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 organizet 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 Chicago.”
“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 campaign.)
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 vacuum.
“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.”
Further reading: We’ve posted Rothenberg’s talk from the CANG8/Occupy Counter-Summit on Labor and Occupy: Insights from Wisconsin , which fleshes out some of the issues raised here.