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1968 Democratic National Convention Violence
Demonstrators clashed with police and National Guardsmen in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Michael Boyer/AP

Students Are Protesting. The Democratic Convention Is in Chicago. Is This Another 1968?

Activists, convention planners and historians say there are key differences between what’s happening now and the uproar that took over the DNC in 1968.

On Tuesday night, New York riot police shut down the roads around Columbia University and sent hordes of officers into a campus building students had occupied the previous day. Earlier in the day, administrators had promised to expel students who had trespassed Hamilton Hall. Across the country, police removed student protesters from an occupied campus building in California. Both occupations followed hundreds of arrests of student protesters on campuses across the country over the last month. And in 110 days, the Democratic National Convention is scheduled to gavel into session.

Add up the number of campus arrests and occupations with the number of days, multiply by the X factor that the convention is being held in Chicago, and an increasing number of pundits and political observers are coming up with the same figure: 1968.

They should go back and check their math, say organizers of the convention, organizers of the massive protest planned for outside of it, as well as historians. The swell of anti-war and civil rights protests that subsumed campuses, the American left, and ultimately the Democratic Party ahead of the 1968 election is a ready comparison for a certain type of doom-minded observer. But the new protest movement is different, organizers and historians say. Chicago is different. And national politics are different.

David Farber, professor of modern U.S. history at the University of Kansas and the author of “Chicago ’68” — which was published in 1988 — said he’s seen a bump in interest from reporters lately. The mythology is back, he told NOTUS. For Democrats, it’s a fable about what could go wrong for them in 2024.

“There was so much anger and fear. A lot of people had fallen away from the possibility of the Democratic Party solving the problems that they wanted fixed,” he said of the convention that exposed the warring factions within the party that controlled the White House. “There’s a stupid element to that because obviously Richard Nixon was going to be much worse, not better, than Hubert Humphrey on anything and everything those people cared about.”

“So there’s the rhyme with today,” Farber said.

The 1968 revival has been “good for the product,” he joked. But he said he didn’t see many real parallels between then and now.

“The student protests, the anti-Israel movement, certainly doesn’t have the numbers that the anti-war movement had by August of 1968,” he said. “It’s kind of apples and oranges.”

The current protests have drawn news coverage and the attention of politicians. A Harvard poll of voters aged 18-29 released last week found respondents broadly agreed with the campus condemnations of President Joe Biden’s policy toward Israel since the Gaza war began. However, few ranked the issue as among the most pressing when thinking about their vote.

The nature of the current anti-war protest movement is also much different than in 1968, said Heather Hendershot, professor at Northwestern University School of Communication. In 2022, she published “When the News Broke: Chicago 1968 and the Polarizing of America,” which in part details the media strategies of the principal players involved in the ’68 convention and where they succeeded and failed.

Campus Protests Columbia Echoes of 1968
New York City police rush toward student protesters at Columbia University in 1968. Dave Pickoff/AP

Some have criticized protesters in the collections of tents on campuses in 2024 for a cautious and standoffish attitude toward the press. At Columbia last week, protesters among the tents all declined interviews, directing NOTUS to specific students chosen by the group to act as spokespeople with an approved message. (One of those approved spokespeople was later disavowed by fellow Columbia protesters after the discovery of violent rhetoric he posted to social media.)

There’s some indication that the 2024 anti-war protesters want to organize for the upcoming Democratic National Convention. This week, a coalition of activist groups operating under the banner March on the DNC 2024 filed a lawsuit alleging that permit rules barring protests from outside the arena where party delegates will meet violated the First Amendment.

Faayani Aboma Mijana, a spokesperson for the marchers, said they intend to go ahead with or without a permit. The group has in the past promised to make sure marchers are heard, even if that annoys or offends Democratic Party members. But Mijana told NOTUS that whatever goes down, the group is planning a “family-friendly” event.

“We intend to have families at this protest so that people can bring their kids and the elderly and undocumented can be in attendance,” they said. “That’s our focus.”

That’s not what it was like in 1968, Hendershot said. Disparate political groups that disagreed about exactly how to protest and what message to send created a chaotic approach, including when it came to the press.

“The hippies and yippies, especially the yippies … they were publicity hounds,” Hendershot said. The early signs from 2024 protesters are of “a very different tactic,” she said.

“Are they having a festival of love? The kind of stuff that happened in ’68?” she said. “Allen Ginsberg was there trying to get the police to take their clothes off and chant ‘ohm,’ which he thought would bring order to the world, right? That vibe is not here.”

Inside the convention could be very different too. It wasn’t just protesters outside who marched — Democrats inside battled with each other over the Vietnam War with withering speeches and marches on the convention floor. The “uncommitted” movement has won some delegates, ostensibly to take the anti-war message into the convention hall, but there have already been some divisions among “uncommitted” organizers, with some saying that now that the primaries are over, they need to support Biden.

The biggest difference between 1968 Chicago and 2024 Chicago might be the Democrats who run the city. Farber, Hendershot and Mijana all said they viewed Mayor Brandon Johnson as a very different politician than Richard Daley, the mayor who promised to keep law and order in 1968 and oversaw violent police crackdowns on protesters.

Mayors have less power over a convention than they used to, thanks to a ’90s law that put the federal government in charge of security at political conventions, deemed National Special Security Events. But Johnson has repeatedly signaled that he does not want clashes like the ones in the 1960s.

“The mayor during that particular time vs. me; we’re two different individuals,” Johnson told CNN recently. “What I’ve called for, from my police department, is to make sure we are working towards de-escalation. That is the primary goal there, is again, to keep protesters safe but also to ensure that their voices and their First Amendment is protected.”

“We’re not going to stop any protests,” said a source familiar with Mayor Johnson’s office’s thinking. “We believe in the First Amendment.”

The source said that there’s been high-level collaboration with public safety officials in the city to maintain the safety of conventiongoers and residents, including conversations between the mayor’s office and law enforcement. Chicago’s city council also passed an ordinance to create security zones around the convention venue.

“We’re going to make sure there’s no violent turns while also protecting the rights to peace and the right to protest things,” the source said.

Johnson, a former organizer turned politician, is sympathetic to the plight of Gaza and the multitude of emotions around the issue, the source added. In January, the Chicago city council called for a cease-fire, with Johnson himself acting as the tie-breaking vote.

The mayor’s office has also been working in lockstep with the Democratic National Convention Committee, said a person familiar with convention planning. The person said the DNCC is still “thinking through” security measures but praised the current collaboration.

“Johnson has been a great partner. We have a really good integrated system,” they said, between Johnson’s office, the police department and the convention itself.

In releases leading up to the convention, organizers have emphasized party unity and shouted out Chicago’s diversity as representing the “story of America,” presenting an image of welcoming all parts of the sometimes raucous Democratic coalition.

“You want to respect people’s rights to protest,” the person familiar with convention planning said. “I think we’re talking about a small universe of people who want to be disruptors. But we feel confident that with the city of Chicago and our security plan that we’ll be able to secure the convention, but then also give protesters their right to the freedom of speech … without it becoming a bloodbath.”

Evan McMorris-Santoro and Jasmine Wright are reporters at NOTUS.