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Plan to block O’Hare resonates with 1968 protests, and not in a good way

Rev. Gregory Seal Livingston led a protest on Lake Shore Drive in August 2018 | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

What did sleeping in a city park have to do with ending the Vietnam War?

A lot, apparently.

To some people, that is a long time ago.

Many, actually, based on the thousands of protesters who insisted on occupying Lincoln and Grant parks, 50 years ago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which will be much in the public eye over the next week as it nears its Golden Anniversary. For four nights, protesters tried to stay in the parks past the 11 p.m. curfew, and the city sent police to clear them out.

OPINION

I wish interest were mere nostalgia for the days when hippies clashed with baby blue helmeted cops.

But instead it seems ripped from today’s headlines, like “Lake Shore Drive protest leader vows to shut down O’Hare traffic on Labor Day.”

The Rev. Gregory Livingston, who led protesters to shut down Lake Shore Drive Aug. 2, now plans to reprise his triumph on the highway leading to O’Hare International Airport on Labor Day, Sept. 3.

But before we consider that, let’s reflect a moment on that convention protest.

The Democrats were nominating benign political hack Hubert Humphrey, despite his not having run in a single primary. The Hump was expected to continue LBJ’s policy of miring us deeper into Vietnam. Young people, required to fight and die in that war, were not happy about this.

Had Mayor Richard J. Daley let them protest, violence could have been avoided. But he wanted to keep his city under control — his control — and squashed the protests, magnifying them.

Eventually, cities learned that a softer touch works far better. Which is why Rev. Michael Pfleger was allowed to shut down the Dan Ryan July 7, and Rev. Livingston could lead a tiny band of followers to close Lake Shore Drive. Because dragging them away would look bad.

Still, it’s hard to get enough of something that doesn’t work, and it’s tempting to continue blocking roads, the way the kids, clashing for three nights in August 1968, went full throated into the fourth. It wasn’t about the war anymore; it was about the protests.

Which leads us to the question: what does keeping travelers from getting to and from O’Hare have to do with solving urban woes?

Sun-Times ace Fran Spielman, of course, asked Livingston why he is doing this.

“It’s something that we need to get Rahm’s attention with,” he said. “We’re really following Gandhi’s pattern. Gandhi said, ‘First, they ignore you. Then, they laugh at you. Then, they fight you. Then, we win.’”

I would say we’re firmly in the “Then, they laugh at you” part of the equation. I had to hold back the urge to mockingly tweet, “Violence solved yet?” after the LSD shutdown. But I didn’t want to gloat over a well-intentioned effort to solve an enormous social problem. This isn’t funny.

The problem isn’t, at least. I’m not so sure about the protests. There is a jarring naiveté, what I call the “If only the czar knew” school of protest. If only Emanuel, sitting on his throne on the 5th floor of City Hall, a goblet of madeira in his fist, could have his languid attention drawn to the problem. If only a courtier would whisper in his ear: “O’Hare Airport, your eminence, is being blocked by a mob, who demand that violence end in the city.”

“Ah well, end violence then,” the mayor sighs, with a wave of his jeweled hand. “See that is done.”

Protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention did not gain sympathy for the anti-war movement. The opposite: they wedded it to an image of unwashed radicals spitting on cherished American values. One of the most cherished values today is getting to the airport on time. How thwarting that wins over one heart or mind, from Emanuel to the guy who can’t get to work to empty the garbage cans at Terminal Three, is a mystery.

Unable to end the war, the 1968 protesters found something they could do — stay in the parks past curfew — and pretended it was significant, even though the significance was they got beat up, Chicago looked bad, Nixon won, and the war went on for seven more years.

Violence is the cause and symptom of every other social problem. Solving it is complicated. Coming up with cheap symbolic theater that inconveniences a lot of folks won’t help the cause — it’ll make it even easier for unaffected Chicagoans to shrug the crisis off. And they do that already.