Recreate 68? — A Protesters' Pipe Dream
by Jo Freeman
Local groups have been organizing for some time in order to protest at the 2008 Democratic Convention. They put together an entire week of oppositional events, but Sunday was their big bash.
Several hundred people gathered for a rally on the Capitol steps, followed by a march down a major street to the Pepsi Center. At different points along the way a few lay down in the street for a "die-in". When they reached the Pepsi center where the official convention begins on Monday, they faced off against rows of black-clad cops. With both police and protestors melting in the 90-degree heat, some protesters baited the cops with verbal taunts, while others tried to continue the march to its designated ending point a quarter-mile away. The split effectively ended the march on a rather limp note.
There have been one or more protests at every Dem Con since 1964 — when the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party held a vigil on the Atlantic City, NJ boardwalk while the Dems met in the adjacent convention hall.
Sunday's protestors, however, view 1968, not 1964, as their progenitor. Wishfully calling themselves "Recreate 68" Denver activists trained for conflict much as young people did prior to the 1968 Democratic Convention.
Actually recreating what happened at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago is a pipe dream, longed for only by those who get their kicks out of confronting the cops, for the simple reason that the police aren't that dumb any more.
Chicago went down in Convention history because of what an official investigating commission called a "police riot".
The tens of thousands of people that the protest organizers called to come to Chicago didn't come. Instead police waded into crowds of mostly Democrats — YDs, Gene McCarthy supporters, delegates and their friends — who were hanging around to watch a few hundred kids defy the police.
Bashing the heads of legitimate Democrats left a long term scar on the city's image.
In fact, three times more people were arrested at the Republican Convention in New York City in 2004 (1,806) than in Chicago in 1968 (589). The NYC arrests were mostly of innocent bystanders and peaceful protestors who were trying hard to do what the police told them to do. Consequently, the few trials resulted in acquittals and most cases were dismissed. The City of New York is paying out millions of taxpayer dollars in compensation to settle false arrest lawsuits.
But this didn't make big news because the police used overwhelming numbers and orange plastic nets to control the crowds rather than billy clubs to bash heads.
Police and city officials learned from Chicago in 1968 what not to do, and they don't.
The Denver police have been planning for the Convention for nineteen months — far longer than the protestors. They have brought in law enforcement units from 52 neighboring jurisdictions to double their own 1500 person force. The National Guard is on call 24 hours a day for convention week.
While some of this would have been necessary to host the convention even without protests, a significant portion of the 18 million dollars spent to add equipment, training and personnel is to avoid recreating what happened in Chicago in 1968.
Now the goal is "co-operation" between police and protesters, with more than enough cops on hand to take care of those few who don't. Police cleared the streets and blocked traffic well in advance of Sunday's march. A police vehicle led the march and cops on bicycles flanked its sides along the way. Very few bystanders saw the march with its many signs and numerous demands.
Sunday before the convention officially begins is usually march day. Even when protests continue all week, Sunday's march draws the biggest crowds. This one drew less than a thousand people, making it was the smallest march and rally that I have seen at a convention. Most of those participating were locals; the few from out-of-town I spoke to were affiliated with the usual left wing parties — Workers World, Party of Socialism and Liberation and the Revolutionary Communist Party. Groups like Code Pink left the rally early to do their own thing elsewhere in Denver.
Judging from the faces I saw, many marchers had years of protest experience, but overall I thought it was rather amateurish. 1) Rather than spread out, marchers were bunched up, making it difficult to read, let alone photograph, their signs. 2) While the route was no doubt negotiated with the police, it was one where few people were likely to see the marchers. 3) The fact that it split at the end indicated that there was no co-ordinated leadership.
In the years I taught social movements to college students I would point out that demonstrations have both an "expressive" and an "instrumental" dimension. Being able to express yourself is the personal benefit people get from protesting, which usually requires spending time and money that is otherwise uncompensated. "Instrumental" is activity that is likely to achieve a specific goal. As a general rule, expressive activity is pleasurable, and instrumental activity is work. Both are necessary to mount a protest. Experienced organizers try to blend the two — to give supporters an opportunity to express themselves in a way that gets the protest message out to its intended audience.
In the march I saw on Sunday, "expressive" activity (e.g. taunting the cops) overwhelmed instrumental (e.g. getting your message to others than your own group), which is why I think it was amateurish.
Far more effective at drawing attention to its message was a tiny pro-life demo I saw later that afternoon outside the Colorado Convention Center. A dozen pro-lifers lined the sidewalk with their large "baby killer" signs, catching the attention of passing cars as well as pedestrians. Two men with one bullhorn and a sign saying "A Vote for Obama is a Vote for Dead Children" got more attention by standing right in front of the busy convention center entrance than all the left-wing protestors marching to the Pepsi Center over a mile away.
There will be protests of varying kinds by different groups all week. But judging from the numbers (or lack thereof) I saw on Sunday, the police won't need the "overflow" detention center they created "just in case."
Jo's other Democratic convention articles: