From 1968, A Long View on Movement Building
by Curtis Black
Community Media Workshop
May 23, 2012
After demonstrators were arrested and roughed up in an
unsuccessful attempt to march to McCormick Place on Sunday, I
thought it would be interesting to check in with Mel
Rothenberg. He has the distinction of leading the only
demonstration that succeeded in marching to the International
Ampitheatre, where the Democratic National Convention was
being held, in 1968.
Now a retired professor, Rothenberg has been politically
active through the intervening decades, most recently with
Chicago Jobs With Justice and the Chicago Political Economy
Group. This gives him a long view on movement building and
social change. (He and I worked together on the Chicago bureau
of the Guardian, the independent radical newsweekly published
in New York, in the 1980s.)
Chicago 1968 "was very different," he says. "It was a shock.
Everybody, the demonstrators and cops, were uncertain about
what would happen." At last weekend's NATO protest, "both the
authorities and the demonstration organizers had much more
control of the street action, and the media had already
orchestrated its coverage ahead of time."
"In 1968 the mayor was completely unprepared and the city was
completely on edge," he says. In contrast to media pre-
coverage this time - featuring scary headlines which almost
surely depressed turnout - in 1968 "the media was trying to
keep things calm, pretending nothing was going to happen."
Also different was the police department: "In '68 there was a
lot of overt racism in the department - the Klan was operating
openly; there were conflicts within the police department."
There had been major riots in Watts, Detroit, Newark. "The
authorities were in a panic. There were National Guard and
state police, and it looked like for a while that the city
would be put under martial law."
Rothenberg helped organize the Bourbaki Brigade, a contingent
of mathematicians, who marched about 100-strong through
Bridgeport to the Ampitheatre at 42nd and Halsted. "It was
very tense," he recalls. "There were neighborhood thugs
threatening us, and the police in between, both protecting us
and threatening us."
The police "were making decisions on the spur of the moment -
they didn't know what was happening either - and they decided
to let us through; we were a small group and not very
threatening, mathematicians, college professors."
The next day was supposed to be the big march to the
convention site. "It was supposed to be peaceful. We brought
our kids." A huge crowd gathered in the park across from the
Conrad Hilton, and someone (later revealed to be a police
infiltrator) climbed the flagpole and took down the American
flag. "That was the signal, they attacked us, there was tear
gas, there was chaos."
A big flop
This year, he says, "I don't think Obama or NATO came out very
well. All the attention was on the demonstrators. The summit
was a big flop."
"There was no popular support in Chicago for NATO, no
outpouring of sentiment to support NATO." And "no one except
city officials and p.r. people thought it was going to help
the city. It was a bust from the point of view of helping the
local economy or getting favorable international attention to
"About the only thing they accomplished was to avoid a
disaster," Rothenberg said.
As for the protests, they turned out thousands of people -
certainly far more than the 2,000 reported by the police - and
wove together a range of social concerns with the issues of
war and militarization.
But Rothenberg says there needs to be more attention to
building a sustainable movement that goes beyond occasional
demonstrations to actually challenging and changing policies.
Much of the weekend's youthful energy came from the Occupy
movement, but that's "very loose and not really coherent" -
not so much due to a lack of clear demands as of "a clear
strategy for bringing and keeping people together,"
Rothenberg said. "So they latch on to what's happening."
That can be been positive, connecting them to community
issues. But "before they can become the core of a sustained
social movement they have to confront more clearly the basic
issues of class, race, gender and militarism which drive
American political conflict."
He calls the Mental Health Movement, which led a huge march
Saturday to Mayor Emanuel's home in Ravenswood, "inspiring."
"It has done so much" - mounting a vigorous, year-long fight
against Mayor Emanuel's attempt to close clinics - "with a
very dedicated multi-racial group of mental patients and very
little money. But it's going to be hard to sustain the energy
unless there are some victories fairly soon." (His wife,
Marcia Rothenberg, a retired nurse, has been active in the
He contrasts the Tea Party movement - heavily backed by
corporations and millionaires, and in control of the
Republican Party and the House of Representatives - with
progressive issue-oriented activist groups, which get "only
meager support from labor unions"; meanwhile "labor donates
millions of dollars to politicians who do little to advance
The Tea Party "has organization and money. The left has
probably more of people's sentiment behind it and more
idealistic youth, but it doesn't have organization," he said.
The "black bloc" is one group that tries to step into that
"I don't think they're that strong," said Rothenberg. "There
may have had a couple hundred in the anti-NATO demonstration
who are really committed, and there's a fringe they hope can
be moved on the spot to join them.
"They're small but they are able to act together because they
have an agenda, a strategy," he says. "It's an agenda with
which I disagree.
"They believe that you can end oppression and injustice simply
by denying the legitimacy of the state, refusing to follow the
orders of the authorities. I wish it were that simple, but
"Until you have the majority of people behind you, denying the
authority of the state simply makes you an outlaw. People
might romanticize outlaws but most people don't trust them,
and they're not about to join them."
They "probably feel they accomplished their agenda" when news
coverage focused on clashes with police. "They wanted
attention and they got it." But "they don't have much of a
strategy beyond that."
"They feel like people are going to be fed up with peaceful
mobilizations that don't accomplish anything," he said. "They
think that will somehow kick off something bigger."
Instead "the left gets hurt and loses support." The images of
violence are something the media "can exploit very effectively
to discredit the left and any social movement."
Still, "there is a problem with having the same old marches
over and over that don't accomplish anything."
It is clear that the Democrat Party doesn't provide any kind
of alternative - and the Democrats of Illinois are a stark
example, Rothenberg said. They control the governorship, both
houses of the legislature, and mayor's offices in major
cities, and "they have no solution to the problems of the
economic crisis at all."
"The deal they cut with the Chicago Mercantile Exchange to
give them a tax break worth $100 million a year when the state
is going through a financial crises is simply outrageous,"
Rothenberg said. "They should be driven from office for that
alone. They do what the Republicans do but with another kind
"My feeling is if you can bring in numbers of Occupy people.
progressive activists and community groups like the Mental
Health Movement, and bring in substantial support from labor,
you would have the basis of a movement that could sustain
itself." Without that, "it'll be touch and go."
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