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1968 Revisited

A political perfect storm coul mean trouble this September

By Peter P.M. Buttigieg

“The past is never dead,” Faulkner famously said. “It isn’t even past.” As if to prove him right, the press stayed busy last week exploring the dubious narrative of how President Bush got into, and out of, service in the National Guard during the Vietnam War, eyeing its implications for the coming election. Not to be outdone, Republicans seized on a recently unearthed Crimson interview of John Kerry from his youthful war-protesting days, as well as two photos (one real, one forged) of him appearing within sight of Jane Fonda, hated to this day by many veterans for her anti-war views. It was another sign that the ghosts of Vietnam are alive and howling this political cycle.  From the strained Vietnam-Iraq analogy to the Kerry-Clark competition over who was more of a war hero, much of this election is happening in terms of that painful experience. Yet pundits and politicians this year have mostly ignored one of the most important episodes of the Vietnam era: the violence surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention.

When Democrats convened in 1968 to nominate Hubert Humphrey in Chicago, violence erupted in the surrounding streets as law enforcement clashed with students gathered to protest Lyndon Johnson’s war. Inside the hall, one Senator denounced the “Gestapo tactics” of Mayor Daley’s police, while the nation watched aghast as their televisions carried images of students being beaten outside. Incredibly, no one was killed, but the violence became one of many bitter moments etched in the nation’s memory of the turbulent ’60s.

The world is very different now. Conventions have devolved from intense and unpredictable political events to vacuous and scripted shows, and George W. Bush is about as different from LBJ as a Texan president could be. But the way things are shaping up, America will have to take care to avoid an ugly and familiar scene at the 2004 Republican convention in New York City.

It was about a year ago that the RNC announced that the Republicans would convene in New York, even though they had avoided that city as a convention site for 150 years, and that they would hold the convention in September, even though these things are usually done in July. Of course, the GOP scoffed at allegations that the location and scheduling had anything to do with a desire to use 9/11 for political gain. At the time, it seemed like a clever (if sinister) move; but now, some think it will backfire.

Politically speaking, the tragedy of 9/11 just isn’t what it used to be for Bush. Once an automatic applause line for the president, it is showing signs of turning into a vulnerability. Bush is taking increasing heat for his reluctance to cooperate with the federal commission investigating the attacks, most recently in the form of an outraged demand from the Family Steering Committee that he testify in public to the commission, providing a series of embarrassing questions for him to answer. It’s another sign that the attacks are no longer a bulletproof vest for the president—and if his political force-field fizzles, New York may be about the last place he’ll want to visit.

The City is a liberal stronghold, and one of the hottest spots for the massive anti-war protests that began one year ago last week. Among the millions who demonstrated worldwide, at least a hundred thousand were on the streets of New York, in a throng that stretched 20 blocks long and three wide. So it’s hard to imagine a sedate response when the entire Republican power structure descends on New York to re-affirm their commitment to four more years of this presidency.

In a tiny hint of what lies ahead, the New York Times reported last week on an episode of street theater by a group called “Billionaires for Bush,” which gathered outside a posh Republican fundraiser in the City, chanting mock slogans like “Four More Wars” and “Re-Elect Rove.” A group advocating for the poor has already vowed to erect “Bushville” tent cities around the convention site, and websites like rncnotwelcome.org offer resources to New Yorkers and travelers who seek to “subvert this carefully staged affair.” (The GOP seems to be taking this seriously, having quickly bought up the similar-sounding rncnotwelcome.com address and linking it to their own party website.) In a city where 81 percent of the residents voted for Al Gore, the capital of the blue states, it’s hard to imagine that organizers will have a hard time generating a massive demonstration.

I asked Tom Hayden, who earned worldwide fame as one of the “Chicago Seven” put on trial for organizing the 1968 demonstrations, whether he thought the violence of conventions past might rear its ugly head in 2004. Hayden, whose notoriety was rekindled on this campus when Harvard’s own Miami Four were arrested after traveling with him to observe globalization protests in December, says that while it’s a different time, he’s worried about a parallel emerging. If authorities look at quelling protest as a question of homeland security, he says, then they will retrace the outlines of a “repressive political script.” He said his experience in Miami was not a good sign. There, when protestors demonstrated against the Free Trade Area of the Americas, they were met with a strategy of overwhelming force which Miami’s mayor later described as a “model for homeland security.” Using federal officers and money from the $87 billion appropriated to fight terrorism in Iraq, the security in Miami was clearly based on a philosophy of regarding demonstrators as the enemy. The incident was surprisingly underreported, but the strategy seems to be favored by the administration—recently the New York Times reported that the FBI is collecting data on American protestors as if they were terrorists. But unlike Miami, New York can generate hundreds of thousands of protestors, and with those kinds of numbers comes a far greater risk of disaster. It’s up to “concerned elected officials,” says Hayden, to “decide who is in charge of defining the first amendment, the police and FBI or civilian authority.” For their part, protestors must recognize the politically self-defeating consequences of appearing militant—to oppose, in Hayden’s words, “not the police but the partisan use of the police” which may emerge. Demonstrators and authorities alike had better recall the refrain of the students chanting in 1968, under the clubs of the Chicago police: “The whole world is watching.”

Peter P.M. Buttigieg ’04 is a history and literature concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alernate Mondays.

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