By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
A few days ago, Fox News, Official Broadcaster of the Republican Party, began softening the public-opinion beachhead ahead of the November election, saying Democrats have returned to the failed anti-war policies of the 1960s and '70s. In just those few words, Fox got everything wrong: elected Democrats today don't invariably oppose George W. Bush's Iraq adventure any more than elected Republicans uniformly support it; far from opposing the Vietnam War, Democrats at the time were its architects; it was left to Republican Richard Nixon to end the war.
Finally, the fact that Nixon abandoned an immoral war was hardly a failure; it may mark one of our nation's great social achievements.
Nixon did not surrender easily; peace activists drove him to it. The Fox Nation could know all this from just one event: the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. There, some 20,000 activists gathered to protest the Democrats' war in Southeast Asia. They collided with Mayor Richard J. Daley (note to Fox: also a Democrat) and nearly 26,000 police, soldiers and National Guardsmen. Official investigators called that run-in a "police riot." By the time Hubert Humphrey won the nomination, police had arrested 589 and beaten and injured scores of others—not just demonstrators, but tourists, party officials and convention delegates; in one notorious instance, taped and broadcast for conventioneers, police and National Guardsmen tried to clear the street outside convention headquarters and succeeded in pushing a group of fine, upstanding Americans through the front window of the Hilton Hotel. Once there, they might have heard Connecticut Senator Abe Ribicoff denounce Daley and police for their "Gestapo tactics." Watching Ribicoff from the convention floor, Daley yelled, "Fuck you, you Jew motherfucker!"; he later said he was shouting that Ribicoff was a "faker."
Nixon officials charged eight men with conspiracy and intent to riot in Chicago. That prosecution reveals creepy parallels between America in 1968 and 2006; those parallels are clear in Conspiracy in the Streets: The Extraordinary Trial of the Chicago Eight, a new, brief, funny and terrifying collection of greatest hits excerpted from the sprawling trial transcript.
OC Weekly: What was the Chicago Eight case about?
Jon Wiener: At the most fundamental level, the case was a government attempt to de-legitimize the anti-war movement and to portray it as a small group of violent extremists. The defendants tried to show that they were standing up for morality and fairness and justice and democracy.
During the trial, there was a disagreement among defendants over strategy.
For the Yippies—the cultural radicals—the courtroom was famously regarded as a theater, one that commanded that the network news and mainstream press cover it in an extremely dramatic way. The Yippies wanted to make the most of this opportunity to expose the arbitrariness and the repressiveness of the judge and the prosecutor and for themselves to represent freedom and free expression.
For the politicos—Tom Hayden, Dave Dellinger, Rennie Davis—the top priority was continuing to organize more and more people against the Vietnam War. That meant they wanted to stay out of jail if at all possible, and that meant they'd have to present a serious defense against the charges. It would be more legalistic, in some ways accepting the terms of the judicial system and playing by the rules to prove their innocence.
In his afterword to the book, Tom Hayden writes about the "reverberations" of the 1960s today. It seems the current generation of activists can't escape the historical shadow cast by the 1960s and are constantly being evaluated in terms of the 1960s.
I think Tom makes a strong argument that the anti-globalization protests and the anti-war protests of the last five years are much better organized and much more impressive—and in a lot of ways more politically coherent—than what we were doing in the 1960s. The 1960s are sort of the gold standard for protest in popular culture, but if we just look at the 1968 demonstrations, many fewer people showed up to protest the Democratic National Convention in Chicago 1968 than they had hoped: 20,000 to 30,000 rather than 200,000. The demonstrations on Feb. 15, 2003, before the Iraq War started, were the biggest anti-war demonstrations in history. Millions of people demonstrated, completely dwarfing what was going on in '68. Just by those measures, I think the enthusiasm for the '60s, or taking the '60s as the standard for what constitutes an effective anti-war movement, is really a mistake.
Six of the defendants were not only charged with conspiracy but with intent to riot. Was there any legitimacy to these charges?
I think there was pretty good evidence—that the defense tried to present in this trial—that, in their planning for these demonstrations, the defendants emphasized that they didnot want a violent confrontation. They were afraid that would greatly reduce the number of people that were willing to come to Chicago. The judge didn't allow that evidence to be introduced, but we can see it: there were minutes of meetings, letters the defendants were writing to each other. And it's a very understandable concern. Also, all of the efforts they made to get permits to make the protests legal, to provide a nonviolent framework, all suggest there was no intent to riot, and of course the commission that investigated the violence outside the Democratic National Convention concluded that it was a police riot. So I don't see evidence supporting the government's position that there was a conspiracy to cross state lines to incite a riot.