Political Conventions: my first, my next, and the NDP choice

My first convention experience was, to put it mildly, memorable. I was 14 when my mom, an elected delegate to the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, decided to take me along so I could
see ‘democracy in action.’ It was not the experience she and my dad had envisioned.

We had been working for over a year in support of Senator Eugene McCarthy and his campaign to unseat Lyndon B Johnson and end the war in Vietnam. His candidacy had led to Robert Kennedy entering the race. By August and the Chicago Convention, Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated, Lyndon Johnson had stepped down, and his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, accepted the help of Mayor Richard Daley.

I was supposed to be attending the convention with my mother. She had paid for a family member pass, but after one night of being allowed my ticket, all the McCarthy delegate family passes were handed out to Chicago municipal workers to wave ‘We Love Mayor Daley’ placards. Downtown, on a sunny Wednesday August evening, watching the sailboats on Lake Michigan, I was suddenly caught in the ‘police riot.’ That was what the official inquiry called it–a riot by the police. All my life I had been told, ‘If you are in trouble, look for a policeman.’ In Chicago, all that changed.

Well after midnight, my mom and the other Connecticut McCarthy delegates got back to our hotel. They had marched, holding candles, all the way from the convention centre and back to downtown Chicago to protest the police brutality. We were all hungry, so we went as a big group to a restaurant that we heard was open all hours.

Around 2am at the restaurant, my mom said we should get to bed. She volunteered to take the two young sons of friends, who were still having dinner, back with us. David and Michael and my mom and I all held hands as we walked along the empty streets.

Before going to Chicago, the only thing my parents had talked about as a possible danger was the threat of race riots. That year, the US had experienced the Watts riots and other inner city areas had been set ablaze. As we walked along those dark streets in the wee hours, whenever we saw black men sitting on the stoops in front of their buildings, they just looked at us with sadness. On that hot August night, the men we saw reassured us by giving us the peace sign. My mom squeezed my hand and said, ‘Don’t worry kids. We will be fine as long as we don’t see a policeman.’

That moment has defined much of my subsequent political consciousness. My skin crawls whenever I hear someone say that they don’t mind police surveillance because they have nothing to hide. Why do I now react so strongly at abuse of civil liberties, the intrusion of the state into our use of internet, the expansion of militaristic bravado in national ceremony? I think a lot of the reason stems from watching a democratic society abandon civil liberties to swing billy clubs into peace campaigners. I do not see democracy and civil liberties as the permanent order of things. I see them as precarious.

My next convention holds no such fears. The Green Party national convention will be held in Sidney from August 17-19. I hope that many of those who supported my campaign will register and attend. Greens operate by consensus. This convention will focus on policy debates, workshops and thought-provoking presentations. Among the resolutions for debate will be the scope of possible collaboration with other parties.

We are opening on August 15 with the film called Surviving Progress, which is based on Ron Wright’s book, A Short History of Progress. Ron will be there to discuss the themes of progress traps and the limitations of the human brain to deal with the current threats to our survival. I am looking forward to sharing our beautiful area with friends and colleagues from across Canada, to strengthening policies and to recharging batteries. To attend or volunteer, please contact [email protected].

Lastly, I write this just after the federal NDP Convention wrapped up in Toronto. Many of my friends were there, and a number of friends were leadership hopefuls. The NDP have chosen the candidate with the least experience in their party and the most experience in government. I have to hope that Thomas Mulcair will soften his initial message of non-cooperation with other parties. There is too much at stake and the continuation of partisanship over all else will (I fear) perpetuate the self-defeating nastiness of our current political culture.

I learned in the crucible of one kind of politics. I have emerged to work toward a new post-partisan approach. The visceral sense of awareness of creeping oppression in Canada makes me want to break old moulds and the strictures of conventional political behaviour. In Question Period, I tend to feel surrounded by bullies, but, I work to change that culture. I keep working for peace.