Protest Then & Now: Police Activity
Both the 2008 Republican National Convention (RNC) and the 1968 Democratic National Convention (DNC) resulted in a large number of arrests as protesters clashed with law enforcers on city streets. How did police activity vary between the two conventions? How did protest activity—both legal and illegal—impact the police?
Protesters and Police: Then
At the 1968 Convention, the Chicago police arrested 589 people, including protesters, press members and passersby. Just as in New York City in 2004, police forces had anticipated violence. Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley fortified city law enforcers with thousands of U.S. Army and Illinois National Guard troops. The Convention headquarters was surrounded by barbed wire, and volunteers and tourists were removed from the nearby sidewalks.
Protesters antagonized police, hurling curses as well as bricks and bottles, and protest activity included planned marches as well as more impromptu activities, such as the lowering of an American flag to the ground during a legal rally in Grant Park. The police responded with tear gas, Mace and in some cases, billy clubs. A report on the DNC, later issued by the Chicago Study Team, deemed that the protesters’ “extremely obscene language was a contributing factor to the violence.”
The Chicago police came under heavy criticism for what some considered an excessive use of force, and the DNC was labeled a “police riot.” For demonstrators and police supporters alike, the 1968 Convention, much like the 2004 Convention, remained a divisive event that signified the country’s deep political ruptures.
Protesters and Police: Now
The 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota involved large-scale protests, organized and attended by members of hundreds of groups and thousands of individuals and accompanied by heavy police activity. Before the start of the Convention, police performed mass preemptive raids of homes and other sites across the Twin Cities, arresting five people and handcuffing and questioning more than 100 members of organizations that were planning protest activity. Protestors camped across the Mississippi on Harriet Island were also evicted. These controversial raids were criticized, not only by protestors, but also by city council members.
On Monday, September 1, the 2008 RNC’s opening day, more than 280 protesters were arrested, including several prominent journalists who were conducting interviews and covering the events for the press. Amy Goodman, host of the Democracy Now! television and radio program, was arrested while she was inquiring about the arrests of two colleagues. An anti-war march organized by the Coalition to March on the RNC and Stop the War, attended by more than 10,000 protesters, proceeded peacefully, with more than 2,000 law enforcement officials from federal, local and state levels manning the parade route in riot gear. But a smaller sub-protest devolved into violence as demonstrators and police clashed. Republican delegates were attacked and protesters threw bottles and broke windows. Police responded by spraying teargas and rubber bullets.
By the last afternoon of the RNC, 452 people had been arrested, as opposed to the 1,806 arrested at the 2004 RNC in New York City. The aftermath of the 2008 arrests were reflective of the current political climate: eight of the RNC Welcoming Committee protesters were charged with conspiracy to riot. But unlike the Chicago 10 in 1968, these protesters were the first to be charged under the state’s version of the federal PATRIOT Act, along with conspiracy to riot and the intent to further terrorism.