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When Justice Failed--and Conventions Counted

August 25, 1996|James P. Turner | James P. Turner retired in 1994 after 25 years as the career deputy assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department

ACCOKEEK, MD. — Two weeks ago, after four nights of blather and ballyhoo, the Republicans finally did what they went to San Diego to do: officially anointed Bob Dole as their nominee. Tomorrow, the Democrats convene in Chicago to demonstrate that they, too, have all the choreographed excitement needed to embellish President Bill Clinton's certain renomination.

No one who has watched one of these made-for-TV bashes has to be told that the political convention has gone the way of the garter belt--it once had a useful, uplifting function but is now only a vestigial decoration. The problem is that a generation of Americans may have reached voting age unaware that, not long ago, it was just such a rubber-stamping sideshow of a political convention that actually changed the course of history. As political time is measured, it was only yesterday . . . .

"You elected Nixon. You elected Nixon."

The scolding, sing-song chant from 15 or 20 scruffy kids claiming sanctuary on the red-carpeted stairway in the grand foyer of Chicago's Hilton Hotel was being hurled both in anger and in sorrow at two passing police officers. The staircase refugees were among the thousands who had converged in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. They had come to demonstrate against the Vietnam War, and demand that official delegates abandon their commitments to politics-as-usual, in general, and to Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, in particular, and nominate the people's peace candidate, Minnesota's quixotic Sen. Eugene McCarthy.

The chant from the stairs meant their mission had failed--that the party had lost its moral power base and would now forfeit the election. The country was reeling that year from the tragic assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy and the terrible riots that had left dozens of cities in flames. On the political side, the anti-war movement had forced an incumbent president, elected by a landslide in 1964, to decline to stand for reelection.

Unsure of how to deal with threatened disruptions, Democratic Party leaders had gratefully accepted the promise of Chicago's longtime boss, Mayor Richard J. Daley, that he would never let the "peaceniks" and their revolutionary "yippie" pals interfere with a convention in Chicago's International Amphitheater, known familiarly as "the stock yards."

But when the Democrats convened, the spotlight quickly shifted from the foregone conclusions on the convention floor to the streets. There, on almost every corner, dissidents clashed with the symbols of authority, the Chicago police. The political dialogue of the streets consisted of the slogans of the moment, shouted over and over like cheers at a football homecoming: "Hell, no, we won't go." "F--- the draft." "Dump the Hump." "What do we want? PEACE! When do we want it? NOW!" "Join us," they urged the world at large, "Join us."

By Wednesday evening, the inevitable happened. Ignited by some unseen spark, Daley's police charged into an unruly crowd outside the Hilton, riot batons flailing. Soon the dissidents had new rallying cries. "The whole world is watching," they chanted for the networks' cameras, while inside the Hilton, the few casualties and caregivers who made it to the stairs were taunting official Chicago for bestowing the presidency on the Democrats' worst enemy, Richard M. Nixon.

Standing nearby, I saw that the kids were shouting at two impeccably attired "white shirts"--ranking, supervisory level officers--walking toward the hotel lounge. The officers looked at the ragged chorus briefly, as if considering whether to order their dispersal, but, after a private word together, their mood seemed to lighten, both shrugged, waved to their antagonists with an indulgent smile, and walked away.

I sighed with relief, thankful that I would not have to witness and try to describe for my bosses in Washington yet another confrontation between Chicago police and dissidents. As a Justice Department civil-rights attorney sent to observe the street action, I had happened on this mini-drama on my way back outside, after making a report on the Washington hot line in Dep. Atty. Gen. Warren Christopher's suite.

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