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.”
Protesters afforded cops a perfect scenario for revenge: the insurgents’ most calculatedly defiant moment, scheduled for Wednesday night, when militants planned to march from a rally near the downtown hotels to the Amphitheater where the delegates assembled. “See you on the streets tonight,” pronounced Jerry Rubin. On NBC’s broadcast, a reporter conveyed the warning: “If police try to stop them, they’ll sit down in the Chicago streets.”
Compare the plans of this year’s A31 coalition, which promises, on Tuesday, August 31, to “converge on Madison Square Garden”—to “risk the streets,” which is where “real democracy begins. . . . If we are asked to move, we will sit down and refuse.” In 1968, provoked by defiance on the weekend, afforded an excuse on a weekday, cops moved out in phalanxes and started clubbing at random. Demonstrators chanted, “The whole world is watching.” The reason they chanted it: They thought they had won a public relations victory.
Just like now? By Sunday, New York authorities will have felt provoked by the open defiance of their will by protests in Central Park. “A31” will arrive—and cops will have read the affirmation, on A31.org, of “the right to disobey.” It will saturate them with dread about what that vague promise could possibly mean—and afford them an excuse to release all the paranoid energy that is produced, then and now, in an apocalyptic era.
History never truly repeats itself. Prognostication is inherently unreliable. But what history can provide is a set of guidelines to wisdom—guidelines many protesters refuse even to consider. Not all protesters. But enough protesters. All it takes is a few people to begin a chain reaction that could lead to disaster.
Like many, Lew Koch suspects the spark might come from someone working for the Republicans.
“One lie after another. I wouldn’t applaud for that,” someone unidentified said at the famous August 3 meeting at St. Marks church after an agonizingly effective argument that “unauthorized” demonstrations, no matter how morally compelling in theory, could ward off the one protest constituency whose presence is required for protests to actually be morally compelling: immigrants vulnerable to deportation. “Here,” reflects Koch, reading a report of that meeting, “is what looks like a perfect agent provocateur type.”
So what are militants doing to prevent that possibility? If you e-mail the contact address for the Don’t Just Vote Take Action (dontjustvote.com) protest contingent, you might get a call back, as I did, from Rae Valentine, who says she’s been involved in activism for “several years,” though she’s only 19, and who dismisses the concern: “When you become overly paranoid you allow them to win, even without agent provocateurs.”
The site displays the kind of language whose vagueness might get hapless souls like Valentine put on 24-hour surveillance. It sounds innocent to write, “We must defend ourselves against possible attack like family and keep our spirits high.” To Valentine, that means “just looking out for each other and taking care for each other.” I point out that it might be interpreted differently by police intelligence—and that the importance of protesters’ intentions not being misconstrued by paranoid cops is one of the reasons, as morally compromising as it might seem, to consult with authorities before a demonstration. She responds with self-satisfied cleverness: “We should not have to ask permission from the very people we’re trying to protest.”
There is a certain logic to the formulation. Here is a deeper logic: Politics is about communication. If you leave questions of what you are communicating—to the cops, to the watching public—entirely up in the air, you are not really doing politics at all.
The willful denial of this fact does not infect only 19-year-olds. Ed Hedemann has been working for peace ever since he refused induction into the military in 1969. His group, the War Resisters League, has planned its action with exquisite care, and with a strategic dignity: Figures dressed in white to represent mourning will gather at the World Trade Center site; marching across the city as close to Madison Square Garden as practicable, they will hold a ” ‘die-in,’ a way to graphically represent all those who have been killed by the government’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.” But even an old hand like Hedemann simply turns off his brain when asked about a fundamental problem in political communications: that even the most passive protesters, when arrested, are often perceived by the public—as they were in Chicago in 1968—as bringers of anarchy, and end up hurting the causes they profess to help.
To ask this is not to reject protest; it is just an invitation to strategize—to think about politics. Hedemann deflects it. “We need to do what we think is right to do, and not so much worry about, ah, ‘Well, what if this? What if that?’ I think we need to do what our conscience tells us is important to do, as long as it doesn’t harm other people.”
The War Resisters League, like A31.org, cites a Martin Luther King Jr. quote that includes these words, offered as if a taunt: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”
It would have taken all of King’s powers of Christian love, I think, not to laugh in these people’s faces. King would never ever simply say, “We need to do what our conscience tells us is important to do,” and somehow leave it at that. King planned his insurgencies with the strategic care of a military general, and with the characteristic obsessions of a top-drawer publicist: no risk of arrest, of violence—even when arrest or violence was welcomed, embraced for its communicative power—was ever left to chance. (Today’s protesters revel in their embrace of improvisation, as if it were a good in itself.) And he never left the field of battle satisfied with mere moral victory, that his side had demonstrated more righteousness than the other. He always had a concrete political goal, that concrete goal but a step toward his continually evolving transcendent goals.
In Chicago in 1968, and in New York in 2004, these are lessons forgotten.
People get caught up in their righteousness—maybe you are—which is easy to do: Demonstrators do no more “damage” to the Great Lawn than concertgoers. The conventioneers coming to New York are getting subsidized by tax dollars because they are seen as a boon to business, even though the protesters spat upon by the city carry money that is just as green. The city has become a censor. All of these things are true.
Rae Valentine is even right, in a cosmic sense, when she says that “people understand that the so-called chaos of streets being shut down by protesters or even a window being broken is nothing compared to the day-to-day chaos and destruction of people being able to afford housing, or health care. That’s where the real violence—in the system—lies.”
But she is not right in the sense that matters: the political sense. “I think people understand,” she says. Linger on that formulation. It is only inane arrogance that gives someone the confidence to pronounce that, magically, “people will understand.” They might not understand at all. Instead, what they might understand is: “Bush is better than anarchy in the streets.” It ain’t fair. But if it all goes down as unplanned, there’ll be a whole lot more unfairness coming down the pike in the next four years.