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50 Years Later: What the 1968 Democratic Convention Protests can teach us

August 26, 2018

1968 was a year that saw the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr and Presidential hopeful Bobby Kennedy. However, 1968 also saw revolution happening on a global scale, with insurgent movements challenging oppressive governments.

In the US, the anti-war movement was just getting started in its opposition to the Vietnam war. People were refusing induction, US troops were going AWOL and starting their own newspapers that exposed US imperialism. US soldiers returning from the war in Vietnam had energized the anti-war movement, so much so that the movement began to challenge those in power.

Anti-war organizers then came to the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, attempting to push the party to adopt an anti-war stance as it related to Vietnam and the rest of Southeast Asia.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley wasn’t having any of it, calling on the police to crack down on anyone who intended to disturb the convention. With TV news crews broadcasting live, the whole nation witnessed a Democratic Mayor order the police to beat anti-war protestors at the Democratic National Convention.

Such a display of utter contempt for popular protest by the Democratic Party led many people in the movement to abandon the belief that electoral politics was a mechanism for real change. Of course the Democratic Party lost the Presidential election to the Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon and Congress (still controlled by the Democrats) continued to vote for massive military expenditures for Vietnam, sending tens of thousands of US soldiers to die and more than a million Vietnamese civilians.

The belief that change outside of electoral politics increased after the 1968 elections on numerous fronts. The black liberation movement also didn’t put faith into electoral politics and militant organizations sprung up all over the country. There was the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, which not only believed in self-defense, they also practiced radical mutual aid by implementing breakfast programs and drug rehabilitation programs throughout the country. This same type of organizing led to groups like the American Indian Movement, the Chicano Liberation Movement, the Young Lords and other identify-based groups to take matters into their own hands instead of trusting the government.

At the same time the LGBT movement had also become more militant with the 1969 Stonewall Riot and the formation of groups like the Gay Liberation Front. The various strains of the US feminist movement also began generating more attention with their actions around sexism, gender inequality and reproductive justice. We often forget that the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of reproductive rights for women in 1973, even though the President was Richard M. Nixon.

The labor movement also took to more militant tactics by using wildcat strikes, organizing against speedups, with major victories in the coal mines, the agricultural sector, the automobile industry and at the post office. In fact, with these labor victories it was the peak period for real wages, which have been steadily declining for decades, along with union membership.

All of this direct action and all of this organizing was being done primarily outside of electoral politics and it was working.

Lessons for Today

  • Political and social movements can and should exist outside of electoral politics.
  • Electoral politics might complement the work being done by movement organizing, but it can never replace it. When voting is a tactic, it can be an effective tool. When voting is a strategy it is the death of social movements.
  • The social movements of the late 60s and early 70s were movements NOT non-profits. Social movements work on the root causes of injustice. Non-profits provide services to individuals who are facing a crisis. It’s no surprise that the rise of non-profits began just after the radical movements of the late 60s and early 70s.
  • Considering how much more money is being injected into electoral politics today (Billions) think of how that kind of money could support local and national movements. What if Unions gave the same kind of money to families living in poverty as they do to candidates? Not only would financial support for people likely result in an increase in union memberships, it would assist in building a larger base of support to engage in direct action to unionize places of employment all across the country.
  • Social and political movements should remain autonomous from political parties. Social and political movements that are tied to political parties end up having little say in party politics and their issues are often ignored by political parties because, “we have to focus on getting our people elected first.”
  • If social and political movements practiced a more intersectional analysis, it would allow them to see how their issues are interconnected and give them greater opportunity to collaborate on actions. The current abolish ICE/immigrant justice movement and the abolish prisons movement are essentially working towards the same goals and if their collective analysis saw how immigrant detention facilities and prisons were the same or how cops and ICE officials were essentially the same, they would be more likely to support each others struggle. We are seeing some of this now with the National Prison strike and the Abolish ICE movements. This is largely because these movements are being led by those most impacted, those who are currently prisoners and the immigrant communities.
  • Autonomous and independent social movements that engaged in direct action and demonstrated their power would ultimately force political parties to ask what they can do for these respective movements. Right now social movements are constantly being shamed by political parties to support their candidates and turn out their people to vote. If social movements were autonomous and demonstrated their power, political parties would be forced to seek out movements for their marching orders. Of course, if social movements were strong enough, we wouldn’t need political parties as we could eventually transform communities that no longer need representation or political parties which have made it clear that they only serve their own interests.



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