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What a Riot Convention: Activists - ranging from anti-abortionists, ACT UP and PETA folks, to miffed fans of John Belushi - obediently wait their turn to protest. It's Chicago, but it sure isn't 1968.


CHICAGO -- True story: The first official protest at the Democratic National Convention this week starts late because the speaker has to move his car, lest he get a parking ticket. Whatever happened to civil disobedience?

Not that anyone in the press corps, which constitutes most of the audience at the protest site, seems to care. They are too busy trailing after the late Abbie Hoffman's son, Andrew, obligingly clad in an American flag shirt, just like his father used to wear, and giving interviews in a soft, hesitant voice, which is not like his father's. His issue? Soup kitchens.

"My foster daughter baby-sat his half-brother when they were in town for the trial in 1969," murmurs Marian Neudel, a lawyer for the Chicago People's Convention Coalition, standing only a few feet from where she was tear-gassed in 1968.

The trial, of course is the trial of the Chicago Seven, those indicted for conspiracy in the '68 riots -- Hoffman, Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, et al. The riots are virtually the only thing anyone remembers about the 1968 Democratic Convention, where television cameras recorded scene after scene of Chicago police officers beating hundreds of anti-war demonstrators. "The whole world is watching," the demonstrators chanted defiantly.

"We have really come full circle," Neudel says, smiling fondly at the younger Hoffman. Well -- yes and no. Hayden is a delegate, staying at the Hilton instead of leading riots outside it. If the whole world is watching anything, it's Hayden making the media rounds, reminiscing about '68. ("It's very painful," he told the "Today" show. "It's very, very painful.")

The city's mayor is Richard M. Daley. And Daley, mindful of the images that live on from the 1968 convention, decided on the oxymoronic, and now quite common convention practice, of planned protests.

Toward that end, the city set up two official protest areas -- the "nostalgic" site near the Chicago Hilton, which saw some of the worst rioting in '68, and a remote parking lot at the United Center, several miles due west, home to this year's gathering.

Groups then had to enter a lottery, drawing numbers that allowed them to pick their preferred hour. Exactly an hour, with 15-minute breaks between each group. Some groups complied, grumbling about the irony of bureaucratized protests. "I thought the lottery was king of odd" says lawyer Neudel, who represents the Chicago People's Convention Coalition, "but we drew good slots, so they told me not to say anything."

Others fought the city in court and won, such as Dr. Quentin Young, who treated the injured in '68 and simply wanted permission for his group to maintain a constant vigil outside the United Center. Backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, he won that right.

"I think the city over-reacted in its effort to have a tranquil, benign, untroubled four days," Young says in a telephone interview. "While that's a noble hope which I share, the facts are that's not compatible with free speech."

No lottery

Meanwhile, some groups, such as the Chicago Coalition Against Homelessness, passed on the lottery altogether.

"We have a major problem with sanitized protests that are meant to keep people quiet and orderly," says Les Brown, policy director for the coalition.

Instead Brown offers an alternative tour of Chicago's South Loop, where the coalition fears private development is crowding out affordable housing and single-room-occupancy hotels for transients. The tour's highlight? An under-construction development where townhouses "start" at $269,900 and offer up to seven bathrooms.

But it's not just the style of protest that has changed in 1996. It's the players, who are spread across a vast spectrum. There is no single issue here, as there was in 1968 with the Vietnam War. This feels more like aiming a remote at a cable system with nothing but public access channels.

Protest groups here include PETA, ACT UP, anti-abortion groups, the American Lung Association, the Lesbian Avengers of Chicago, the Cuban American Chamber of Commerce and B.L.U.E.S. (Belushi Lovers United to Establish a Stamp.) "He was funny," reads a half-page ad in the Monday Chicago Sun-Times, with a photo of Illinois-native John Belushi from his "Animal House" days. "Now give him a damn stamp."

Protesters blame the system for the absence of unity.

"The structure has fractionalized us," says Mike Durschmid, who delays railing against McDonald's so he can move his car. Durschmid would seem like a natural ally for PETA. But PETA is across town calling for special taxes on meat, while he's at Michigan and Balbo, talking about McDonald's libel suit against two Greenpeace members in London.

After the Chicago People's Convention Coalition starts its march on the United Center, the next group, United in Peace, draws a relatively large audience of almost 150. But that's because of the rap group, ZO-G, performing its latest song, "Bad Cops." As Chicago's finest stare impassively, the singers exhort the crowd to chant a sentiment about police officers that cannot be printed tTC here. The crowd complies happily and lustily. Asked if they plan to vote, their response is anemic.

How do the cops feel about this event, given the song and the street gangs behind United in Peace? "Who cares," says one, declining to give his name. There are persistent rumors that cops have been seen wearing T-shirts with the legend "I beat your father, and I can beat you," but the people who pass along this story have not actually seen the T-shirt.

Michigan and Balbo, with its proximity to Grant Park, at least offers passers-by and tourists. The official site at the United Center is decidedly off the beaten path, a parking lot that delegates and other convention-goers have to make a point of visiting. Although the official schedule shows steady demonstrations for most of the day, it is empty for vast stretches of time.

That's bad news for Fletcher McLean of Tampa, Fla., who had hoped to make money selling T-shirts here. "The highlight has been meeting Pat Paulsen and giving George Stephanopoulos one of our Crush Rush [Limbaugh] T-shirts," says McLean, who hit the road with Angela Wright and their dog, Max, earlier this summer, in search of a better place to live.

"We're pretty disappointed," Wright says, with a restraint and understatement unusual in this setting. Temporary metal barricades and a high fence separate them from Madison, the street leading to the United Center. Individual speakers are still further removed, confined behind blue police barricades.

Audience of none

Undeterred by the lack of an audience, Dan Martino, an anti-abortion activist from Altoona, Pa., drones through his spiel about fetuses and Vincent Foster, holding two baby dolls, one black, one white. Nearby, Jim Jordan, a Vietnam veteran from Houston and frequent Zoh Hieronimus guest, hands out leaflets on MIAs and POWS -- when he can find anyone to hand them to.

"We had a lot more access in San Diego," laments Eugene A. Delgaudio, executive director of the Falls Church, Va.-based Public Advocate of the U.S. Opposed to abortion and homosexuality, Delgaudio says he will do 10 "unofficial" appearances for every official one. He's already been thrown out of the Hyatt Regency twice.

It is now almost 3 p.m. and the Chicago People's Convention Coalition is finishing up its long trek between the protest sites, a journey that has taken almost three hours -- and made them miss their official protest time. But the rules are the rules and, after a brief encounter with the police, the coalition has to abandon its ad hoc protest around the protest site.

Back at Michigan and Balbo, a new group has taken the stage: the National Space Society. Jeffrey G. Liss is explaining why humans must continue space exploration. As he finishes his talk, someone from the audience has a question: Does space travel aggravate back pain? Maybe it's better if the whole world isn't watching this time.

Pub Date: 8/28/96

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