In “To unburden all my plots and purposes,” chapter 17 of Martha’s Children, Sherlock Kammen finds out more about how Martha and sorcerers may affect his chances to get back on the police force. And for all you women’s libbers, as any self-respecting woman was called back in ’69, you get to see Sally Truax demonstrate to Kammen why it’s a bad idea to cross a woman!
For those of you who haven’t been reading Martha’s Children, my serialized story about vampires and cops in 1969 Chicago, you can start reading here! I put up a new chapter every week.
One of the recurring problems in any society that aspires to democratic principles is how to deal with people who don’t believe their opinions are being heard, who feel the need to loudly, visibly, and forcefully communicate their differences with the existing laws and governing opinions in their society. True, people can express their differences at the ballot box. But what if they don’t feel the elected government really represents the will of the people, or believe they have a moral imperative to change how people think and feel, to force the government to change its policy? What rights do they have? Conversely, how much freedom should a democratic society give people who refuse to abide by laws and elections? Does a society risk losing valuable opinions by limiting how they are expressed? Are there times when even expressing dissenting opinions cannot be countenanced?
In recent years, we’ve seen this problem arise from either end. Occupy Wall Street pushed the bounds of acceptable protest, leading many to dismiss the “occupiers” as welfare moochers and criminals. On the other side of the coin, the NSA’s surveillance programs, whose exact parameters are not known, could cause people to mute their dissent or not engage in potentially suspicious but lawful political activities, just to avoid the Federal Government’s attention.
Well, in Chicago in 1968, the conflict was more evident and controversial. A large number of protesters showed up to stage demonstrations while the Democratic National Convention was in town. And the city was determined to maintain order. The result was day after day of pitched battles in central Chicago. Protesters accused the police of brutality and suppressing political dissent, while the police in turn claimed the protesters were breaking the law and openly attacking the police when they were trying to restore order. The debate continued in the media for months.
Today, there is no method to resolve such a debate that would not run afoul of the partisan divide in our national politics. But in 1968, Americans still trusted the Federal Government to deal intelligently and fairly with issues. President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed a National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence (NCCPV). And the Commission in turn appointed Chicago lawyer Daniel Walker to study and prepare a report on the events in Chicago. Walker assembled a team, and in 57 days compiled a report on what had happened. He called it Rights in Conflict. Most people just called it the Walker Report.
Walker was an Establishment figure, imbued with Establishment values. His report frequently expressed a disdain for the persons, appearances, and behavior of the protesters when they deviated from the accepted standards of polite society. His report often distinguished between protesters and “innocent bystanders,” as if protest somehow made one guilty of something. And Walker was quite eager to include reports of provocation by the demonstrators. However, Walker and his staff could not ignore the evidence that the authorities in Chicago had tried to restrict the free expression of the protesters, that they had provoked unnecessary confrontations, and that they had engaged in excessive and needless violence against the protesters.
Under the circumstances, Walker made a wise decision. His report relied on presenting extracts from hundreds of eyewitness accounts. In the foreword to the report, Walker stated it was his intent in the report to provide a basis of facts to inform the national debate on how to handle political protests. But even with his bias against the protesters, Walker could not resist concluding that the violence in the streets of Chicago had often been a “police riot.”
Rights in Conflict was issued as a government task force report. Probably Walker and the NCCPV expected it to achieve a limited circulation among political leaders. Instead, it did the 1968 equivalent of going viral. It got picked up by a paperback book publisher and became a best seller, said to have sold a million copies. No one was happy with it and everyone had something to say about it. Above all, because it offered facts without trying to draw simple moralizing conclusions, it fostered debate on the issue at hand: how to reconcile political protest with maintaining order.
The Walker Report became a turning point in handling political protests. It was recognized that the police could overreact, and that one could not simply assume that the protesters were at fault. Pressure was brought on the police to change their tactics and become less confrontational. It did not happen all at once; 1969 would prove to be another year of violent protests, and the Kent State shootings (which involved the National Guard, not police) took place in 1970. And there were other factors that helped reduce the violence, among them the gradual winding down of the Vietnam War and the increasing isolation of the more violent radical elements in American politics. But the Walker Report deserves at least some of the credit for helping to reduce violent confrontations between police and protesters in the 1970s.
If we wanted to do something similar today when confronting our political problems, whom would we get to compile and edit such a document? People don’t trust the Federal Government as much as they used to. The old print and broadcast media are in decline. And the bloggers have neither the reputation nor the resources. It appears one of the trade-offs we have made in developing a more politically diverse media is the loss of an authoritative source for news. In that respect, the media today more resemble the press in the decades before the Civil War than the press and television news of the 1950s and 1960s.