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The ghost of the 1968 antiwar movement has returned

The ghost of the 1968 antiwar movement has returned

This was a generation primed for protest, with moral conviction as the foundation of its outrage about the Vietnam War.

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Last Updated : 26 April 2024, 13:05 IST
Last Updated : 26 April 2024, 13:05 IST
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At the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, anti-Vietnam War protesters clashed with police officers — whose brutal role in the confrontation was later described by a federal commission as a “police riot” — hijacking the focus of the convention.

Those young demonstrators had come of age seeing continual — and effective — protests during the civil rights movement and national mourning after the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who a year earlier had staked out his opposition to the war, saying that while he wasn’t attempting “to make North Vietnam or the National Liberation Front paragons of virtue” he wanted to underscore his belief “that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money, like some demonic, destructive suction tube.” He said he was “compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor, and attack it as such.”

This was a generation primed for protest, with moral conviction as the foundation of its outrage about the Vietnam War — the first television war, one in which Americans could see the horrors of war, almost in real time — and the draft that saw around 2 million Americans conscripted during the era. The movement against it began mostly on college campuses and grew.

Of course, semesters end and students go home for the summer. But their opposition to the war didn’t end with the academic year. In the months leading up to the ’68 DNC, which took place in August, organizers planned a major protest, intended to be held regardless of whether it was sanctioned, drawing students from around the country. Before the convention, Rennie Davis, one of the organizers, told The New York Times, “No denial of a permit is going to prevent the tens of thousands of people who are coming to Chicago from expressing their convictions on these issues.”

This is all playing out again.

Young people, in particular, are following the Israel-Hamas war on social media and many are horrified by what they see. They’ve also grown up with protest movements — Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the Parkland, Florida, students’ gun control campaign — as the backdrop of their lives. More than 1,000 Black pastors have called on President Joe Biden to press for a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip. And we’re seeing antiwar protests spread across college campuses.

As in 1968, the semester will soon end and those students will leave for the summer, allowing more time and energy for their efforts to be focused on the DNC in Chicago in August.

Antiwar groups are already planning large protests at the convention. Hatem Abudayyeh of the U.S. Palestinian Community Network recently told The Chicago Tribune: “We’ll be marching with or without permits. This DNC is the most important one since 1968, also in Chicago, when Vietnam War protesters and the Black liberation movement organized mass demonstrations that were violently repressed.”

And you can see substantial support for their cause. Although the spring 2024 Harvard Youth Poll found that 18-to-29-year-olds tended to rate most other major issues, including inflation and immigration, as more important than the Israel-Palestine conflict, the survey found that “young Americans support a permanent cease-fire in Gaza by a five-to-one margin.” And according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday, 53% of Democrats oppose sending more military aid to Israel for its efforts in the war with Hamas.

There seems to be a sense in the Biden campaign that it can simply wait the protesters out, that passions will eventually fade and that Democratic voters will fall in line when we get closer to Election Day and the choice between Biden and Donald Trump becomes more stark.

That is a reckless gamble. The protesters and many voters are upset about something more than a regular matter of foreign policy. Many believe that they are witnessing a genocide aided and abetted by an American president whom they supported. They feel personally implicated in a conflict in which the death toll continues to rise, with no end in sight. This is a moral issue for them, and their position won’t be easily altered.

It isn’t easy to unsee the limp body of a dead child in a mother’s arms. It isn’t easy to unsee hungry people scrambling for cover when they come under fire. It isn’t easy to unsee the wreckage after a convoy of food aid trucks came under fire and several aid workers were killed. People have seen all those things on their TVs and phones.

On Oct. 7, about 1,200 people in Israel were killed and about 240 people were taken hostage in a Hamas attack. At this point in the war, more than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed and more than 77,000 have been wounded, according to local health officials, in an area with a population of only around 2 million people.

The numbers are staggering. The level of suffering is unacceptable. Young people will make that point clear this summer in Chicago.

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