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GOP convention: Why political violence, so far, isn't as bad as 1968

Countering fear

The media may be exaggerating the potential for a politically polarized America to erupt into violence, including at this week's GOP convention, say experts. Still, there's a need for national soul-searching.

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    People hold hands for several minutes of silence on the Hope Memorial Bridge to take a stand against violence as Cleveland welcomes an estimated 50,000 people for the Republican National Convention.
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As an estimated 50,000 visitors descend on Cleveland for the Republican National Convention this week, security concerns have risen along with the recent political unrest.

Not only is presumptive nominee Donald Trump a highly polarizing figure, whose supporters and detractors have gotten into a series of violent confrontations on the campaign trail this year. Ohio also has an open-carry gun law that adds to concerns, especially amid racial turmoil and fatal shootings by and of police officers.

A Politico survey last week found that half of GOP insiders in battleground states believed violence was likely at the convention. “I say this with no joy whatsoever,” a Republican in Ohio told Politico, “but the far-left agitators in Cleveland will make the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago look like a fourth-grade slap fight.”

But a historical lens reveals that, so far, today’s political unrest is tamer, less organized, and on a smaller scale than the late 1960s and ’70s, experts say. While there are legitimate concerns, they do not believe there will be a repeat of the chaos that erupted at the 1968 Democratic convention.

The media may be exaggerating fears that a politically polarized America is turning violent, they contend, adding that that narrative is damaging because it keeps the political conversation at the extremes. It also stops the nation from doing the deeper soul-searching needed to understand why so many people are so angry.

“Unfortunately, we have a crisis of imagination,” says Christian Davenport, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan and contributor to the blog Political Violence at a Glance. “How we respond to violence is not normally something that leads to a deeper conversation about why we have this type of behavior and attitude and activities out in the world.”

Cleveland, which like all convention cities has received a $50 million grant for security measures, has been getting ready for Monday’s opening, purchasing body armor and tactical gear for police and putting up miles of cordons. Doctors and surgeons at area hospitals also reportedly have been ordered to remain on call for the four days of the convention.

And the secretary of Homeland Security and head of the Secret Service toured preparations at the convention site over the weekend, to make sure security officials had prepared for every possibility – from medical emergencies to threats such as terrorism or a mass shooter, Secret Service Head Joseph Clancy told NPR.  

'We've made progress'

The anti-Vietnam War protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago involved 10,000 protesters clashing with 22,500 uniformed security forces in what an independent commission later termed a “police riot.”

The law enforcement response was so brutal, with policemen beating and gassing demonstrators, reporters, and doctors who came to help the injured, that the convention “became a lacerating event,” for American society “destroying faith in politicians, in the political system, in the country and in its institutions,” writes author Haynes Johnson, who covered the convention, in Smithsonian Magazine. “No one who was there, or who watched it on television, could escape the memory of what took place before their eyes.”

The Malcolm X-led Black Panther Party followed cops around with guns to oversee their policing of blacks. The head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, gave Chicago police the green light to break in on the Chicago head of the Panthers, Fred Hampton, in his sleep and execute him.

This year, the country has been wracked by mass shootings and racial turmoil, and police are under intense scrutiny for their killing of African-Americans. Cleveland itself was the site of the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, and the city's police force is under federal oversight. 

But policing has come a long way, says Will Moore, a professor of politics and global studies at Arizona State University and co-founder of the Conflict Consortium.

“The government isn’t out executing Black Lives Matter” and there’s no police force that would riot en masse against protesters like in 1968, says Professor Moore. “Definitely, we’ve made progress.”

And so far, the political violence has not reached anything close to the extremes of 1968, which saw the assassinations of both the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. 

Anti-Trump protesters in San Jose, Calif., chased and kicked Trump supporters as they left a June rally, while some protesters at Trump rallies were roughed up this spring, such as when a white Trump supporter in a cowboy hat sucker-punching a black protester in March.

Mr. Trump has come in for criticism for not only not condemning the violence, but for appearing to condone it. “I’d like to punch him in the face,” he said of one protester in February. When asked at a GOP debate if he were to blame for assaults at his rallies, he said he hoped not but then added that the protesters deserved it. “We have some protesters who are bad dudes, they have done bad things.... They’ve got to be taken out, to be honest.” Trump said.

From 'safe spaces' to hate

Unlike the highly regimented and nonviolent civil rights marches of the early 1960s, whose leaders had a keen sense that violence was advantageous only when used against them, this year has seen loose affiliations of undisciplined protesters organizing around their dislike for Trump on social media.

“Martin Luther King was very aware, ‘We want to be protesters that get beaten up,’ ” says Will Moore, a professor of politics and global studies at Arizona State University and co-founder of the Conflict Consortium. “When these left-wing protesters start getting in fist-fights and egging [on] Trump supporters they’re making a strategic mistake. If you’re the one using disproportionate violence you look bad.”

And they don’t just look bad to their opponents.

At a time when a majority of Americans identify as independents because they don’t want to be publicly identified with the worst partisan elements of their preferred party, violence is likely driving a large and “reasonable” block of middle voters away from the polls.

There was a certain irony in protesters using hateful intimidation at a rally where many on their side were holding placards with slogans like, “Mr. Hate leave my state.”

Many of the young individuals hurling verbal and physical abuse at their opponents are often of the same generation that advocates for so-called "safe spaces" on college campuses – places where everyone feels safe to express themselves openly regardless of politics, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.

However, Moore says the “sectored” nature of news means many of the Millennials brought up on a diet of equality are almost shocked into anger when they come face-to-face with such vastly different views.

“If you go to a protest event and you’re used to hanging around with like-minded people, politically oriented people, you may not have seen people, you might not have talked to people who hold these views,” he says.

Historically, Davenport says, America as a whole hasn’t dealt well with violence, usually seeking ways to respond in kind. This approach, he says, tends to stifle any possibility of a national conversation on the major economic and social issues at the roots of grievances.

“Americans, for the lack of a better term, are not the most empathetic in many respects for aggrieved individuals,” Davenport says. “Any type of violence is not going to lead to empathy, it’s going to lead to everybody trying to find a way to respond in kind and that’s just going to have a pull on every candidate.”

Davenport contrasts such an approach with the way Norway responded to mass violence. After the Anders Behring Breivik massacre in 2011, the country turned a mirror on itself and explored its part in creating an individual capable of such heinous actions.

It’s important to note that the protesters resorting to violence this year have been a minority at most rallies, he adds. The media’s thirst for sensational content, Davenport says, means they normally miss the opportunity to “recontextualize” protests with nonviolent narratives and instead reinforce public perceptions of fear and violence.

“Once that wave has started, or once the dominoes have started to fall it’s really hard to counter it,” he says. “Facts won’t do it, there needs to be an emotional cathartic response to kind of communicate that it’s not really going on, it’s not that bad.”

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