Grant Park Protests: Relic of a Different America


For four days at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, deep divisions in the nation over poverty, racism, and the Vietnam War were illustrated by clouds of tear gas over Grant Park.

But this year's Democratic conclave, the first in Chicago since that momentous summer, is not likely to provoke the same kind of rancor. So far, the only protests have been small and disjointed, led by organizations as diverse as Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion group, and Chicagoans for a Living Wage.

To some, this tranquility is evidence that the political system has grown more accommodating, that the chaos of '68 has helped force political parties to embrace dissenters. To others, the lack of strife belies the fact that many of the problems still linger. To them, Chicago's quiet streets reflect the depth of the nation's apathy and disillusionment with politics.

"Times have changed," says Eugene McCarthy, the one-time Democratic presidential candidate who led the party's antiwar movement in 1968. "What happened then would never happen today."

It's a conviction shared by almost everyone in Chicago. Even ardent protesters do not expect demonstrations to generate the kind of passionate synergy that fueled the mayhem 28 years ago.

For one thing, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley is determined not to let it happen. He has set aside designated areas for demonstrations, allocated by lottery. Some groups have sued the city for separate permits. He has also put police through a regimen of sensitivity training to eliminate conflict.

Another reason is the lack of issues as immediate and engrossing as the Vietnam War or the blatant racial discrimination of that era. These conditions, Mr. McCarthy argues, played to the convictions of people who would not otherwise engage in politics, including those who might feel strongly enough to riot.

But today, McCarthy says, this kind of moral certitude, which prompted the American withdrawal from Vietnam and the enactment of laws to protect African-Americans, has been diffused by the difficulty of putting these convictions into practice.

He cites the case of affirmative action. While it's easy to argue that everyone has the right to vote, he says, it's not as easy to apply moral principles to the way congressional districts are drawn in North Carolina or federal contracts are awarded.

"People are more ready to protest against a clear violation of civil rights than affirmative action," he says. "When you move from the written or spoken word to law and practice, it gets immediately complicated."

Indeed, many of the political men and women who have descended on Chicago this week say they long for an unambiguous issue. It's a sentiment particularly common among young party activists like Tony Gepner, a student leader from Central Washington University, who is volunteering his time at the convention.

At school, Mr. Gepner says, the political speakers he invites to campus rarely draw more than 30 people - sometimes it's only five or six.

"We don't have a single issue that unites us," he says of his classmates. "We care a lot about education, but it's not something that makes for a big rally. We care about affirmative action, but it doesn't affect all of us."

Beyond the lack of an issue, Gepner and others say they have encountered a feeling that politics are controlled by larger forces, and that their individual actions are insignificant.

McCarthy blames this sentiment on the rise of network television, which he says truncates political debate. He argues that political parties have grown stronger, too, and more capable of quashing internal dissent. And the current system of campaign financing, he contends, gives too much influence to monied interests.

But not everyone here portrays the convention's docile climate in a dubious light. President Clinton, in a recent interview with the Chicago Tribune, argued that Democrats have gone to great lengths since 1968 to reverse their image as defenders of the status quo and to respond better to the concerns of the middle class.

"I believe we have gone a long way toward burying the ghosts of 1968 by showing discipline in the management of the economy," he said, and by "getting results" in areas such as fighting crime.

Others, including Maurice Dailey, a lieutenant in the Chicago Police Department who remembers the '68 riots, argue that the system itself has been pried open.

"Things are a lot better now than when I was young," Lieutenant Dailey says. "People work out their problems more through the system now. I don't think protests are the best way to make a point anymore. Nobody should have to get hurt."

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