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CONVENTION 2000 / THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION | ANNALS

Say, Don't We Know Each Other From Somewhere?

August 17, 2000|JOHN BALZAR

Chicago, 1968. Bobby Kennedy, dead. Martin Luther King Jr., dead. Vietnam, raging. Lyndon B. Johnson, vanquished. The Democrats, holed up downwind of the Chicago stockyards.

"The event," wrote Norman Mailer, "was a convention which took place during a continuing five-day battle in the streets and parks of Chicago between some of the minions of the high established, and some of the nihilistic of the young."

That, and more. A chain reaction. Blam.

Tet. Woodstock. Haight-Ashbury. Birmingham. Kent State. RFK. MLK. LBJ. SDS. LSD. Watts. Memphis. Hamburger Hill. Chicago--cues buried in the folds of memory for those baby boomers who are tightening their grip on America's leadership.

There's reason now, though, for some sweaty palms.

Stray neutrons zing through the air outside Staples Center, fanned by protest signs. Neutrons penetrate memory cells and awaken . . . well, what? These Democrats know better than anyone--or should--that scattered particles can pick up velocity, circle faster, gain mass and run away with us.

*

"And suddenly they were here, coming over the brow of the slope fifty yards away, a truly stupefying sight--one hundred or more of the police in a phalanx abreast, clubs at the ready, in helmets and gas masks, just behind them a huge perambulating machine with nozzles, like the type used for spraying insecticide, disgorging clouds of yellowish gas, the whole advancing panoply illuminated by batteries of mobile floodlights. Because of the smoke, and the great cross outlined against it, yet also because of the helmeted and masked figures--resembling nothing so much as those rubberized wind-up automata from a child's play-box of horrors--I had a quick sense of the medieval in juxtaposition with the twenty-first century. . . ."

Novelist William Styron continued his account from Chicago: "Certainly, whatever the exact metaphor it summoned up, the sight seemed to presage the shape of the world to come. . . ."

Democrats lost the 1968 election. They would hold the presidency only four years of the next 24.

Now outside the high wire fence in Los Angeles, ghosts of their angry past roam the city. Alienation has reappeared in our lexicon.

"Let's face it," goes the tune by folk singer Greg Brown, "these are station wagons and we're our folks."

Shocking isn't it? The average delegate in Los Angeles was 19 years old during Chicago.

Only Jesse Jackson paid much heed to today's demonstrators. Protest begets policy, he reminded the convention. "We must fight for protest to make America better."

Perhaps others here are suffering vertigo. Something like mortal dread is meeting up with something like moral nostalgia.

In the 1960s there were guns in Vietnam and clubs in Chicago. For the young with politics in their blood, there wasn't much safe ground in between. You were shouted at, or you shouted out, with your heart if nothing else.

Now these aging youths have houses and careers and retirement plans built on an economy--the system!--that is at the root of today's protests. These delegates can remember with fresh empathy the dismay they saw in their parents' eyes when the purpose of America came under attack back then. They should not forget the righteous determination of those who stand, unencumbered, on what feels like high ground with high purpose.

*

A generation ago, leaders of the Democratic Party believed they were dealing only with a fringe of society. They were wrong. Eventually, the debate in the streets infiltrated the party itself. In 1968, the candidates and conventioneers had become as divided as the police and protesters on the street.

Playwright Arthur Miller was a delegate in Chicago. From the convention floor, he recounted the scenes of delegates being arrested, news reporters beaten, the galleries packed by screaming goons. In defense of itself, the establishment resorted to brute force:

"It was a congregation of the aged, men locked into a kind of political senility that was roaring its challenge across the six miles of superhighway to the 10,000 children just then gathering for the slaughter opposite the Conrad Hilton Hotel. The old bulls against the young bulls under the overhanging branches of the forest.

"Then it struck me that there was no issue cleaving the convention; there was only a split in the attitude toward power, two mutually hostile ways of being human."

The Democratic Party today is in the custody of men and women who have seen, firsthand, what a powerful word "protest" can be in American politics: How frustrations can wrap themselves around causes and work their way into the body politic. Sometimes, not always, those stray neutrons begin to pick up a charge. Then all hell can break loose.

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