My Last Convention

by Gary Gordon
(published in the Santa Monica Mirror, Aug. 2000)

     Sitting at our Happy Hour gathering, as we do every Wednesday on the patio of a Main Street restaurant, Hank brings us up-to-date on the latest plans for the protests and alternative conventions planned during DY2K week.
     Apparently, everyone and every organization that has ever existed, acronym or not, will be here.
     This, Hank contends, is a good thing.
     Lately, John and I have been contending otherwise--an unpopular view among our peers, and certainly a departure; John is a veteran of Chicago in ’68 and Miami in ’72, I’m a veteran of Miami.      But this argument is in the tradition of American politics, a proud tradition that includes talk of power, faction, and strategy, intermixed with high ideals, in-the-trenches experience, name-calling, scandal and worse. Events are cited as precedents, parsed for meaning with all the skill of Talmudic scholars, Supreme Court Justices, and late-night bar-room drinkers combined.
     "Conventions used to mean something."
     "In 1960 it was a contest. Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey were challenging Kennedy."
     "You mean Kennedy was challenging them."
     "In ’64 the segregationists and integrationists almost tore up the Democratic party arguing about whether or not to seat any of the Mississippi Freedom Party delegation instead of all of the all-white good-ol’-boy Mississippi Democratic KKK Redneck Party delegation."
     Growing up in this atmosphere, my attitude about conventions was: conventions are contests, filled with debate and argument, where the outcome is not preordained.
     "And what about ’68? Rockefeller and Romney gave Nixon a run for his money, and the Democrats--"
     Back to ’68 in a moment.
     My last convention was in 1972: I went to both party’s conventions in Miami Beach, with press credentials, writing a book titled "Welcome To The Generation Of Peace".
     The Republicans crowned Nixon in the first modern, staged-for-television convention. Their strategy was to present the GOP as orderly, a distinction from the unruly Democrats, and the strategy worked.
     The 1972 Democratic convention was the last truly democratic convention, an unruly democratic mess. Because McGovern and his committee had changed the rules after ‘68 and opened up the party, taking it away from the bosses, everybody had a shot at being a delegate. And as I walked the floor of the convention, it appeared that everyone was a delegate: there were rednecks, longhairs, college students, braless feminists... I rode in an elevator with journalist/musician Ed Sanders (remember the Fugs?) and journalist Germaine Greer as they debated whether or not the wearing of underwear was a concession to the oppressive dominant dark forces of tyranny. Try as I might, I couldn’t tell then if Ms. Greer was wearing panties.
     Jesse Jackson wore an afro and dashiki when he addressed the convention; George Wallace wore a wheelchair, and, as always, failed to stand up for America.
     And the outcome was not a foregone conclusion: Humphrey (the same Humphrey) was challenging McGovern, and the hawklike Scoop Jackson was waiting in the wings, ready to swoop into a deadlock, grab the mantel, give Nixon a run for his money and perpetuate Johnson’s and Nixon’s war. McGovern finally won and gave his acceptance speech at 3am. This was not a geared for television convention, like the GOP, and as McGovern called out "Come home, America," most of America slept, except for a few who bothered to mumble, "Don’t wake me up."
     Outside the hall, at both conventions, were the demonstrators. After a raucus debate at the Miami Beach City Council meeting (a debate which made L.A.’s discussion look tame), it was decided by a slim majority that the protesters could camp for free in Flamingo Park, about five blocks south of the convention hall. Permitted demonstrations would be allowed right outside the hall. Free speech was the order of the day.
     The Indo-China Peace Campaign (IPC), the Vietnam Veterans Against The War (VVAW), and the Yippies (YIP) were the central organizations of the Miami Conventions Coalition. The MCC had published its plan for civil disobedience, including maps and timetables, published in part to prevent charges of conspiracy. Every detail of how to commit mobile CD ("sit and run"), and what intersections to hit at what times was there in black and white. Of course, this left little surprise for the police.
     My memories of those conventions are random but distinct:
     McGovern spoke at 3am, and Nixon was nominated and spoke to Nuremberg-rally-like chants of "Four more years!"
     Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, aware their presence generated media and tourist response and calls for photographs, walked around with a sign: Kodak Scenic View #42.
     The VVAW leaders who hadn’t been busted by the Feds for conspiracy spent most of their time worrying about undercover police infiltrators. "Who’s he? Do we have his dog-tag number?"
     In their down time, many of the police guarding the grounds of the hall were playing chess-- it was the summer of Fisher-Spassky.      Eric Severeid bought a hot dog for me.
     I ran into a high school friend, serving in the Army, stationed at the school just north of the convention hall. They were quartered there "just in case". We were not on the same side.
     Police and Army helicopters flew overhead constantly, which, until I moved to Venice, was a singular experience.
     The pepper gas used on the demonstrators drifted into the hall during the Republican convention. (For the uninitiated, pepper gas feels as if someone is vigorously rubbing very rough sandpaper inside your throat and nostrils. It causes you to gag, cry and run away.)
     A Miami Beach City Councilman ran up to Rubin as he was explaining to Kurt Vonnegut, columnist Peter Schrag and I that these demonstrations lacked power and shouted, "Jerry, they’re slashing tires. You promised this wouldn’t happen!", to which Jerry coldly replied, "That’s not nearly as violent as what those people [inside the GOP convention] are doing."
     More demonstrators were arrested in Miami Beach than in Chicago. I had a blast, met all kinds of people, wrote a great unpublished book--and a few months later Nixon defeated the anti-war McGovern and was re-elected in a landslide.
