From the ashes of history, a new leadership class arises

The Baltimore Sun

An eerily resonant documentary throws us back to the tumultuous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.

One thinks about how far we've come as a nation. The threat to democracy endures, but the days of rage are gone, replaced by a sudden confidence that changing the system peacefully is possible.

The documentary, Chicago 10, directed by Brett Morgen, replays the utterly frightening spectacle of what officials later called a police riot. Blue-helmeted Chicago cops - shown on national television - wading into demonstrators, swinging truncheons with the apparent objective of bloodying as many heads as possible.

There is footage of Mayor Richard J. Daley issuing his shoot-to-kill order. His police may have guaranteed the defeat of his party's candidate, Hubert H. Humphrey, and the election of Republican Richard M. Nixon.

In a discussion after the film, shown recently at Cinema Sundays at the Charles Theatre, several viewers suggested that America needs another round of demonstrations in the name of democracy and the power of the people. This time, the target would be those leaders who enable or sanction waterboarding, warrantless wiretapping and pre-emptive war.

The movie's disturbing images prompted a reflective look at the United States 40 years later. This time, it seems, change might be possible without a kind of generational civil war.

A black man, Sen. Barack Obama, seems on the brink of winning the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. A woman, Sen. Hillary Clinton, has until recently been the front-runner in this race. Neither fact was imaginable 40 years ago.

Equally arresting is the apparent surge of interest in politics among younger Americans - presumably that demographic most likely to storm barricades. The young men and women who are working for these two candidates are the descendants (generally) of those who swarmed over monuments in Chicago, slept illegally in city parks and marched into the flurry of batons.

The current generation of young democrats (note the small D) apparently believes it is possible for "the system" to honor the sentiments - and the votes - of the people. That trust in the possibility of change from within did not exist among many in this country in the 1960s.

Democratic Party leaders are listening. Party elders, including several from Maryland, are caucusing, at least informally, to think about how to guarantee that the will of the voters is not plowed under by old-time, backroom decision-making.

Coming off a two-term president who didn't win a majority of the popular vote, the system appears desperately in need of change. Unhappiness with George W. Bush's presidency and the war in Iraq has stoked the boilers.

But there seems to be something greater at work. Baltimore Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and others have called it a movement.

What was happening in the 1960s was a movement, too, but it was based on mistrust. Again, this one seems to thrive on a feeling that change is possible within the system - that smart, energetic young people can handle politics as smoothly as they have mastered the new technology.

Youth will be served, we are told, and there is evidence in many areas of public life. At the University of Maryland School of Law, something called the Katrina Project has become a rite of passage. Over the last three years, an increasing number of students have worked in the Louisiana court system, helping ease a backlog of cases built up even before the big storm.

Lawyers, these students insist, are members of a helping profession. They are not driven - not all of them, anyway - by the prospect of big money. They've grown up in a time when the ads insisted, "Image is everything," but they apparently think image, too, can change.

On college campuses around the nation, moreover, volunteerism is in. Large numbers of students sign up for an array of community projects. This was true in the 1960s as well, on campuses such as the Johns Hopkins University and Morgan State. Students led their elders on a march toward fairness and hope for a better future.

It's happening again.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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