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Reenacting '68

Liam Warfield

Platypus Review 7 | October 2008

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The crowd assembled in a shady corner of Grant Park in the waning afternoon hours of August 28 might have been mistaken for extras in a poorly-funded period film. With clothes loosely evoking 60’s-era protest, they reclined in the grass, rolling cigarettes, eating peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, listening to speeches and gazing at the sky. It might have seemed a stretch to bill the event as a historical reenactment of the notorious 1968 Democratic National Convention protests — that long and bloody week in Chicago which has been discussed and picked over at length in this 40th anniversary year. The emblems of Chicago ’68 — wild-eyed police officers with nightsticks — were nowhere to be seen. Grant Park on that afternoon was more concerned with the action around the campfire than the savagery on the battlefield.

It might seem purely semantic that we insisted on considering the event a historical reenactment rather than a commemoration or a bit of theater, but for us this was an important distinction. As a group of young, largely inexperienced activists it was the only organizing framework we could find which emphasized active participation. Other forms seemed linguistically and ideologically flaccid; of course we could observe the anniversary, as people had been doing all summer, but this implied an insufficient (and appalling) detachment from the subject. We didn’t want to view our history—our radical history—as if from a riverbank, we wanted to jump in and splash around in it.

The reenactment of the 1968 Chicago DNC protests would be a curious project, difficult to plan, the shape of it abnormal and constantly shifting. Our purpose seemed perfectly obvious at times, entirely digestible—a historical reenactment of the ’68 DNC protests, that’s all—but at other times it seemed to bulge surrealistically in a thousand directions. Would we aim for some degree of historical accuracy, or would anything fly? We debated, for instance, the ethics of nominating a live pig for the presidency: what should we feed it, and where would it stay? Which would we feed the masses of reenactors, potato or pasta salad? And in the event of trouble with the police, what, among a stunning array of possible tactics, might prove our wisest course of action? We plotted and planned over the summer to the point of exhaustion; the minutiae multiplied endlessly. And yet, when pressed as to why we were attempting such a thing, we had no ready answer. It was soundbite-resistant, experimental, it called for deep breaths and meandering explanations.

Clearly this history had not yet been codified. It continued to elicit a variety of interpretations. A recent addition to the collection of books on ’68, Frank Kusch’s Battleground Chicago, attempted a cop's-eye view of the week’s event; academics and historians continued to tackle the subject from disparate angles, trying to come to grips with this jarring moment in modern American history when power and resistance grappled so publicly and with so much violence and fanfare. Our subject matter still was squirming, making it impossible to predict what shape a reenactment might take. We estimated an attendance of anywhere from 100 to 10,000 people—who could say how many Chicagoans knew or cared enough about the ‘68 convention to devote a day in the park to its exploration?—and we applied rather blindly for a permit from the Park District, treading lightly through their downtown office as if in an enemy lair; we contemplated a range of possible police responses, from utter indifference to full-scale riot. We solicited the advice of everyone from ‘60s-era activist-professors like Abe Peck and Bernadine Dohrn to freakniks like Ed Sanders, though few of these aging lions had much to offer beyond bemused encouragement.

What few of us predicted, in the midst of our fretting, was the cool and contemplative afternoon which ultimately unfolded. A small detail of bike police, having preemptively barricaded the iconic Logan statue from a possible storming, relaxed on the far periphery as local authors, filmmakers, activists and historians chewed over the meaning of the ‘68 convention’s legacy, and performers exhumed the ghosts of the DNC’s radical celebrity class, from Phil Ochs and the MC5 to Bobby Seale and Allen Ginsberg. I found myself delivering a surprisingly mild-tempered speech which called for the metaphorical sharing of blankets. Occasional pot fumes wafted across the crowd, no mere prop, and by twilight, after several hours of speech-making and folksinging, the ritual of mass meditation seemed almost capable of releasing us from the weight of this history. This release was something of an illusion, of course. The following week, protesters at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul were being tear-gassed and arrested by the hundreds, their homes and gathering places raided by teams from the Department of Homeland Security. The historic echoes were inevitable and maddening, the old Pstalemate so clearly still at work. It was difficult to reconcile what we’d accomplished — little more or less than a beautiful and thought-provoking afternoon in the park — with the ugly echoes of ‘68 emanating from the Twin Cities. If our reenactment, unpermitted and inherently anti-authoritarian, was a modest exercise in discovering what we could get away with in the public sphere, news from St. Paul came as a stern reminder of what we couldn’t get away with. A shady corner of Grant Park on a late-summer evening, they’d give us that, but to agitate outside of an actual political convention, with all of those television cameras on hand, would prove as unfeasible in 2008 as it was 40 years ago. Protesters in St. Paul were being summarily tear-gassed and jailed en masse, held (unconstitutionally) for the duration of the convention week to preclude further disruption. It was sobering to speculate that law enforcement might have learned more about stifling dissent, over the last 40 years, than demonstrators had learned about cultivating it.

We were asked several times, in the course of planning the event, whether it might lead to similar historical reenactments in the future. It was an understandable question to be asked by journalists, but it misses the point. The last thing we wanted, though we had a curious way of showing it, was to lose ourselves in yesterday’s near-revolutionary moments, to fetishize or serialize them for their own sake. We were more interested in comprehending their shortcomings; the fact that the ‘68 convention was followed shortly by the election of Richard Nixon and a marked increase in political repression served as a prominent footnote to our idyll in the park. The clear view of history which we were striving for would not illuminate, of its own accord, any paths forward. It might, we hoped, foster meaningful dialogue. |P

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