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David Frum: The Plot to Wreck the Democratic Convention

David Frum Atlantic Article
Thought Leader: David Frum
April 29, 2024
Written by: David Frum

Article by WWSG exclusive thought leader, David Frum.

Opponents of the Iraq War gathered to disrupt the Republican National Convention in 2004. Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in New York City; some put the total as high as 200,000. A minority of the protesters disregarded police lines. More than 1,800 people were arrested.

Yet the convention itself proceeded exactly as planned. President George W. Bush was renominated, and subsequently won reelection. In so doing, he became the only Republican presidential candidate to win a popular-vote majority in the 35 years since the end of the Cold War. In 2014, New York City paid $18 million to settle the legal claims of people who contended that they had been wrongly swept up in the 2004 convention arrests.

Some radical opponents of President Joe Biden hope they will have better success disrupting the Democratic National Convention in Chicago this year. They imagine they can do to a political convention what they have done at America’s prestige universities. They are almost certainly deluding themselves.

Biden’s opponents have based their plans on a folk memory of events in 1968. For The Free Press, Olivia Reingold and Eli Lake reported from an activist planning meeting: “‘Have you heard that the Democratic National Convention is coming to Chicago?’ [a leader] asks the crowd. ‘Are we going to let ’em come here without a protest? This is Chicago, goddamn it—we’ve got to give them a 1968 kind of welcome.’”

In 1968, a poorly disciplined Chicago police force brutalized protesters and journalists in front of television cameras. The horrifying images symbolized a year of political upheaval that smashed forever the New Deal coalition of pro-segregation, conservative white southerners; unionized workers; northern ethnic-minority voters; and urban liberals. A Republican won the presidency in 1968—and then again in four of the next five elections.

Exactly why the utterly self-defeating tumult of Chicago ’68 excites modern-day radicals is a topic I’ll leave to the psychoanalysts. For now, never mind the why; let’s focus on the how. Is a repeat of the 1968 disruption possible in the context of 2024? Or is the stability of 2004 the more relevant precedent and probable outcome?

From 1968 to today, responsibility for protecting political conventions has shifted from cities and states to the federal government. This new federal responsibility was formalized in a directive signed by President Bill Clinton in 1998. The order created a category of “National Special Security Events,” for which planning would be led by the Secret Service.

National Security Special Events draw on all the resources of the federal government, including, if need be, those of the Defense Department. In 2016, the federal government spent $50 million on security for each of the two major-party conventions.

Those funds enabled Cleveland, the host of the 2016 Republican convention, to deploy thousands of law-enforcement personnel. Officers were seconded from across Ohio, and from as far away as Texas and California. Federal funds paid for police to be trained in understanding the difference between lawful and unlawful protest, and to equip them with body cameras to record interactions with the public. The city also used federal funds to buy 300 bicycles to field a force that could move quickly into places where cars might not be able to go, and that could patrol public spaces in a way that was more approachable and friendly.

In the end, the convention was mostly orderly and peaceful—despite the presence of civilians taking advantage of Ohio’s open-carry laws to bear rifles around town. A rare moment of public-order drama was recorded on the second-to-last day of the convention, when about 200 officers faced a small group that tried to burn an American flag. One of the protesters inadvertently set his own pants on fire. A police officer was recorded yelling, “You’re on fire, you’re on fire, stupid!” The man pushed away officers as they doused the flames and was arrested for assault.

At the Democratic convention in Philadelphia in 2016, police negotiated ways of permitting peaceful protest with demonstrators. At one point, dissident Bernie Sanders supporters tried to breach the convention perimeter. More than 50 were arrested; most were released without charge.

The mostly virtual conventions of the pandemic year 2020 attracted fewer demonstrators. At the one-day Republican convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, police had little difficulty turning back protesters who tried to breach the convention’s perimeter. At the Democratic convention in Milwaukee, demonstrators apparently did not even try to force a breach; instead, they marched up to the security perimeter, made speeches, then marched away again.

The widespread recent pro-Palestinian protests on university campuses have been distinguished by more rule-breaking than the convention protests of the past two cycles. But campuses are special places, lightly policed and weakly governed. Pro-Palestinian protesters have proved considerably more circumspect when they march in places where laws of public order are upheld.

On January 13, 2024, a protest sponsored by American Muslim groups drew thousands to Washington, D.C., culminating in demonstrations at the White House. Only two people were arrested. Many more arrests occurred on January 16, when a group sponsored by the Mennonite Church trespassed inside the Capitol’s Cannon House office building, but that protest involved old-fashioned civil disobedience—lawbreaking that did not threaten injury to anyone, followed by peaceful acceptance of arrest.

Pro-Palestinian groups have blocked bridges in some U.S. cities to stall traffic. But this tactic, too, has depended on tacit permission from the authorities. The 80 pro-Palestinian demonstrators arrested for halting traffic on San Francisco’s Bay Bridge in November 2023 escaped criminal convictions by each accepting five hours of community service. That leniency was more or less an open invitation to try it again, which they did on the Golden Gate Bridge in April.

In this country and in Europe, some have inflicted criminal violence against Jewish people. Just last week, for example, French media reported on the case of a Jewish woman in France who was allegedly kidnapped, raped, and threatened with murder by a man who told her that he sought to “avenge Palestine.” At a protest in California in November 2023, a pro-Palestinian protester inflicted fatal injuries on a Jewish man. But these crimes have occurred in the absence of police, not—as at a national political convention—in front of thousands of officers.

Where faced with clear rules backed by effective enforcement, pro-Palestinian protests on this side of the Atlantic have generally deferred to lawful authority.

Past practice is, of course, no guarantee of future behavior. A large number of people do seem to want to mess up the Democratic convention. When I spoke with Democratic Party officials involved with convention planning, they seemed acutely aware of the hazards and deeply immersed in countering the risks.

Maybe they will overlook something. Maybe protesters will discover an unsuspected weak point, overwhelm police, wreak viral-video havoc, embarrass President Biden, and thereby help Donald Trump. The better guess is that they will not only fail in that but also be unable to mobilize any large number to attack police lines and risk serious prison time.

In the meantime, however, the talk of convention disruption has achieved one thing: It has at least temporarily diverted the conversation toward the antidemocratic extremists who may assault the Democratic convention that will renominate Biden, and away from the antidemocratic extremists who will take the stage unmolested to address the Republican convention that will renominate Trump.

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