Mass Arrests Likely at Political Conventions: 6 Historical Precedents
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Between August 19 and 25, 1968, millions of Americans and people around the world watched dumbstruck as Chicago’s Democratic National Convention played out the great national debate over the Vietnam War. In addition to the hundreds of delegates, attendees and journalist at the convention, some 5,000 activists rallied against the Democratic Party’s pro-war stand.
Anti-war fever had been building for months. In February, the Pentagon’s great lie of invincibility was shattered in the Tet offensive. In April, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. And in June, Robert Kennedy, the leading antiwar candidate, was assassinated in Los Angeles.
Now, two months later, a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party was playing out. The incumbent, Lyndon Johnson, had decided to not run for a second term. Antiwar Dems inside the convention hall, led by Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern, fought the establishment Dems, led by Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Edward Muskie (D-ME), for control of the party.
Outside the hall, a force of 12,000 Chicago police, 7,500 Army troops and 6,000 National Guardsmen turned an expression of First Amendment assembly into a domestic war confrontation. Demonstrators heaved rocks and insults, the police used nightsticks, mace and tear gas to put down popular protest. The Yippee slogan, "The whole world is watching," had special resonance as many reporters, camera operators and bystanders were clubbed, beaten and arrested in what came to be known as a “police riot.” An estimated 700 were arrested.
6. WWII Internment. The nation’s most shameful episode in popular and governmental overreactions to a national-security crisis is the internment of 120,000 Japanese-American (Nisei) and Japanese aliens (Issei) during World War II. President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942 empowering the War Department to designate “military areas” and then exclude anyone from such areas it felt to be a threat. The principle “military area” was California; the principle “threat” was Japanese residents.
In April ‘42, people of Japanese ancestry, including those with only one-sixteenth Japanese blood, were given one week to settle outstanding personal accounts and appear for internment. As has been well documented, Japanese-Americans lost everything they couldn't carry with them, including their farms, shops and homes. The internment lasted until Japan’s surrender in 1945. Major camps were in California (Manzanar), but also in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming. In 1993, President Clinton apologized for the U.S. government’s unjust treatment of Japanese-Americans:
Today, on behalf of your fellow Americans, I offer a sincere apology to you for the actions that unfairly denied Japanese Americans and their families fundamental liberties during World War II.
In addition, 11,500 German, Italian and Latin Americans were interned. The U.S. government also arrested nearly 3,000 Japanese and Germans, along with 231 Italians, as possible enemy aliens. The internment program is the great shame of Franklin Roosevelt’s legacy.
These six episodes are not a complete list of the acts of popular assembly and mass arrest that have taken place in the U.S. since the nation’s founding. Rather, they are illustrative examples of how the power of the state, whether federal or local, can be mobilized to put down threatening forms of popular, domestic assembly.
Occasionally, the forces of state and corporate authority are surprised, their coordinate tyranny momentarily disrupted. Most recently, the unexpected defeat of MPAA-backed legislation to more forcefully police free speech on the Internet, SOPA and PIPA, shook up Washington insiders. In terms of direct action, the mass mobilization opposing the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999 was a game-changer. The forces of corp/state order were unprepared for what took place; 157 people were arrested and nearly all released for lack of probable cause or hard evidence.