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Bedtime for Democracy

by RON JACOBS

 

In July 1984, the Democrats came to San Francisco for their party convention. The soon-to-be-crowned nominee was Walter Mondale, a washed-up liberal who had grown increasingly irrelevant over the years. The left candidate, Jesse Jackson, had led his radical minions towards the center after a series of concerted media attacks tripped him up midway through the campaign and convinced him that he better stop vocalizing support for Palestine, democracy in Central America and his opposition to the Reagan foreign policy if he wanted to have any say in the Democrats’ future.

In what has become standard practice in those cities chosen to host the major party political conventions, San Francisco had granted protestors a parking lot to protest in. The major difference between San Francisco and other cities was that the parking lot was actually near the convention center. For the most part, the rallies were tame. My friend Southwester and I headed over every day from Berkeley to sell “Nobody for President” stickers and take part in the protests. Usually by evening we found ourselves in a bar or park drinking a beer or two.

The afternoon of Mondale’s nomination a network of anarchists and leftists staged a series of sit-ins and guerrilla theater actions in banks and corporate offices in the financial district. This was part of a protest designed to draw the connections between corporate America, its politicians and their policies of war and greed. This was the biggest and most exciting action of the week. By 3:00 PM, when the Dead Kennedys began playing their political punk rock on the main stage, close to four hundred protestors had been arrested. Two or three songs into the performance their lead singer, Jello Biafra, began to talk about the bust and urged people to head down to the Bryant Street jail after the concert. This is where those arrested were being held. Nazi skinheads attacked jello during the next song. Other audience members pushed the skinheads off the stage and the band broke into their song “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.”

Southwester and I joined the march after the concert. As several thousand of us headed towards the jail, plainclothes cops who looked like athletes in torn jeans began pulling the more vocal protestors out of the march and beating them. When other protestors saw this happening, they naturally rushed to defend their fellows, whether they knew the plainclothes perpetrators were cops or not. Of course, the cops then arrested these folks as well. By the time the crowd reached the jail, it had grown larger, but quieter. While we stood around yelling at the police, Walter Mondale was nominated to run against Ronald Reagan in November.

This summer and fall will bring the Democrats to Boston and the GOP to New York City for their nominating conventions. Planning groups are already working on strategies, permits and lodging for the multitude of protestors expected at both conventions. Of course, the Republicans are bound to have more opposition in the streets than the Democrats, if for no other reason than the confusion many people opposed to Bush have about calling the Democrats to task for their failure to provide any real alternative.

Both political parties and host cities, however, are doing their best to prevent protestors from having their say in a venue where the convention delegates will have to acknowledge them. Boston has proposed to the protest organizers that they set up shop in a small parking lot that is literally in the middle of a stack of freeways and surrounded by train tracks belonging to the city’s subway/train system. If the courts decide against the city, one wonders how its police department will then respond? In other words, will the Boston police crack heads and preemptively arrest protestors if they can’t stick them in some isolated part of the city. Given John Kerry’s past as a protestor, the outcome of this debate should prove interesting, to say the least. Like Robyn Blumner noted in a March 2, 2004 editorial for the St. Petersburg Times: “How is it that John Kerry, a veteran of the Vietnam War protest movement, is willing to stand by as constraints on dissent are proposed for the streets outside the convention where he will be nominated for president this summer?” Blumner fails to mention that Kerry was one of those who opposed the majority of his fellow Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) members when they refused to leave the Washington Mall in 1971 after the Nixon Justice department refused to grant the vets a permit to camp there. Still, his point is well taken.

As for the GOP and New York City: police, organizers and locals all expect tens of thousands of protestors outside this meeting. The police are already practicing for mass arrests and whatever else they are instructed to do to maintain the GOP’s version of order. According to organizers’ websites, the police agencies involved have plans to create special zones within the city where the usual rights and liberties will be suspended. In addition, the authorities have stalled on issuing permits for several marches and have yet to answer in any way a request to let protestors sleep in one of the city parks. On top of this is the contrived show around the anniversary of 9-11. This in itself has been plenty of an excuse for the authorities to act outside their laws in the past. One can only assume that the presence of so many politicians, corporate bigwigs, and other GOP hangers-on will only intensify the authoritarian tendencies of those in the police state apparatus in New York’s streets and high-rises.

People need to be ready. No matter what the courts decide regarding the issuance of permits and the like, there will be protests in Boston and New York. Boston must see protests because the Democrats should not be let off the hook just because they aren’t Bush. The reasons for protests in New York do not even to be outlined. We should not let the authorities scare us away by using the courts against us. Nor should we allow their threats of chaos and disorder keep us away. Indeed, history makes it only too clear that it is the police and their bosses that create chaos and disorder, not the protestors. After the Chicago police were televised attacking and beating protestors outside the Democratic convention in August 1968, Mayor Daley (the elder) was quoted, “The police are not here to create disorder. The police are here to preserve disorder.” Whether he meant to say this or not, its veracity remains. See you there.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is being republished by Verso.

He can be reached at: rjacobs@zoo.uvm.edu

 

 

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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