Anti-War March at the DNC: But Where Were the People?

August 27, 2008

I happen to live in Denver, and recently was tapped by a local community radio station dnc.kgnu.org to report on the news during the Democratic National Convention (DNC) (For an audio version of this post, see here ). This position means that for the past weeks, and all during the DNC itself, I have been attending community meetings, reporting on demonstrations, interviewing delegates, and witnessing the DNC program at Denver’s various convention sites.

But if the street demonstrators had their way, none of the thousands of journalists in Denver for the DNC would be covering the events inside the staged convention hall at all—rather we would all be covering the drama in the street as tens of thousands of demonstrators showed up in Denver to shut the whole show down.

Protestors Call For Action

On the website of dncdisruption08.org, the street activists issued their call to action.

Unconventional Action’s strategy at the Democratic National Convention will hold the Democratic Party accountable for promoting unjust policies: environmental degradation, the enforcement of arbitrary borders, attacks on the poor, complacency in war, and racist policing.

We will expose to the nation that the Democrats and Republicans are two sides of the same coin, both parties funded by the same corporations and upholding the same unjust political system which fails to meet the needs of the vast majority of people. Anarchists and Anti-Authoritarians are urged to engage in a broad variety of tactics to disrupt fundraising events and prevent Democratic delegates from voting for no-choice candidates. Unconventional Action will honor and support autonomous actions while coordinating a highly publicized assault on the pageantry, violence, and abuses of the Democrats and the two-party capitalist system.


Unconventional Action will target a variety of the 1,500 proposed fundraisers, countless delegate hotels, and designated institutions perpetuating global injustice. Using space reclamation, street theatre, direct confrontation, positive action, and a broad array of other tactics, we will force the national media to question the Democratic Party’s failures, hold Democratic candidates accountable for their abuses of power, and engage in
direct actions that reflect our ultimate goals of joy and liberation through creativity and confrontation.

As demonstrators organized throughout the summer of 2008, preparing for the coming convention, they predicted that 25,000-50,000 demonstrators would descend on Denver, committed to public demonstrations on the scale of the 1960s , to force the Democratic party to recognize the anti-war community in America, the crisis of global warming, the shame of sweatshops.

Bad Portents and Dismal Protests

But as I talked to delegates arriving in Denver for the DNC, I heard bad portents for the upcoming protests. On Saturday, I asked a superdelegate from Wisconsin , chairman of the DNC youth council, about his thoughts on demonstrations by groups such as recreate 68, and he answered bluntly: “never heard of them.”

Here in Denver we’ve heard plenty about such groups, and their plans to disupt the convention. Some of the demonstration leaders estimated 50,000 people would show up for Sunday’s anti-war march. The local dailies predicted 10,000 would show.

But come Sunday morning of the march, the anti-war crowd simply didn’t show. Only about 1000 showed —at least 10 times smaller than predicted. The anti-war demonstrators called for the voice of the people, but only found the voice of a few friends.

Where Were the People?

What can account for such a result? Where were the people?

As I wandered throughout the crowd of demonstrators, the answer was almost always the same—it was the paranoid fear-mongering of Denver city officials, and overblown police presence: the officials made people scared to come downtown (see reports of the action here (click link for Monday 08/25) and at dnc.kgnu.org). Or just watch these clips and look for the police…


Others suggested that the low turnout reflected the fact that the Iraq War has lost its urgency. Both parties now talk about timelines for withdrawal, fatalities are down, and domestic economic crisis has trumped other concerns. People just aren’t paying attention to the war.

Both of these reasons play a part in accounting for Sunday’s surprisingly low turnout—but the most important reason why demonstrators did not “Recreate 68”— is simply because it is NOT, any longer, 1968.

2008 is not 1968

In 1968, the Democratic nomination was entirely decided by Superdelegates—the popular vote in the primary was meaningless—and when the anti-war votes of millions in the primary were ignored by insider Democrats committed to the Humphrey, the war candidate—you can bet it catalyzed a street anger that can’t be matched today, when the popular vote is decisive in choosing the Democratic nominee.

In 1968, 18-20 year olds couldn’t even vote, though they were being drafted to fight and die in Vietnam. A lot of those young people showed up in Chicago—and registered their discontent in the streets, as the ballot-box was off limits.

In 2008, 18 year olds can vote, and they turned out in record numbers during the primaries—voting for Obama 4-1 over Clinton. Now that he’s the nominee, on the strength of the youth vote—it’s no surprise that young energy has been diverted from the streets, into the party.

And speaking of the draft. In 1968 they had one; in 2008 we don’t.

In 1968, King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated and the party fell apart while the street exploded. In 2008, the Kennedy of our day is leading the party, while the street seeks direction.

Is 2000 1960?

In fact, 2008 looks more like the hopeful 1960 than like the angry 1968. In 1960 as in 2008, the progressive hopes and youthful energy of a nation centered on the Democratic Party and its charismatic leader, and the party had not yet proved bankrupt.

Barack will likely win this election as Kennedy did, as the hopes of the left wrap themselves into the Democratic party rather than into the passion of the street. If Obama wins, he and his party will have their chance to respond to the national call for change. Will Obama fail? Will the party that captured the hopes of a record number of primary voters prove bankrupt? Will the hopeful “yes we can” of 2008 become the disastrous Democratic disintegration of 1968? Obama will likely win this election–And then we, and the street, will see.