Get Mad. Act Out. Re-Elect George Bush.

Protesters risk playing into GOP hands

One of the most exhilarating moments in Lewis Koch's life came in the summer of 1968. He was a producer for NBC News, based in Chicago, specializing in the anti-war movement—of which he was a sympathizer. Now, at the Democratic National Convention, he was an actor in what he thought was one of its glorious episodes. Cops were beating kids without provocation, and with the footage he was putting on the air, Middle America might finally realize that justice rested more with those protesting the war than those so violently defending it.

"I remember my self-satisfaction," Koch recalls, "and saying to myself, 'Oh, did you do a terrific job!' "

Then came the most traumatic moment in Lewis Koch's life.

"The phones would ring off the hook. People were furious. . . . Nothing I had intended had gone through. Actually what they saw were clear pictures of these young kids rioting. Chaos in their city." Next thing he knew, Richard Nixon had swept to presidential victory on the wings of a commercial proclaiming—above those selfsame pictures—that "the first civil right of every American is to be free from domestic violence."

Now Lew Koch senses déjà vu all over again in the loose talk among protesters of staging similar scenes at next week's Republican convention—talk that by putting the ugliness of the Bush regime on display, protesters thereby might end it. Koch's frustration is overwhelming. "What the protesters are saying is the same thing as the Weathermen: 'Bring the war home.' And you know what happens? You lose the war! They have guns. And they'll have the judges that Bush will appoint to the Supreme Court in the next four years."

It recalls the old philosopher's conundrum: When a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? If resistance against Bush actually plays into Bush's hands, is it really resistance?

The parallels between Chicago 1968 and New York 2004 are striking.

Then, as now, authorities are besotted with "less lethal" technology that's intended to prevent disorder (back then it was Mace), but actually increases disorder by lowering the threshold at which cops are willing to use force.

Then, as now, police officials argued that the ACLU and the federal judges were putting them in danger by "tying their hands." When the cops lose some of these battles—as they did this year, with rulings against four-sided pens for demonstrators and general searches of bags—they get more afraid. That yields itchy fingers at the triggers of less-than-lethal implements.

Then, as now: the strategic mobilization of "terrorists"—a word Mayor Richard Daley in 1968 used to describe the Black Panthers, who, some residents of the Cook County jail reported, were planning assassinations. The ever reliable FBI sent 60 extra agents, though the jailbirds had made it all up—which didn't prevent the city from announcing the "threat" to the press afterward as ex post facto rationalization for law enforcement's rampage.

Then, as now: hovering, ruthless Republican presidential campaign operatives ready to seize on any advantage to win, who suspect that arrant attempts to frame the election as a choice between George W. Bush and "chaos in the streets" will be enough, for some small margin of voters, to inch themselves to victory.

And, the most uncanny parallel of all: Events have seen to it—perhaps by Republican intention, perhaps not, it hardly matters which—that protesters this time, just like last time, have been rendered ready and eager to demonstrate, on the Sunday before the convention, in a physical location where the city has determined they may not demonstrate. Thus the stage may be set now—as it was then—for disaster.

Chicago, like New York, has a backyard: the gorgeous series of parks stretching along Lake Michigan. The city assigned protesters one of these, Lincoln Park, far from the convention action, as the designated protest space. Then, as now, insurgents harbored a desire beyond what the city was willing to grant: They wanted to sleep in Lincoln Park, were determined to sleep in Lincoln Park—just as folks are determined this year to demonstrate in Central Park. That was how the trouble started then. And that is how the trouble could start now.

Then, as now, a city's idiotic "arguments" created two classes of citizens: desirable ones who attend concerts on Central Park's Great Lawn and undesirable ones who demonstrate on it; desirable ones like the Boy Scout troops that slept all the time in Lincoln Park and undesirable ones who were told it was illegal to sleep there. But might made right. Come curfew time, the night before the Chicago convention's opening gavel, Chicago cops showed up to roust demonstrators out of Lincoln Park. Instead, en masse, demonstrators moved out onto La Salle Drive, a busy thoroughfare feeding into a major freeway. Their sense of power, their sense of right, was overwhelming. "The streets belong to the people!" they chanted. The police, helpless, could only stand by.

"I thought," remembers Lew Koch, "I don't care if it's Armpit, Arkansas, or Chicago, Illinois: You can only humiliate a cop once. Soon will come the vengeance."

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