High Times
December, 1996


The dog-and-pony show presented by the Democratic Party at their Chicago convention last summer tanked in the TV ratings nearly as badly as the Republican Convention preceding it. By the end of the week, the media were so bored they never bothered to cover a roundup of dissidents worthy of the original 1968 event. But Paul DeRienzo was there for HIGH TIMES.


 CHICAGO--When the Democrats came to Chicago last August for the recoronation of Bill Clinton, a heavy pall hung over the Windy City: The memory of the last time the Democrats came to the City by the Lake, when the policy e rioted under the orders of then-mayor Richard Alley Sr., and the cameras whirred. In those days the hippies and Yippies who were protesting the carnage in Vietnam chanted "The whole world is watching!" and as Hubert Humphrey was chosen to carry the party standard, the cameras showed democracy being murdered in the streets.

The Democrats returned 28 years later, and so did the demonstrators, but this time the whole world was not watching. The protests were almost as big as '68, and the issues--new wars, the homeless poor, the death penalty , political prisoners and the War on Drugs--were just as pressing, but the is time the straight media were busy gorging themselves on free food provided by the political hacks behind the safe and secure police lines surrounding the United Center. Yet in the streets of Chicago arrests were made, groups harassed, cameras smashed, film confiscated and protesters assaulted. But this time it was done behind a screen of carefully smiling, polite, even jovial police officers.

By the end of the week at least 24 people had been arrested and three hospitalized, including one TV cameraperson--and five organizers had been charged with "inciting mob action," a law that hasn't been used since 1969, when the Weather Underground staged their infamous "Days of Rage" protest here.

None of this was reported over TV or the wire services, which had also uniformly ignored a major protest march on Tuesday, Aug. 27, the second day of the convention, organized by original Chicago Seven veteran Dave Dellinger and American Indian Movement founder Vernon Bellecourt. Over 2,000 people marched to protest the imprisonment of Indian leader Leonard Peltier and death-row journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal; nothing was deemed worthy of straight-media coverage, even though a scuffle occurred in which a cop was hit by a thrown bottle. The arrests didn't start until Thursday, two days later, when the straight media's attention was concentrated solely on the President's televised acceptance speech (and the simultaneously breaking story of a sex scandal involving his closest political adviser).

The straight media could be forgiven for shunning the street protests, considering the treatment accorded alternative journalists who attempted to cover them. Countermedia, a local coalition of activist reporters and videographers, was targeted for harassment by the Chicago police throughout the week. On Thursday, Aug. 29, six videographers were arrested at a "Festival of the Oppressed" in Wicker Park, and at a confrontation between right-to-lifers and abortion-clinic defenders four more Countermedia people were busted, their cameras smashed and tapes confiscated. Asthe approved media prepared to cover Clinton's speech that night, cops raided the site of Active Resistance, a counterconvention conference organized by Autonomous Zone, a local activist outfit. Several people were pepper-sprayed and two hospitalized, according to eyewitnesses. Radio gear used to monitor police frequencies was confiscated. Police later denied to the Chicago Tribune that anything at all had happened, claiming , "Activists were posing as journalists, and the report of the raid was a hoax." (The Tribune, however, confirmed the pepper-gas hospitalizations.)

In the same afternoon, the arrests for "inciting mob violence" began. Robert MacDonald, organizer of the "Festival of Life" rallies in Grant Park, was taken away by city cops. Organizer Bonnie Tocwish was led away from a peace demonstration by a city Parks Department officer, surrounded by cops and busted.. Veteran Yippie dissident Ben Masel was informed of his felony "inciting" arrest while already in jail for crossing police lines i n an attempt to hand pamphlets to convention delegates. (Masel's pamphlet observed, quite reasonably, that Thomas Jefferson, the pot-growing revolutionary, would be eligible for capital punishment in today's United States.) The Rev. Ron Shupp, a celebrated Chicago pacifist who'd been leading chants to legalize ibogaine as an addiction treatment, was busted in his clerical collar. The fifth to be nailed on the charge was Mike Durshmid, a radical vegetarian with the Pure Food Campaign and McLibel, a group supporting British activists who are being sued by McDonald's for criticizi ng the nutritional value of its fast-food burgers and the environmental destruction caused by cattle ranching. (Two sound technicians from Rock Against Racism who'd been hauled away from Grant Park with Robert MacDonald were quickly released--some say because the authorities were careful not to let the magic number of Chicago political prisoners reach seven his time around.)

According to Jeff Haas, a lawyer with the People's Law Office in Chicago, the "inciting" arrests were clearly intended to take the protesters off the street to prevent a demonstration from upstaging the President's recoronation speech. (Which was upstaged anyway, on the tube, by the simultan eous hookers-in-the-White-House bombshell.) All five are charged, he notes, with the incident involving the police officer being struck by the flying bottle, which left a bruise on his chest.

Despite the setbacks and lack of media coverage, activists say they were witness to the birth of a new movement in Chicago, of young people filled with disgust at an unjust society. For many activists involved in the 104 protests, including 64 held without permits during the week of the convention, it's only a matter of the right issue to unite the various factions for the fire next time.