Political Beatings, Then and Now

Marty was beaten in a jail cell of the police station in the small central Rhode Island town where we both grew up. His mistake was standing outside of the McCarthy for President office located in the business district in town. It was the summer of 1968 and the violence of the Democratic convention was but a few weeks away, and the trial of the Chicago 7, protesters at that convention, would soon follow. Bobby Seale, a Chicago defendant, would be separated from the other defendants at the trial and bound in a chair in the courtroom of Judge Julius Hoffman.

Like the presidential primary season of 2016, the McCarthy office drew a large number of young people, including Marty, and it became a sort of political and social center in town. I can picture the office all of these decades later as if it existed in the present. When I volunteered in the Sanders campaign, and went into the Pittsfield, Massachusetts office, all of those memories came flooding back. The presence of many young volunteers was nearly a mirror image of the ’68 campaign.

Both offices had several long tables filled with campaign buttons, volunteer sheets, campaign literature, bumper stickers, and campaign signs. If technology could be eliminated as a variable, and it cannot, both campaigns would look very, very similar. Of course, Citizens United has opened the floodgates of unregulated money in the campaign process, but in ’68 we were fighting similar fights against the power of the establishment; however, the war in Vietnam and the draft predominated our concerns then.

Like protesters at Trump rallies, Marty made a similar “mistake” all of those decades ago by standing out. Like our political contemporaries all over the country, we hung out at the campaign office and many of us were obvious for our long hair and hippie dress. When the police put Marty in the squad car, they said that he had given them “lip” when they made one of their many daily passes of the headquarters. Once in the jail cell, a cop beat Marty up. It didn’t matter that his father was a prominent businessman in town and operated a private accounting business on the second floor of the building where the McCarthy office was located. Marty needed to be taught a lesson about political orthodoxy and the police were more than willing to administer that lesson.

Fast forward to the presidential primary campaign of 2016 and the extreme right-wing Republican candidate, Donald Trump. The Atlantic (March 14, 2016) recounts the violence against protesters at Trump rallies around the country in “Trump Can’t Tell the Truth About Violence at His Rallies.”

There was the now infamous sucker punch in Fayetteville, North Carolina; the altercation between a Time photographer and a Secret Service agent at another Trump rally; the Black Lives Matter demonstrator who was hit in November; and then there were Hispanic protesters hit in October. In North Carolina, Trump observed of the violence, “See, in the good old days this didn’t use to happen, because they used to treat them very rough. We’ve become very weak.”

The decades move on and the political system remains a reflection of the larger society, with the exception of a small number of people with extreme wealth and from Super PACS now dominating the system, and instead of a beating in a jail cell of a small town in the Northeast, now it happens with the encouragement of the Republican frontrunner and in full view of the public. “The whole world is watching!”

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).