside the convention.

The world’s attention may be focused on what is happening inside the Denver convention, but those of us hoping for real social change in this country must look outside, to the grassroots and to the future of mass organizing.

No serious reform is possible without this step.

For example, it is impossible to have genuine health care reform without ending the criminal stranglehold of the enormously-profitable insurance companies. It is also impossible to terminate wars of intervention without ending the economic free-trade aggression of greedy US corporations.

Overcoming these obstacles does not come easy. It requires a very tough struggle. That’s why broad serious reforms have only occurred twice since Reconstruction, under Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson. And both times it was under circumstances of near revolt by major sections of the population.

This is a fact ignored by those who desire to influence Obama personally from inside his campaign to somehow transcend his class loyalties. On the contrary, politicians of the two elite parties have only been influenced to enact major change from the outside.

CARL FINAMORE was chairman of the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle, Committee to End the War in Vietnam and participated in all the protests outside the 1968 Democratic Party convention. This lifelong outsider eagerly awaits a party worth getting inside. He is former President (ret), Air Transport Employees Local Lodge 1781, IAMAW, and can be reached at local1781@yahoo.com



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