Be careful what you wish for: the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention riots and their aftermath
In a recent post, I mentioned the antiwar demonstrations and resultant police brutality at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. I now want to expand on some thoughts connected with those events.
In Chicago, Mayor Daley's police did in fact go on an unwarranted and well-documented rampage. Until then, the rank and file of antiwar protestors had felt somewhat protected by the relative safety of demonstrations in this country. Chicago 1968 changed that perception, even though no one was killed (but that sorrowful eventuality was less than two years in the future, at Kent State).
This contemporaneous article from Time magazine (hardly a right-wing fringe publication) discusses the intent of the leaders of the 1968 Chicago Convention demonstrations:
[The protestors] left Chicago more as victors than as victims. Long before the Democratic Convention assembled, the protest leaders who organized last week's marches and melees realized that they stood no chance of influencing the political outcome or reforming "the system." Thus their strategy became one of calculated provocation. The aim was to irritate the police and the party bosses so intensely that their reactions would look like those of mindless brutes and skull-busters. After all the blood, sweat and tear gas, the dissidents had pretty well succeeded in doing just that.
Some demonstrators came prepared; defensively:
...many were equipped with motorcycle crash helmets, gas masks (purchasable at $4.98 in North Side army-navy surplus stores), bail money and anti-Mace unguents.
And a few, offensively:
A handful of hard-liners in the "violence bag" also carried golf balls studded with spikes, javelins made of snow-fence slats, aerosol cans full of caustic oven-cleaning fluids, ice picks, bricks, bottles, and clay tiles sharpened to points that would have satisfied a Cro-Magnon bear hunter.
The leaders were also prepared:
Most of the protest leaders stayed in the background. Mobilization Chairman David Tyre Dellinger, 53, the shy editor-publisher of Liberation, who led last fall's Pentagon March, studiously avoided the main confrontation before the Hilton. His chief aide, Tom Hayden, 28, a New Left author who visited Hanoi three years ago, was so closely tailed by plainclothesmen that he finally donned a yippie-style wig to escape their attentions. Nonetheless, he was arrested. Rennie Davis, 28, the clean-cut son of a Truman Administration economic adviser, took a more active part as one of the Chicago organizers: his aim, he said, was "to force the police state to become more and more visible, yet somehow survive in it." At Grant Park on Wednesday afternoon, he both succeeded and failed....
And here's David Horowitz's insider-turned-apostate version:
In fact, the famous epigram from '68 "Demand the Impossible" which Talbot elsewhere cites, explains far more accurately why it was Hayden, not Daley, who set the agenda for Chicago, and why it was Hayden who was ultimately responsible for the riot that ensued. The police behaved badly, it is true and they have been justly and roundly condemned for their reactions. But those reactions were entirely predictable. After all, it was Daley who, only months before, had ordered his police to "shoot looters on sight" during the rioting after King's murder. In fact the predictable reaction of the Chicago police was an essential part of Hayden's calculation in choosing Chicago as the site of the demonstration in the first place.
I disagree with Horowitz's statement that Hayden was ultimately responsible for the riot that ensued. Just because a group (in this case, the leaders of the demonstrations) is counting on provoking a brutal reaction does not mean that those reacting are not totally responsible for what they do, especially if that reaction is an overreaction, which appears to have been the case here. The police, and those in charge of the police, bear full responsibility for the fact that they behaved badly in just the very way that the demonstration leaders had predicted.
The organizers of the demonstrations in Chicago in 1968 were far from terrorists. But they did have the same intent as terrorists in one respect, and one respect only: to act from a weakened position to provoke, by their actions, a repressive response from authorities (in this case, the police) that would then further inflame public opinion against those authorities, and engender more sympathy for the cause of the planners.
In that endeavor, they were wildly successful in Chicago, but that success required an overreaction on the part of the Chicago police, who kindly obliged and played their predicted part in the drama.
And what of other intents of the demonstration leaders, and other consequences? Horowitz again:
In a year when any national "action" would attract 100,000 protestors, only about 10,000 (and probably closer to 3,000) actually showed up for the Chicago blood-fest. That was because most of us realized there was going to be bloodshed and didn't see the point. Our ideology argued otherwise as well. The two-party system was a sham; the revolution was in the streets. Why demonstrate at a political convention? In retrospect, Hayden was more cynical and shrewder than we were. By destroying the presidential aspirations of Hubert Humphrey, he dealt a fatal blow to the anti-Communist liberals in the Democratic Party and paved the way for a takeover of its apparatus by the forces of the political left, a trauma from which the party has yet to recover.
One reason the left has obscured these historical facts is that the nostalgists don't really want to take credit for electing Richard Nixon, which they surely did.
So, should they take "credit" for Nixon's election? Is this a case of "be careful what you wish for?" I believe the election of Nixon was more of an unintended consequence. The real goal seems to have been to fuel a trend toward the relative radicalization of the Democratic Party, and to gain support for the antiwar movement. In both senses, they were successful.
That "success," however, did in fact help pave the way for a string of Republican Presidents--with the sole exception of Jimmy Carter's single term--until the election of Bill Clinton. And in Clinton's first Presidential campaign, he consciously attempted to counter those long-ago forces from the 60s that had moved the Democratic Party to the left, despite his being a child of said era. This move towards the center is probably what enabled his election in the first place.
Was his move cynical and strategic, or from conviction? At any rate and for whatever reason, the fact is that Clinton had positioned himself as a "New Democrat" as far back as 1985, when he became heavily involved with the Democratic Leadership Council. Its focus was multifaceted, and included domestic issues, particularly fiscal responsibility. But transforming Democratic foreign policy was definitely also a stated intent, according to Clinton (emphasis added):
I opened the [DLC] convention with a keynote address designed to make the case that America needed to change course and that the DLC could and should lead the way. I began with a litany of America's problems and challenges and a rebuke of the years of Republican neglect, then noted that the Democrats had not been able to win elections, despite Republican failures, "because too many of the people that used to vote for us, the very burdened middle class we are talking about, have not trusted us in national elections to defend our national interests abroad, to put their values into our social policy at home, or to take their tax money and spend it with discipline.
Regardless of whether those promises were--like the majority of campaign promises on both sides--ultimately unfulfilled, my point here is that they were made with the conscious purpose of pulling the Democratic Party back from the disastrous and losing course it had set itself on (at least, regarding Presidential elections) back in the late 60s.
If the goal was to win the Presidential election for the Democrats, Clinton was remarkably and stupendously successful, at least for eight years. If the goal was to actually pull the Party back from the influence of the left in foreign policy, that goal has not been achieved.
The 2008 election promises to be an interesting one, does it not?