May 2012, Week 4


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Wed, 23 May 2012 22:34:42 -0400
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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." 

Big differences 

"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 
progressive programs." 

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 

Black bloc 

"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 
it's not. 

"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 
of rhetoric. 

"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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