Tuesday, August 17

NYC Republican Convention a 1968 Redux?


John Passacantando, the executive director of Greenpeace USA, believes in confrontation. A protégé of Mike Roselle, co-founder of the radical environmentalist group Earth First, he's led Greenpeace to push the limits of civil disobedience. On his watch, the group has boarded ships involved in illegal logging. He and other activists have chained themselves to the entrance of the Environmental Protection Agency and dumped barrels of contaminated waste at Dow Chemical's headquarters. Last year, he told a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "I want Greenpeace first and foremost to be a credible threat ... To paraphrase Thoreau, I regret only our good behavior."

So one might expect Passacantando to be thrilled by the prospect of bad behavior, and a lot of it, at the Republican National Convention late this month. Tens if not hundreds of thousands are expected to take to Manhattan's streets in protest, and plans are being hatched for widespread disruption, from shutting down city streets to throwing pies to assaults on the offices of "war profiteers." But Passacantando isn't happy about what's about to happen in New York. In fact, he's terrified. Like a host of intellectuals, '60s veterans and activists desperate for a John Kerry victory in November, Passacantando worries that the delicious, so-close prospect of defeating George Bush in November will be swept away in the citywide chaos that anarchists have promised to bring to New York.

There's a grim precedent for left-wing protest that empowers the right: the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. The parallels between the convention protests that year and those expected this year are striking. Then, as now, the antiwar movement was coursing with justified rage. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley took an even harder line against protesters than New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg, refusing to grant any permits at all. There was a radicalized, street-fighting contingent among the demonstrators who released stink bombs in the delegates' hotel, vandalized a CIA building, and engaged in other mischief, but most of the protesters were peaceful. The violence that erupted, leading to days of running street battles, was by most accounts the fault of the police. Phalanxes of cops charged into crowds, beating protesters bloody, spraying mace, and chanting "kill, kill, kill." A report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence called the debacle a "police riot."

Thus the demonstrators assumed that public sympathy would be with them, the victims. They were wrong. "To our innocent eyes, it defied common sense that people could watch even the sliver of the onslaught that got onto television and side with the cops -- which in fact was precisely what polls showed," writes former antiwar organizer Todd Gitlin in his 1987 book, "The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage." Indeed, many people believe that the fighting in Chicago helped cement the victory of Richard Nixon, who, as Gitlin notes, won the popular vote by a mere two-thirds of 1 percent.

A similarly minuscule margin could determine this year's election, and the possibility of history repeating itself leaves Gitlin aghast. "I think the Republicans will probably do what they did in 1968 and make television commercials of people rioting in the street and then promote their guy as the superintendent of order," he says. "I sure wouldn't want to be explaining to my kid how it turned out that Bush won election by three electoral votes because of some last-minute surge of opinion in West Virginia where that commercial played three times an hour."

Passacantando expects that there will be provocateurs in the crowds at the RNC, trying to provoke vandalism and spark confrontation. As Gitlin notes in his book, a 1978 CBS broadcast reported that, according to Army sources, as many as one in six protesters at the Chicago '68 protests were really undercover military intelligence agents. There were local police and FBI agents planted throughout the antiwar movement, often urging their cohorts to ever more daring feats of resistance. Richard Nixon's White House relished riots, knowing they only helped the Republicans. On a larger scale, the FBI's COINTELPRO program used its agents to provoke violence in antiwar and civil rights groups throughout the late '60s and early '70s. There have already been some incidents of agents posing as activists and trying to ratchet up confrontation. In Denver last year Darren Christensen, an undercover policeman working with the federal Joint Terrorism Task Force, joined an antiwar group planning a peaceful sit-in and shocked them by suggesting that they charge a line of armed policemen.

Some believe that's precisely why the Bush team chose New York in the first place. "I think it's a deliberate strategy," Glaser says. "They knew there would be violence in the streets."

No one's come up with any good answers. Instead, a few liberal organizers are hoping to create alternatives that could channel some of the city's anti-Bush energy away from confrontation. Chief among them is Glaser, an urbane, eloquent man who seems to adore New York and despise George Bush with equal fervor. Since Glaser sees the problem of protest violence as a semiotic one, he's tried to find a design solution. To that end, he's working on a project called Light Up the Sky, which he calls a "manifestation that clearly says we are opposed to Bush's principles and policies. It's a powerful and peaceful response to what the Bush administration has done."

He's made fliers and a Web site describing the idea. "On Aug. 30, from dusk to dawn, all citizens who wish to end the Bush presidency can use light as our metaphor," it says. "We can gather informally all over the city with candles, flashlights and plastic wands to silently express our sorrow over all the innocent deaths the war has caused. We can gather in groups or march in silence. No confrontation and, above all, no violence. Violence will only convince the undecided electorate to vote for Bush. Not a word needs to be spoken. The entire world will understand our message. Those of us who live here in rooms with windows on the street can keep our lights on through the night. Imagine, it's 2 or 3 in the morning and our city is ablaze with a silent and overwhelming rebuke ... Light transforms darkness." He envisions something far more expansive than a candlelight vigil. "This city is full of invention," he says, and he hopes people will use some of it to make light sculptures, light suits, all kinds of incandescent constructions. Thus illuminated, he images New Yorkers coming together all over the city, in its parks and avenues and promenades.

Light Up the Sky, he knows, is not going to dissuade those determined to wreak havoc. "There's always a factor of people who need violence. They need to overthrow their father. It gets them into the center of attention," he says. But much of the confrontation between police and protesters is built into the current situation. "People can't go to Central Park. They're marginalized at the edge of the city. It's getting to be a mess," he says. "It's pre-scripted. What you have to do is abort the script." Otherwise, he fears, the consequences could be even more calamitous than they were in 1968. "The revolution will not come," he says, wryly dismissing the grandiose hopes of some anarchists. "What they might do is ensure the election of Bush. I don't think the country can survive another four years of Bush. It's been horrible so far. It's taken us far away from my vision of America." At 75, Glaser fears he'll never see that vision of America again. "I would hate to die," he says, "with Bush in power."