Say, Don't We Know Each Other From Somewhere?
By 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 sightone 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 horrorsI 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
Only Jesse Jackson paid much heed to today's demonstrators. Protest begets
policy, he reminded the convention. "We must fight for protest to make
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
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
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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