Young “hippie” standing in front of a row of National Guard soldiers, across the street from the Hilton Hotel at Grant Park, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, August 26, 1968. Photo credit: Warren K. Leffler, Library of Congress collection.
I am a spectator to the fire this time. A resident of Manhattan, locked down during our pandemic, sheltering in place as an older person with a pre-existing condition, I now watch the world, not from my perch near Union Square, but from a bungalow in Connecticut, far removed from the madding crowd.
Here, I am free to watch TV and read the paper and watch the video clips of America burning on my laptop computer.
In 1968, outraged by the immorality of the war in Vietnam, and the racism floridly obvious in America after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., I fancied myself an anarchist as well as a revolutionary, at least in theory. That summer, I gathered in Grant Park to join the armies of the night. I was fearful but resolute: I could not stand by and allow armed troops to patrol the streets of Chicago as if my city were Prague. Breaching police lines, I was part of a crowd that streamed toward the Loop, and down Michigan Avenue toward the Conrad Hilton hotel, where many of the people attending the Democratic Party convention being held at that time were staying.
Armed police greeted us there. As the crowd swelled, they penned us in, and methodically beat protesters. Three rows back from the front, I had no place to run, until the row of police behind us was pushed back. This enabled some of us to escape across the street, where other protesters were hurling rocks at the police.
It was bliss at that moment to be alive, but as the air filled with tear gas, also terrifying. Regrouping, my friends and I decided to make our way back to the South Side, where we all lived. Outside our destination in Hyde Park, a police car stopped, the driver rolled his window and sprayed mace, temporarily blinding one of us.
Shaken but alive, we turned on the TV, to see video of us, shot earlier that evening, chanting outside the Conrad Hilton as the police assault began, “The Whole World is Watching! The Whole World is Watching!” We felt proud. We all felt we were now part of a new world in the making.
So I know, not just as a spectator, what it feels like to participate in this kind of violent confrontation. I know why protesters feel it is necessary, inevitable, even to face down the police.
But for now, as I shelter in place, watching the awesome and awful spectacle of people rising up in rage and anger, demanding to be seen, I can respond not only as a former participant in a moment of violent revolt but also as a historian of American social movements.
And this is what I am seeing as a historian from my very distant perch:
The protests that have followed the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, caught on video by a bystander, seem unlike the ghetto uprisings that convulsed the United States in the late Sixties. In the violence that flared after the death of King, it was people of color who laid waste to the neighborhoods they inhabited. But the fire this time is being set by a multi-racial coalition of protesters who are targeting national chains, government buildings, and upscale shopping malls.
Many of the crowds are loosely organized by activists on the left who have honed their tactics on the repertoire pioneered by the black bloc anarchists who led the way in the Battle of Seattle in 1999. Their acts of symbolic property destruction are facilitated by the rise of even newer “multi-tendency” organizations on the left, from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter, to the Democratic Socialists of America, where social democrats and democratic socialists and anarchists committed to non-violent protest work together with activists who share no such commitment.
What I see unfolding on the streets is also multi-tendency: direct actions, in which peaceful protesters serving as human shields for the vandals on the margins. The deliberate political goal of this more violent group is to sow chaos and commit spectacular violence against property, in an effort to goad the police into over-reacting and harming peaceful protesters in front of television cameras.
In 1933 Germany was a nation beset by street fighting, as crowds of radicals faced off against crowds of Nazis.
Might this be what lies in store for America in 2020?
And if the American left was at a crossroads last week, when Public Seminar published its first special issue on that very topic, what kind of crossroads does it face this morning?
We are all about to find out.
–31 May 2020 at 11 a.m.
James Miller, co-executive Editor of Public Seminar, teaches at The New School for Social Research. His most recent book is Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea from Ancient Athens to Our World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018).