How Is Turbulent Climate That Rocked '68 Democratic Convention Different From Today's?

Jul 17, 2016
Originally published on July 17, 2016 12:41 pm
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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

With the nation on edge after a series of gun deaths, including five police officers in Dallas, and major protests - some peaceful, some not - the city of Cleveland is preparing for demonstrations outside the Republican National Convention. The country's tense mood reminds some of the atmosphere surrounding another presidential convention that took place during a turbulent time - the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago when, as the protesters chanted in the streets, the whole world was watching.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTORS: (Chanting) The whole world's watching. The whole world's watching. The whole world's watching. The whole world's watching.

NEARY: Both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated that year. Opposition to the war in Vietnam was growing, and delegates who were against that war sympathized. When police attacked demonstrators outside the convention, the tension in the streets of Chicago spilled into the convention hall.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What are you trying, to strong-arm stuff? He's an elected delegate. You are. Check with the delegates. Where are the rules that say we must show them every minute? Who the hell are you?

NEARY: With us now to discuss some of the similarities and differences between then and now is Columbia University Professor Todd Gitlin, author of "The Sixties: Years Of Hope, Days Of Rage." Thanks so much for joining us, professor.

TODD GITLIN: Thank you for having me.

NEARY: I know you were in Chicago during the 1968 convention, on the streets, I believe. Tell us what happened.

GITLIN: So there were several thousand demonstrators, not nearly as many as had been expected, almost all of them nonviolent. The police were organized to attack. There were clearly commands to attack not only demonstrators, but also journalists. And there were several hundred journalists who had their cameras smashed, their notepads trampled, who were beaten up and even arrested. It was, on the side of the demonstrators, rather chaotic and animated by anger at what looked as though it was going to be the refusal of the Democratic Party to condemn the Vietnam War.

NEARY: How would you describe the difference between the forces that are sort of rocking society right now and where things were in 1968 exactly?

GITLIN: I think the antagonisms that were running rife in America were far more severe, more deep in 1968. We had hundreds of thousands of American troops at war, a war that was already, by August 1968, unpopular with a majority of Americans. You had the whole - you know, the disruption of ordinary culture by people who called themselves freaks or hippies or Yippies and whatnot and were later called the counterculture. So the culture was cracking up. I think today, as intensely as many people feel one way or the other about nativism and xenophobia and racism and police violence and so on, the country's moved in many ways. And it's a world in which people have higher expectations.

NEARY: Going back to 1968, what effect did that violence at - in Chicago outside the convention and also those disturbances that happened within the convention hall - how did that impact the psyche of American society at that time?

GITLIN: I would say the collision in Chicago wrecked the Democratic Party. There were some polls that suggested that when people watched these confrontations in the street that you alluded to and others, that something like 60 percent of Americans supported the police. They thought the police were right to do what they did and that the problem was these rambunctious and disrespectful kids. So there was a sense of impending apocalypse that, of course, was with us during the entire year of 1968. We really were on the edge. Today, I think yeah, a lot of people are agitated and tense and uncertain about the future and worried and so on. But I don't think the apocalyptic expectations are quite as widely and intensely felt.

NEARY: Let me ask you this. You were a young man in 1968. You're looking back on this now. If there are younger people now feeling that things do seem a little apocalyptic, how do you give them a sense that, you know, we get through these things historically, these things happen and we do get through them? Do you have that feeling that we are going to get through this moment again?

GITLIN: I mean, I don't want to paint a pretty picture here. I think that we're in a dangerous world. And we haven't even talked about the terrorist menace. And, you know, that's all real. And the slippage that young people feel about what kind of future is waiting for them is also real and is not easily placated. But I think it's also important that young people think about how this happened, how it came to this pass because this is no - I mean, the racism, Black Lives Matter, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders - these are people and forces that didn't come out of nowhere. These have been a long time in the making.

So there's a lot to learn if you're young about the history that brought us to this point. And I think people also need to be reminded or remind themselves that in all kinds of ways, they don't have to accept fate. You don't just show up for a demonstration and that's that or you don't just knock on a door for a candidate and that's that, that, you know, the fate of the country is in the hands of the citizens. And this is going to be their world; they have to shape it.

NEARY: Columbia University Professor Todd Gitlin. Thanks so much for being with us.

GITLIN: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.