CHICAGO — Steve Tappis wants to clear the air about his past and present lives: Yes, he was a radical who preached revolution, yes, he is a commodities trader who practices capitalism, and no, he's not a turncoat.
"I don't want the headline to be, 'See how the old protester sold out,' " he said with a wry grin. "I don't want the message to be to young people who are idealistic . . . that older people naturally move to the right and become greedy, because I don't think that's true."
Twenty-five years ago this month, Tappis was a militant organizer who hitchhiked from New York to Chicago to protest the Vietnam War at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Today, he's a market speculator who drives an Acura and limits his yelling to the foreign currency pits at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
An unlikely metamorphosis, but Tappis, 45, has no excuses about his '60s activism, nor any apologies for his '90s occupation.
"Here, I don't work for anybody," he said, his red-leather tie peeking out from his trader's jacket. "I don't have to exploit labor. I don't make my money by underpaying employees. I don't have to yell at people or fire them."
"All I have to do is bet on which way I think the markets are going to go and . . . I'm betting against the banks. There are no poor people trading Japanese yen futures, so if I go in and make $3,000, I don't feel like I took it from a poor person."
He knows how it looked to a shocked nation. He heard the TV commentators and read the commission's conclusion: police riot. But the career cop who spied on anti-war protesters during the turbulent 1968 Democratic National Convention has a very different outlook.
"In a way, it made me proud of the Police Department," the 57-year-old detective said. "Police are Tappis entered this high-risk, high-roller world by a circuitous route, with unusual origins: He was an organizer for the Students for a Democratic Society. One of its founders, Tom Hayden--now a California state senator--was among the Chicago Seven defendants accused of inciting violence at the '68 convention.
In the '60s, Tappis protested at the Pentagon, participated in the Columbia University sit-ins, and finagled his way out of the military with such antics as scrawling obscenities about the draft on his shirt and his back when going for his physical.
"I really believed that we would change the world," said Tappis, his shock of brown hair now touched with gray. "It just seemed . . . it would only be a couple more years before there would be a revolution."
Then came Chicago and the convention.
In the parks, Beat generation poet Allen Ginsburg chanted a Buddhist mantra, Phil Ochs sang folk songs and Yippie leaders Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin presented their own presidential candidate--a pig.
As the anti-war protests swelled, the clashes with the police grew uglier. Tappis was Maced once, but avoided arrest. Nearly 700 others did not.
"The people who got beat the worst were the people who thought the cops wouldn't beat them if they weren't doing anything," he said. "The more experienced political people, the more radical people and maybe even the more paranoid people ran faster."
"The cops . . . made no distinction . . . so that hippies, protesters, radicals, terrorists, poor people, organizers, pacifists were all the same thing," Tappis said.
"If the police had acted calmly, the entire Democratic convention would have been a non-event," he added.
After the convention, Tappis moved to Chicago, became an organizer for a Black Panther-like group called Rising Up Angry and helped plan the Weatherman, the violent apostles of revolution spawned by SDS. He returned to New York, worked as a travel guide, earned bachelor's and master's degrees and then, at a friend's urging, began working for a commodities trader.
About 10 years ago, he moved to Chicago to pursue commodities on his own. He eventually became a member of the Merc, putting him in a rather exclusive club: Traders' seats now go for about $595,000.
It's quite a departure from the '60s when, he recalls, he never worried about financial security because he assumed his living "would be taken care of in a collective, socialist way after the revolution."
Now, his youthful railings against capitalism have given way to a middle-age respect for the Wall Street Journal, the words of Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan and fluctuations in the German deutsche mark.
"I now have some hope there can be a softer face of capitalism," he said.
He has evolved in other ways.
The divorced father of two who would have gone to jail instead of Vietnam says he wouldn't object if his 6-year-old son joins the service when he turns 18. "I don't think somebody else's kids should make the world safer for commodities traders," he said.
And while Tappis supports liberal causes and says he hasn't turned conservative, he is more cynical.
"I used to think that if only the government would do the right thing, everything would be better," he said. "Now, I'm not sure there's anything they can do that's really likely to change things very much."
Tappis says he made mistakes then, but has no regrets now.
"The world is very different," he said. "The logic of it still holds up to me, (but) it's clear to me that it wasn't going to work. I'm not saying that we almost won. . . . But it certainly made sense at the time."