What a Riot Convention: Activists - ranging from anti-abortionists, ACT UP and PETA folks, to miffed fans of John Belushi - obediently wait their turn to protest. It's Chicago, but it sure isn't 1968.

August 28, 1996|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

CHICAGO -- True story: The first official protest at the Democratic National Convention this week starts late because the speaker has to move his car, lest he get a parking ticket. Whatever happened to civil disobedience?

Not that anyone in the press corps, which constitutes most of the audience at the protest site, seems to care. They are too busy trailing after the late Abbie Hoffman's son, Andrew, obligingly clad in an American flag shirt, just like his father used to wear, and giving interviews in a soft, hesitant voice, which is not like his father's. His issue? Soup kitchens.

"My foster daughter baby-sat his half-brother when they were in town for the trial in 1969," murmurs Marian Neudel, a lawyer for the Chicago People's Convention Coalition, standing only a few feet from where she was tear-gassed in 1968.

The trial, of course is the trial of the Chicago Seven, those indicted for conspiracy in the '68 riots -- Hoffman, Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, et al. The riots are virtually the only thing anyone remembers about the 1968 Democratic Convention, where television cameras recorded scene after scene of Chicago police officers beating hundreds of anti-war demonstrators. "The whole world is watching," the demonstrators chanted defiantly.

"We have really come full circle," Neudel says, smiling fondly at the younger Hoffman. Well -- yes and no. Hayden is a delegate, staying at the Hilton instead of leading riots outside it. If the whole world is watching anything, it's Hayden making the media rounds, reminiscing about '68. ("It's very painful," he told the "Today" show. "It's very, very painful.")

The city's mayor is Richard M. Daley. And Daley, mindful of the images that live on from the 1968 convention, decided on the oxymoronic, and now quite common convention practice, of planned protests.

Toward that end, the city set up two official protest areas -- the "nostalgic" site near the Chicago Hilton, which saw some of the worst rioting in '68, and a remote parking lot at the United Center, several miles due west, home to this year's gathering.

Groups then had to enter a lottery, drawing numbers that allowed them to pick their preferred hour. Exactly an hour, with 15-minute breaks between each group. Some groups complied, grumbling about the irony of bureaucratized protests. "I thought the lottery was king of odd" says lawyer Neudel, who represents the Chicago People's Convention Coalition, "but we drew good slots, so they told me not to say anything."

Others fought the city in court and won, such as Dr. Quentin Young, who treated the injured in '68 and simply wanted permission for his group to maintain a constant vigil outside the United Center. Backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, he won that right.

"I think the city over-reacted in its effort to have a tranquil, benign, untroubled four days," Young says in a telephone interview. "While that's a noble hope which I share, the facts are that's not compatible with free speech."

No lottery

Meanwhile, some groups, such as the Chicago Coalition Against Homelessness, passed on the lottery altogether.

"We have a major problem with sanitized protests that are meant to keep people quiet and orderly," says Les Brown, policy director for the coalition.

Instead Brown offers an alternative tour of Chicago's South Loop, where the coalition fears private development is crowding out affordable housing and single-room-occupancy hotels for transients. The tour's highlight? An under-construction development where townhouses "start" at $269,900 and offer up to seven bathrooms.

But it's not just the style of protest that has changed in 1996. It's the players, who are spread across a vast spectrum. There is no single issue here, as there was in 1968 with the Vietnam War. This feels more like aiming a remote at a cable system with nothing but public access channels.

Protest groups here include PETA, ACT UP, anti-abortion groups, the American Lung Association, the Lesbian Avengers of Chicago, the Cuban American Chamber of Commerce and B.L.U.E.S. (Belushi Lovers United to Establish a Stamp.) "He was funny," reads a half-page ad in the Monday Chicago Sun-Times, with a photo of Illinois-native John Belushi from his "Animal House" days. "Now give him a damn stamp."

Protesters blame the system for the absence of unity.

"The structure has fractionalized us," says Mike Durschmid, who delays railing against McDonald's so he can move his car. Durschmid would seem like a natural ally for PETA. But PETA is across town calling for special taxes on meat, while he's at Michigan and Balbo, talking about McDonald's libel suit against two Greenpeace members in London.

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