A History of Dissent at National Conventions: Lessons from 1968’s Festival of Life

Based on the media coverage so far, the 2016 Republican and Democratic national conventions are looking to be among the most divisive and controversial in over fifty years. In this guest post, Craig J. Peariso—author of Radical Theatrics: Put-Ons, Politics, and the Sixties—revisits the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and how it might inform this month’s events.

At the turn of 1968, Abbie and Anita Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Nancy Kurshan, Paul Krassner, and Ed Sanders began making plans to hold a music festival as something of a counterpoint to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that summer. It would be a “Festival of Life,” as they called it, in opposition to the Democratic “Party of Death.” The friends envisioned rock bands playing as America’s youth demonstrated not just their opposition to the war, but the version of liberation that the counterculture offered. To bring young people to Chicago, they would call their sponsoring organization the Youth International Party, a name that stressed their core constituency, of course, but also served as a bit of a pun. For those accustomed to traditional Party politics, the name would sound somewhat official, but for those who weren’t interested in politics-as-usual, the word “Party” could be read differently. Much as the mainstream political Parties tended to involve drudgery and compromise, the Festival of Life and the Youth International Party would be about celebration, a fact the group emphasized in the preferred way of pronouncing their acronym: Y.I.P. became “Yippie!”

Puns and doubled meanings were the cornerstone of Yippie’s political actions. The organization would make a name for itself by tweaking the forms of radicalism most often covered in television newscasts, stealing airtime, as Abbie Hoffman explained, to broadcast “commercials for the revolution.” Thus, in the months leading up to the Festival of Life, they staged actions for the media and made absurd public threats to the city of Chicago and the Democratic Party – suggesting possession of a drug that could supposedly be administered to police via water pistol rendering them instantly, uncontrollably aroused, warning that their operatives would spike the city’s water supply with LSD or seduce Party delegates, etc. – leaving some with the sense that an invasion by countercultural terrorists was imminent and others with an incredible curiosity. Just what would this Festival look like?

What the Festival of Life ultimately looked like, of course, is well known. Famously described as a “police riot” by the Walker Report, the week was marked by chaos. Many of those who came to Chicago to participate in the celebration left with serious injuries after the police, on edge thanks to the rhetoric not only of the Yippies, but also that of their own Mayor Richard Daley, took it upon themselves to rid the city of anyone they thought looked like a potential rabble rouser. And while many people placed at least a portion of the blame for the riot on the Yippies, saying that their hyperbolic pronouncements had ultimately set the stage for the melee, I am nevertheless asked, virtually every time I speak on the group in public, if I see anything similar on the horizon from contemporary activists, if I think there will be another organization like the Yippies coming together to protest, say, the Democratic National Convention. After all, we find ourselves faced once again with a Democratic party waging wars throughout the Global South, and, not coincidently, the last year has seen the rise of a significant challenge to that Party’s policies led by younger Americans. Does it not seem as though there is the potential for a group like the Yippies to lead a major protest to the official nomination of Hillary Clinton?

My response to this question is that of course there will be major protests of both Parties’ conventions. A quick internet search can connect anyone with groups rallying protestors to Cleveland and Philadelphia. Will their tactics mirror those of the Yippies? It’s doubtful. And while some would attribute this to the increasing savvy and skepticism of journalists, the pranks carried out by groups like the Yes Men suggest one should proceed with caution on that front. Instead, perhaps, we should remember that the Yippies’ preferred tactic was to embody and embellish the stereotypes others had used to demonize young activists. They exaggerated those clichés to address not only the injustices they decried, but the challenges facing anyone hoping to articulate meaningful dissent in the age of mass media. With the current race, marked as it is by the instrumentalization of fear on both the left and the right – “Not Trump” vs. “Not the terrorists/immigrants/socialists/gun haters/Black Lives Matter activists/etc.” – there seems precious little room for the creative redeployment of stereotypes. With each side committed to condemning one caricature while simultaneously embodying another, put-ons like the Yippies’ would likely struggle to register. My point is not that we should pull back and attempt to speak “authentically” – Hoffman’s advice that there are “no rules, only images” is as relevant today as it has ever been – but that the formulation of dissent must remain mindful of its historical context.

Craig J. Peariso is associate professor of art history at Boise State University.