Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Park of Protests and Dreams

Police arrested 175 Occupy Chicago protesters in Grant Park this morning, recalling not only the night Barack Obama was elected but one when I was tear-gassed there 43 years ago. [correction: see comments]

"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible," the President-elect told 250,000 celebrants three years ago, "who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer."

Those words are now like ashes in the mouth of a voter and 1968 Democratic convention delegate who was in that park half a century ago as American kids were being gassed, clubbed and herded into police vans at gunpoint for exercising their freedom of speech while at the convention Walter Cronkite was looking at the scene and telling TV viewers in disgust, "It makes us want to pack up our cameras and go home."

In 1968, after defeat of an anti-Vietnam war resolution, another delegate, Jules Feiffer, and I had taken a convention bus into town. At a traffic light before the Mayflower Hotel, cops with clubs and soldiers with rifles were pushing kids into the park. We got off the bus, joined the crowd and were immediately separated by a surge of bodies. With a wet handkerchief over my face, I stumbled along until I finally found an exit and a taxi back to my hotel with stinging eyes.

Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was with Barack Obama on his night, had protesters removed today, but he is no Richard Daley, only another political figure caught up in that narrative of America still being played out in that Chicago park, a story of the conflict between power and values with no end in sight.

I never visit the city without stopping at the Art Institute to stand before Georges Seurat’s overpowering painting, La Grande Jatte, to soak in the serenity of a nineteenth century scene of peace, tranquility and order, to be reminded that, both then and now, all its beauty is only a dream of what goes on beyond those museum walls.

But it’s a beautiful dream, and there will always be those who want to make it real, no matter how ugly the outside world becomes.

Update: “There is a disconnect” between Wall Street and Main Street, says William M. Daley, son of one Chicago Mayor and brother of another, who made his fortune in the financial world.

“Nine months into his tenure as White House chief of staff,” writes John Harwood of the New York Times, “Mr. Daley feels the chill from former Wall Street colleagues who now see President Obama’s administration as a hostile force.

“At the same time, he eyes the swelling Occupy Wall Street protests against the industry that made him rich. Those demonstrations could give his party a counterweight to the Tea Party right--but also underscore Mr. Obama’s inability to invigorate the economy.”

Grant Park has probably not seen the end of clashes between anger and dreams.

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