Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Cool It

Michelle Goldberg in Salon.com wonders if demonstrations at the RNC could backfire and hand a campaign gift to the Republicans.

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.”


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.” Gitlin and Passacantando’s anxiety led them to coauthor an article in the Nation warning that the RNC 2004 could be Chicago ’68 all over again unless progressives exercised restraint during the convention protests.


Milton Glaser, the legendary graphic designer behind the I Love New York logo, has thought about this prospect a lot. He knows the power of images, and he’s scared that pictures of rampaging protesters flashing on the nation’s TV screens during the Republican National Convention will be a catastrophe.

“A lot of people in this town are very angry,” he says. “When you have so many angry people up against the police, without any question violence will occur. If this turns out to be the visual material that the country is looking at, there’s just the chance that there will be an incremental turn towards Bush.”


For protesters desperate to unleash four years of frustration, though, such warnings are easily dismissed. “Just talking for my own perspective, it would be a stretch to base the expression of one’s dissent on the question of whether or not it would energize the right wing,” says Jason Flores-Williams, an anti-RNC activist and political writer who recently authored High Times’ guide to the convention protests. “First off, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do for yourself. I’m less concerned with how things are going to affect the vote, and more concerned with confronting the systemic problems in this country head on.” Just as a previous generation talked of turning New York into Saigon, Flores-Williams says that the goal is “to make New York reflective of the anger that’s inside of us.”


The divide between liberal pragmatists and radical seekers of self-realization is a perennial one, and there’s a certain historical irony in the way it’s cropping up now. After all, in the 1960s New Left student leaders like Gitlin, convinced they’d entered a new era where old political dynamics were obsolete, were notoriously dismissive of the cautions raised by their progressive elders. Electoral politics seemed to them a joke. “A fierce moralism had brought us into opposition in the first place, and the same moralism didn’t brook the politics of lesser evils,” Gitlin wrote in “The Sixties.” He didn’t vote in either 1964 or 1968, and by the end of the decade his cohort had broken with erstwhile liberal allies like Irving Howe.

Assuming that the City of New York even allows the demonstrators to get to the streets (problematic at best,) it is in their best interests that they restrain themselves, renounce any kind of violence against people and property and basically conduct themselves as if they have a responsibility to their cause and the public at large to show that they are raising questions and concerns, not storming the Bastille. The last thing the Democrats or anyone else who is opposed to the re-election of George W. Bush needs to do is to hand the Republicans and their minions a four-day series of film clips that they will boil down to a series of simple-minded and single-message anti-Kerry commercials: “Do you want to hand this country over to a bunch of long-haired commie pinko hippie fags? Vote Bush/Cheney.”

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.”


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.”

Amen, brother.