     I am haunted by two memories: a young man, an anti-war protester, outside the convention hall, digging a trench, piling up the dirt. He told me this was symbolic of the dykes the US was bombing in North Vietnam, destroying their agricultural systems and homes.
     And Rev. Ralph Abernathy, leading the Poor People’s March. These people were really poor, and they were overshadowed by the war, overlooked and forgotten by almost everyone, even as they stood there, in the street. It was the same damn "we’ll get to you later."
     It was symbols and free speech vs. power and power won. Or as Vonnegut wrote in the December ’72 Harper’s, there are two political parties in America: the Winners and the Losers.
     This year, in which a silver-spooned son battles against a Federal tit son, with Nader (cheers) and Buchanan (boos) in the wings, the similarities are closer to ’68, although the protest orchestrations remind me of ’72.
     As the environmental activist Hazel Henderson used to say, "there’s a script." And this convention/protest script is part of the old, prevailing paradigm, with events and outcomes as predictable as any Hollywood movie, TV sitcom, or staged "reality" show.
     Many people my age remember the Democratic National Convention in Chicago--before there was a script. For those too young, here’s the context: the U.S. was at Police Action in Vietnam, dropping bombs and napalm; countless Vietnamese and thousands of Americans were dying for reasons that make WWI crystal clear. King and RFK were assassinated; the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia and around ten thousand anti-war movement demonstrators invaded Chicago. Johnson ("Hey, hey, LBJ, how many men did you kill today?") had chosen not to run for re-election, so his vice president, Humphrey, was the mainstream candidate. Eugene McCarthy, an anti-war candidate, was challenging, and George McGovern had stepped into the virtually obliterated RFK campaign.
     "Hank," I say, "I remember watching a debate, on TV, where Humphrey, McCarthy and McGovern argued about Vietnam in front of the California caucus. A real argument. And the California delegation votes were not already decided. Do you think anything even close to that kind of genuine discussion occurs in front of TV cameras today?"
     "Conventions had some meaning," John says, making our point again. "And because they had meaning, it was worth showing up to protest. Now...?"
     Then, Mayor Richard Daley (the father) actually declared, "The police aren’t here to prevent disorder, they are here to preserve disorder," and indeed the police lived up to this accurate slip of the tongue, as the Chicago police (Pigs, in the vernacular) proceeded to launch what a Government Commission later called a "police riot".      "The whole world was watching" as the anti-war demonstrators brought the war back home, and in November, Nixon was elected.
     The ramifications of the demonstrations and riots are still in dispute. Did the "left" help feed the backlash and swell the "law ‘n order" ranks that put Nixon in? Was Nixon worse than Humphrey, or, put another way, was Humphrey as bad as Nixon? If it had been a relatively peaceful convention would Humphrey have beaten Nixon? Would that have been a good thing? How many of the Vietnamese and Americans who died in Vietnam (and how many of the Cambodians and Americans who died in Cambodia) between 1969 and 1973 as a result of Nixon’s war policies would have died if Humphrey had been elected?
     Limit your essay to 1,000 words and have it on my desk by Monday.
     Now we are in 2000, and the ‘68-like debate rages: what’s the difference between Bush and Gore? Now every protester is planning to come to L.A., sans flowers in their hair, and the case is being made that these protests will call attention to the bankruptcy of the system and Democratic party, as if that is news to the majority of Americans who don’t vote.
     Why, the millionairess divorcee Arianna Huffington (having changed sides after sleeping with Al Franken), is even one of "our" leaders.
     And John and I argue with Hank.
     Hank says it oughta be like Seattle. "That woke everybody up."
     I say Seattle was pointed, direct; this one is too vague. Protests work best when the action and grievance and crime and perpetrator can all be captured in a single photo. The sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Greensboro are the best example. Protesting the Democrats is like Bill Murray et al fighting the huge marshmallow, it may blow up and taste good but they still needed a sequel to sort it all out.
     Hank says the demonstrations are a way to get international television coverage.
     We say that’s true only if the demonstrations get violent, ‘cause that’s all TV is interested in.
     It’s agreed there will be violence. It’s part of the script. And I point out the Mayor of L.A. declared Martial Law in "Them" and James Whitmore, who later memorialized Will Rogers and Harry Truman, was killed by a giant ant.
     "What does that mean?"
     "It means Bernard Parks is just a supporting actor with a secondary role."
     Hank says pulling everyone together at the convention is a great way to organize.
     We say every demonstrator, Green or otherwise, ought to be organizing a la Saul Alinsky, door-to-door, in their own towns, not running around L.A. in the August heat, giving the cops a chance to use all their cop equipment.
     "But we gotta protest," says Hank, and I’m reminded of what Donald Sutherland says to Jane Fonda in "Steelyard Blues": "If you’re still thinkin’ about what they’re gonna do to you, then they’ve still got you."
     Now, I don’t believe conventions are contests, and I don’t believe they exist for the disenfranchised to protest. But the ’68 convention helped wake me up, and the ’72 conventions were exciting, so how can I argue against all this DY2K stuff?
     We decide conventions have no meaning and that is their meaning, and the demonstrations, well, they might be fun, except for the pepper gas.
     Hank orders the fish and chips, I order the wings, and John orders a burger.
     None of us are vegetarians. And to some, that is why none of us sees the truth.

The Jerry Rubin referred to above is not the Santa Monica Jerry Rubin, a longtime activist currently running for Santa Monica City Council.