What did sleeping in a city park have to do with ending the Vietnam War?
A lot, apparently.
To some people, that is, a long time ago.
Many, actually, based on the thousands of protesters who insisted on occupying Lincoln and Grant parks, 50 years ago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which will be much in the public eye over the next week as it nears its Golden Anniversary. For four nights, protesters tried to stay in the parks past the 11 p.m. curfew, and the city sent police to clear them out.
I wish interest were mere nostalgia for the days when hippies clashed with baby blue helmeted cops.
But instead it seems ripped from today’s headlines, like “Lake Shore Drive protest leader vows to shut down O’Hare traffic on Labor Day.”
The Rev. Gregory Livingston, who led protesters to shut down Lake Shore Drive Aug. 2, now plans to reprise his triumph on the highway leading to O’Hare International Airport on Labor Day, Sept. 3.
But before we consider that, let’s reflect a moment on that convention protest. The Democrats were nominating benign political hack Hubert Humphrey, despite his not having run in a single primary. The Hump was expected to continue LBJ’s policy of miring us deeper into Vietnam. Young people, required to fight and die in that war, were not happy about this.
Had Mayor Richard J. Daley let them protest, violence could have been avoided. But he wanted to keep his city under control — his control — and squashed the protests, magnifying them.
Eventually, cities learned that a softer touch works far better. Which is why Rev. Michael Pfleger was allowed to shut down the Dan Ryan July 7, and Rev. Livingston could lead a tiny band of followers to close Lake Shore Drive. Because dragging them away would look bad.
Still, it’s hard to get enough of something that doesn’t work, and it’s tempting to continue blocking roads, the way the kids, clashing for three nights in August 1968, went full throated into the fourth. It wasn’t about the war anymore; it was about the protests.