Editor’s Note-Balancing Act

Editor’s Note-Balancing Act

Beware of circumstances in which no one wins.

“The lobby stunk.” “The elevators worked abominably.” And there, in the Hilton Hotel, “present through all the dirty bandaged kids, the sour vomit odor of the Mace, the sighing and whining of the Army trucks, the wheezes and growls of the speakers, the blinking of lights . . . there was fear in every breath you took.”
—Norman Mailer, “The Siege of Chicago”

When Norman Mailer died last November, his eulogists most ardently praised his first novel, The Naked and the Dead, and his first major foray into first-person journalism, The Armies of the Night. His gifts of observation seemed never more acute, however, than in his book-length depiction (in Harper’s magazine) of events surrounding the 1968 Democratic Party Convention.

Mailer sometimes wrote with no more subtlety than the Louisville Sluggers still deployed, in 1968, in Chicago’s stockyards. But in “The Siege of Chicago,” he was able to use details—a whiff of gas, the grinding of a gear of a police vehicle, the stickiness of a floor—to convey the tension, confusion, and curettage of convention week.

The official Walker Report, entitled Rights in Conflict, concluded that a “police riot” took place outside the Chicago Amphitheater that week and tallied the casualties. The official arrest count for convention-week disturbances was 668. Hospitals reported treating 111 demonstrators, but medics for the Medical Committee for Human Rights estimated having treated more than a thousand on the streets. Sixty-three members of the media reported being beaten by police—at whom, the Walker Report said, demonstrators frequently spat and threw stones and urine. The police department reported 192 injuries among officers; 49 sought hospital treatment.

The impact of the convention was summarized deftly by Theodore White in his third Making of the President book: “In 1968, the name Chicago won significance far beyond date and place. It became a title of an episode, like Waterloo.” It was an episode that split the Democratic Party, enabled the election of Richard Nixon, embittered student protestors, and incited the anti-Vietnam War movement into increasing violence.

Oh, yes: It also harmed Chicago’s tourism industry. Within weeks, seven large organizations, including the American Sociological Association, canceled conventions that had been booked for Chicago, and others took Chicago out of consideration for conventions that were in planning stages.

As Tom Mason and Jack Gordon report in this month’s cover story (page 46), there are compelling reasons to host a political convention. Advance teams and the 45,000 delegates, guests, and reporters attending the convention are expected to spend $65 million here, and an additional $84 million is likely to be spent on security, transportation, communications, and various host committee operations. Moreover, every planner of large conventions will be watching—and reasoning that if a municipality can accommodate a national political party, it will be able to accommodate other large organizations.

But if events go badly, the cost can be high. Minneapolis has allocated only $200,000 to market the attractions of the Twin Cities to visitors, though we hope to have many of the convention’s 15,000 media representatives reporting on those amenities. They would be equally willing, however, to report on a shortage of taxis, confusion at the airport, or long lines at hotels—or on protesters being treated too roughly or constrained too inefficiently, which might be the week’s most difficult balancing act.

Do you remember the violent protests at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle? Of course you do, and that was nine years ago. Some of the same individuals—angry, nihilistic, willing to damage, determined to disrupt—will be in Minnesota next Labor Day.

In February, when St. Paul was taking applications for convention-week protest-rally permits, the city’s marketing director was quoted as saying, “We hope to accommodate as many people as logistically possible.” There are better things to hope for.