On the evening of Aug. 26, 1968, I was arrested on a street corner in Chicago for a dubious crime: protesting a political event. This was, of course, the Democratic National Convention, which was about to nominate as its presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey, the vice president, who had staunchly supported the decision to send half a million troops to pursue a deeply immoral and doomed mission in Vietnam.
I joined hundreds of others in jail that night. Many of us at the time felt we had a duty to oppose the war, and we certainly felt the historical weight of the moment. But I don’t think any of us expected that the conflict — not just over the war, but over two visions for American society — would still be raging, half a century later.
The day I was released, a confrontation between helmeted police and nonviolent demonstrators erupted in front of the Hilton hotel in downtown Chicago. It was shown live on TV for a full 17 minutes. Viewers saw police brutally attacking men and women with mace and clubs. The video, replayed over the next few days, shocked and angered millions who opposed the war.
But pollsters soon found that twice as many Americans sided with the police as sided with the protesters. Whatever their views on the intervention in Indochina, a majority seemed to believe that the young, allegedly unpatriotic troublemakers had it coming. Mayor Richard Daley thundered, in defense of his men in blue, that his administration and the people of Chicago “would never permit a lawless, violent group of terrorists to menace the lives of millions of people, destroy the purpose of a national political convention and take over the streets.”
In many ways, the civil war fought out in Mayor Daley’s city that summer has never really ended. The ugly 2016 campaign and Donald Trump’s embattled administration are only the latest episodes in a long conflict fought on several fronts — cultural, social and political. This “discord” is hardly “unprecedented,” as journalists and some political scientists have claimed. Nor has the United States recently “lost a sense of common purpose” and a “sense of common narrative,” as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told CNN this spring.
Not only do Americans continue to debate, often angrily, about when and how the police should use violence against unarmed civilians. Liberals and leftists still battle with conservatives over most of the other big issues that roiled the nation back then: affirmative action, the right to abortion, freedom for gays and lesbians, curbs on corporate power, environmental protection, the politics of academia — and rulings by the Supreme Court that cheer one camp and infuriate the other.
Of course, the identities and targets of the combatants have shifted over the years. Now it’s progressives who accuse the Supreme Court of making decisions based on ideology rather than law. And who could have imagined that liberal Democrats would be defending the F.B.I., while conservative Republicans denounce it?
But the harsh divisions among Americans in 1968 have largely endured. [Continue reading…]