The mass demonstration in New York City planned for Aug. 29 on the eve of the Republican National Convention, the first full-scale protest against Bush policies and especially the War against Iraq in well over half a year, promises to bring upwards of half a million people into the city’s narrow streets.
With the city’s mayor, Republican Michael Bloomberg, hell-bent on on blunting that protest and creating a crisis by shunting marchers off onto the West Side Highway, which runs along Manhattan’s left flank, Todd Gitlin, former SDSer from a bygone era and in more recent years self-styled critic of the “radical left,” and John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace USA and another one-time radical turned old softie, have offered their “words of wisdom” to the young and the restless.
“Let dissent with dignity win the day,” they bray in a Nation article, sounding like wizened old uncles. “Red-hot rage may seem in order when the country’s values have been trampled upon by a government with a dubious claim to legitimacy. Yet the theatrics of rage can easily play into Bush’s hands. Righteousness, if not rooted in humility and focused on results–on persuasive power–will offend more than it attracts and fall victim to its own arrogance, as surely as arrogance undercuts Bush. ”
In warning against violent or destructive behavior, Gitlin and Passacantando raise the specter of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, suggesting that the violence in the streets at that event was the work of government provocateurs and that the current movement could be vulnerable to the same tactics.
They go on to recall the Civil Rights Movement marchers of an even earlier time, saying, “Consider the brave young men and women of the civil rights movement, sitting with dignity at lunch counters throughout the South. In film footage of the time, you can see them attacked by uncivilized whites, who curse them, beat them–and thus reveal themselves as bullies and cowards. The civilly disobedient cover themselves in self-defense but never raise their hands in anger. They appeal over their adversaries’ heads to the majority who, they believe–they have to believe–will see the justice of their cause.”
This has long been Gitlin’s shtick, of course. When International A.N.S.W.E.R. was doing the hard work of organizing mass rallies against Bush’s rush to war back in early 2003, pulling hundreds of thousands to the Mall in Washington, Gitlin was out there on the public airwaves undermining their efforts, redbaiting their Marxist influences, and trashing their inclusion of the Palestinian State as an issue, and the movement to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, the long-imprisoned Philadelphia black journalist on Pennsylvania’s death row.
Now he’s raising the bugaboo of “protest violence.”
But the Epistle of Gitlin and Passacantando offers us a sepia-toned, revisionist view of the ’60s. The Gandhi-inspired marches and protests of the Civil Rights era were indeed powerful tools in the struggle for African-American civil rights, but it was the riots in Watts, Detroit, Newark and elsewhere, and the threat of a much more militant Black Power movement, as promoted by the likes of Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X and Fred Hampton and others that led President Johnson and the Establishment to decide they had to cut a deal.
The same is true with the anti-war movement. To hear Gitlin, you’d think it was all those clean-for-Gene kids who walked door-to-door during the teach-ins that brought the Vietnam War to an end. In fact, it was the growing unrest in the cities, the collapse of morale and near insurrection among the troops in Vietna, the street confrontations of 1968 and 1972, and the slayings at Kent State and Jackson State, and more than all of these the victories and endurance of the Vietnamese resistance, that forced the U.S. to give up that war.
Sure there were plenty of people in Nixon’s “Silent Majority” who were upset at all the chaos and disruption of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but in the end, they tired of the government’s lies and its violence and forced the power structure to back down. Nixon was forced to resign, his secret police state effort (Cointelpro) unraveled and was exposed to the light of day, and laws were passed creating, at least for a time, a more open government.
This history is far too explosive for Gitlin and Passacantando to handle, so they ignore it.
No doubt they are right that violent behavior and wanton destruction by demonstrators, should it take place during the RNC, will sway some undecided voters to the Bush camp in November, just as such behavior in 1968 and 1972 surely turned some voters to Nixon. But Gitlin and Passacantando are dreaming if they think that a less militant civil rights and peace movement in the 1960s would have brought about the Civil Rights Act, the War on Poverty or the end of the Indochina War. And they are libeling the organizers of the August 29 action and the hundreds of thousands who plan to protest in New York by implying that they are primed for violent conflict.
They also ignore a signal difference between Chicago in 1968 and New York in 2004: In 1968, demonstrators were protesting a Democratic administration in a city controlled by a Democratic mayor, Richard Daley, and Republican challenger Richard Nixon was able to paint them as a dangerous rabble for which the Democrats could somehow be blamed (a not illogical conclusion since it was a police riot ordered by Mayor Daley that instigated the Chicago riots). Today, demonstrators are protesting a Republican national administration in a Republican-led city. If marchers are driven to defend their rights, or even to riot, it should be clear to most honest observers that it was the Republican Mayor, no doubt acting at the behest of the national Republican Party and the Bush White House, who, by denying them a permit to assemble in Central Park, will have created a wholly avoidable confrontation with police. If anything, it should be the Democrats who benefit from the ensuing chaos. (And Democrats, including presidential candidate John Kerry, should be pointedly criticizing Bloomberg right now and warning about the likely result of his pig-headedness.)
This is not to endorse violence and destructiveness for its own sake. Rather, it is to say that if some protesters, denied by Mayor Bloomberg the right to peaceably assemble and seek to make their voices heard (without being shunted off onto a remote highway), react in a militant manner and end up in a confrontation with police, it will be on Bush’s and Bloomberg’s head.
Gitlin and Passacantando should be offering their “sage advice” to Bloomberg, not the demonstrators.
DAVE LINDORFF is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His new book of CounterPunch columns titled “This Can’t be Happening!” to be published this fall by Common Courage Press. Information about both books and other work by Lindorff can be found at www.thiscantbehappening.net.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org