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This Weekend in 1968

This Weekend in 1968: Democratic National Convention

John Moe

Ann Heppermann

Kara Oehler

Suzie Lechtenberg

Larger view
Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy supporters
(Steve Schapiro)

James Jasper: Well, protest today is quite a bit better organized. There is a lot of negotiation now with the police in advance. There is a lot of negotiation over permits; over where people can protest without being arrested.

We saw this, for example, in New York four years ago at the Republican convention. There were a lot of constraints placed on the protesters about where they could march, where they could be. They couldn't be too close to the convention center, and so on.

So there is a lot of work that goes into a protest beforehand now. I think people now are simply less angry, less upset than protesters were in 1968.

John Moe: Well, then which came first? Are they less upset and so they enter into these negotiations and kind of a partnership with police, or are they less upset because all this planning is taking place?

Jasper: I think both. More the latter though. I think people realize now that getting out of hand, having confrontations with the police, really doesn't help you much in the long run.

In '68, a lot of people really thought that there could be a revolution in this country. When I say a lot of people, I mean a lot of the protesters; a fairly small proportion of the U.S. population.

Now I think a fairly larger proportion of the U.S. population has had experience with protests. They have marched. They have been parts of rallies. So I think they have a more realistic view of what a social movement, a protest movement, could do.

Moe: So what does that mean in terms of the goal of a protest now as opposed to in years past?

Jasper: Well, I think the goals really are more moderate now. The purpose of a protest now really is to put pressure on politicians and people within the system. The purpose is not to break down the system in some way or shut down the system.

So I think people want smaller reforms. They want to have a voice that is heard. Whether or not anything really does happen, it is satisfying to take a stand and show other people that you really care. That is a big part of what protest is about.

You especially want to show politicians that you care; that there is a constituency out there for some position or other.

Moe: It sounds a lot like a letter writing campaign. I mean, it sounds much more genteel in its approach.

Jasper: It is. Now, this has its limits, of course. Throughout U.S. history, protesters have gotten what they wanted even more often when they really shut down the economic system or blocked a city and kept it from functioning properly.

So moderation has its costs. There is a trade-off there.

Moe: What were the big events in the last 40 years that changed the institution of protest?

Jasper: I would say there has been two large changes. One has been kind of normalization of protest. Police are better trained, so they are less likely to start a fight with protesters. Protesters themselves have been kind of trained to cooperate with police.

Protest is a more normal thing now than it was 40 years ago. We have seen a lot of it in the last 40 years. That is a big factor.

One thing also that has changed is that the right has mobilized, largely in reaction to the events of the '60s. We have seen a huge organization by the religious right, the anti-abortion movement, and a backlash against feminism.

So now when you talk about protest movements or event protests, it is as likely to be organized by the right than by the left.

Moe: What role do you expect protest is going to have in Denver and St. Paul this time around? What are you looking for?

Jasper: Well, I don't think it is going to get so much media attention, and I don't think it is going to have so much effect on either political party, in part because there is no real choice that either party is facing over who their candidate will be, who their nominee will be.

So there are not a lot of issues up for grabs. I don't see any points of leverage where protest could make much of a difference this year.

Moe: And how are they being handled in terms of the free speech zones and the caged-off areas far away from where the convention is taking place? What will protest look like at these conventions this time?

Jasper: Well, because of that, it might be quite tame. If it is not right there at the convention center, it tends not to get as much coverage by the media. So I think the police have learned quite well how to control protest.

What this means for the future is that protesters may simply have to find other ways to protest and break out of the kinds of things they have been doing for decades now, which is negotiating with police, getting the right permits and going where the police tell them to.

They may have to become more radical in the future to have an effect and break out of these kinds of constraints.

Moe: So do you forecast that we are heading down a more orderly path with protest or a more disorderly path?

Jasper: I know better than to make any clear predictions of any kind about the future. At some point, someday, protesters are going to figure out how to break out of the orderly path we are going down now. When that will be, I wouldn't want to guess. Over what issue, I wouldn't want to guess. But, someday, that is going to have to happen.

Moe: James Jasper, thanks for talking with us.

Jasper: Oh, it has been my pleasure.

More stories from our This Weekend in 1968 series

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