The long shadow of 1968: preparing for a year of action

Police confront demonstrators in Chicago near the 1968 Democratic National Convention headquarters.

The title of Todd Gitlin’s new essay for The Nation—“Will Occupy Embrace Nonviolence?”—is enough to fill activists both young and old with worry. In addition to the fear that Gitlin may be providing simplistic prescriptions to the complicated contemporary movement, it is also true that Gitlin has some ahistorical blind spots regarding the false dichotomy of violence and nonviolence which render him a less-than-reliable source on some issues relating to intensified tactics.

In the Academy-Award nominated documentary The Weather Underground, Gitlin compared that controversial organization (which engaged in many high profile bombings but took great care never to cause more than destruction of property) to the murderous dictatorships of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. Never a pacifist himself, Gitlin’s strategic perspective has been more than a little bit compromised. The lessons of the 1960s and 1970s are portrayed in far more nuanced and complex fashion by former pacifist, former Weather Underground member and current U.S. political prisoner David Gilbert, jailed for his participation in an armed robbery with members of the Black Liberation Army, in which two police officers and a guard were killed. In his new book Love and Struggle, Gilbert makes clear that while there is much remorse over grievous errors made, the youth of a previous radical upsurge were more than just a grouping of militarized crazies.

So it was with great relief that I read through Gitlin’s essay, which is filled with useful insights and important reflections about concrete issues which the movement is now facing. His trouncing of the new Chicago protest law is nothing short of classic (calling it a “full frontal abuse of the First Amendment”). Gitlin rightly suggests that indignation and mockery of these new statutes are “eminently called for.” This essay, therefore, is not only to applaud Gitlin, but also to note for us the one portion of his article which calls for greater scrutiny.

Gitlin writes:

I was on the streets of Chicago in August 1968 when provocative disrupters among overwhelmingly nonviolent protesters were infiltrated by provocateurs and beset by rampaging police, producing a televised spectacle that had the perverse effect of encouraging a disengaged public to side with the police against what they thought were dangerous and frivolous revolutionaries—even as the Vietnam War declined in popularity. Let there be no romanticizing of those who “upped the ante” toward militancy, indifferent to the fact that 95 percent of America was politically on their right—or of the few hundreds whose stagy vandalism (“Days of Rage”) a year later sounded the death knell for a mass student movement.

Two points here are worth both further reflection and study.

The first, his claim that the public sided with the police following the Chicago 1968 Democratic National Convention, is a controversial perspective at best. The vast majority of commentary on the subject suggests that the mainstream of America was shocked and angered at what was clearly a “police riot,” which Norman Mailer called “the siege of Chicago.”

The second, that the Days of Rage and the fervor which surrounded them sounded the demise of the 1960s student movement, is much more widely accepted as fact within progressive academic and activist quarters. Many of those directly involved in the Days of Rage actions themselves register regret at the affects and failures of that “campaign.” But I believe that it is necessary to at least examine—in a clear and dispassionate way—the underlying features that led to the diminishing of mass student protest post-1969. One wrong-headed protest or one sectarian organization may certainly have had a negative effect (and hindsight is always 20/20), but an explanation for the entire “death knell” necessitates a clearer and deeper analysis to determine its full causes.

Any thorough analysis of the end of “the Sixties” must at least also look carefully at: the role of the illegal FBI Counter-Intelligence Program; the effects of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and the general turn towards more self-consciously “revolutionary” approaches to social change; the shifts in the way the war in South East Asia was being waged—militarily and otherwise; and the changing nature of a student-specific movement post-1970 Kent and Jackson State massacres.

These points are important not only for the sake of telling an accurate history, but also because we are entering a period where—with the G8 and NATO summits in Chicago in mid-May (including the oft-celebrated date of Malcolm X’s birth), and presidential conventions coming up in Florida and North Carolina this summer—we will need to work carefully to break free from the scripts that are all too common for both “nonviolent” and “diversity of tactics”-type actions. If the Occupy movement has taught us anything, it is that people are tired of choreographed, pre-scripted actions which lack any sense of small-group autonomy or real-life empowerment. Progressive organizers have not made gains by underestimating the risks people are willing to take for the possibility of meaningful change.

Embrace nonviolence? Surely yes! But a creative, constructive, militant nonviolence is needed to inspire a greater percentage of the 99% than we’ve yet impressed or mobilized.

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