Sunday, September 5, 2004

First Person: Republican National Convention

First appeared in the Boston Globe

Days of rage, but calmer (and wiser)

When friends asked why I was heading down to the Aug. 29 demonstration in New York City in advance of the Republican National Convention, I liked to crack wise that it was because I missed the smell of tear gas. I suspected tear gas would work like Proust's madeleine on a boomer like me. One whiff and I'd see old friends just as they were at 20, their long hair held in place by bandannas, wet handkerchiefs over their faces as they braved gas, police batons, and sometimes bullets in yet another in the unending series of protests against the war in Vietnam.

I use the word "braved" advisedly here. To fight in Vietnam took courage, surely, but so did devoting long years to opposing that war. I remember John Kerry, that decorated war hero, addressing antiwar rallies back then, and have never lost my sense of him as a man with both kinds of courage in abundance.

But courage can coexist with political misjudgment. I was at Columbia during the 1968 student rebellion, and remained active in Students for a Democratic Society afterward as confrontations over the war grew more explosive. I felt chastened when Allen Ginsberg, that warrior peacenik bard, advised, sometime in the '70s, that my generation's susceptibility to violence only further polarized the country and drove frightened Americans toward the right. I took it no less seriously when I read a recent interview in New York Magazine with Norman Mailer, who had put his body on the line, as we liked to say back then, at least at one major demonstration, the 1967 protest at the Pentagon he documented in "Armies of the Night" (1968).

Mailer started by saying: "When I was young, the suggestion to be moderate was like a stink bomb to me. An orderly demonstration? What were we, cattle?" But age, he went on, had taught him there can be "more important things than a good outburst." Mailer's fear was that "a combination of riots with media coverage" on the 29th would throw the election to Bush, whom he described as nothing less than a "collection of disasters for America."

So, no, I wasn't really going to New York to score a hit of tear gas. I, like Mailer and many others, believed violence would be a win for Bush, and worried about provocateurs in the crowd primed to bring such clashes on.

Confrontation was on everyone's mind. The New York Post, the Murdoch-owned tabloid, ran incendiary headlines about aging radicals gathering for a bust-up in New York. We were too crotchety to do damage on our own, according to the Post, but had trained a cadre of youth to make mischief for us.

The funny thing is how perfectly opposite to the truth this was. Talk radio in New York in the days leading up to the demonstration was stocked with old-timers spinning out variations on Mailer's line: Chill out, don't let hot weather, cops, crazies, or Mayor Bloomberg's refusal to issue a permit for a rally in Central Park make you lose control. Don't even let questionable choices by sponsors of the march -- with regard to its slogans, for example -- incite actions you might regret.

The main slogan of United for Peace and Justice, the group that called the march, was "Bring The Troops Home." My friends and I had gone hoarse shouting as much with regard to Vietnam, but most of us found it simple-minded with regard to Iraq. We agreed the United States should never have invaded Iraq -- there were no WMDs, no Iraqi links to 9/11. But it didn't follow that once there the solution was just to withdraw.

On one talk show, Todd Gitlin, a '60s radical cum laude -- former chairman of Students for a Democratic Society, now a professor of journalism at Columbia -- helped me think this through. Gitlin said that he didn't like the slogan either, but in an imperfect world there are bound to be imperfect rallies. Besides, the impact of the march on the 29th would depend more on its size and discipline than on its slogans.

It must be nice, if you're a young protester in 2004, to have elder statesmen around whose opinions you have no reason to despise. My generation, by and large, did not. With some notable exceptions (like Mailer), our elders had been too conditioned by the Cold War to understand that no matter how heartily you despised Joe Stalin, the war in Vietnam was a terrible mistake. And so we had to face the war, and the draft that sucked us into it, on our own.

How traumatic that war was for us struck me once again when, after the march, I went to the Whitney Museum to see footage of the 1970 protest at Kent State, where National Guardsmen shot and killed four unarmed students. That bloody denouement contrasted with the march on the 29th, which ended peacefully after all, with some people later moving on to Central Park to hold hands, chant, and chat amiably with the police. I recalled there were peaceful demonstrations in the Vietnam era, too, before the war wore on and all hell broke lose, as at Kent State.

Confrontations about Vietnam tended to escalate in proportion to escalations in the war itself. But it's also true that confrontation had a logic of its own, pitting police and protesters against each other with ever greater force. This logic was apparent on the streets of New York in the days after the march, when hundreds of demonstrators were arrested.

This is not a dialectic I want repeated beyond the point of no return. Hold the tear gas, please. But if there's one thing the '60s taught me, it's that my estimate of events is often wrong. Pessimistic as it may be to say so, it's not so difficult to imagine a time -- especially if Bush wins this fall -- when chanting "Bring The Troops Home" will seem like common sense.

Harvey Blume is a freelance writer based in Cambridge.

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