James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Forgive my French, but....

With the Republican National Convention just four days away as I write this, I can’t help but wonder what sort of trouble the Bush nasties will stir up in the streets of New York.

I fully expect them to use the cops and quite possibly other agents provocateur to make it appear that the "left" is violently out of control and that they, poor defenders of democracy, are under immediate threat of physical harm, not to mention losses to their hard-won property.

Cynical perhaps, and maybe I could be arrested for use of the French term, but my thoughts are rooted in experience.

In the late 1960s and very early 1970s, as a reporter for what was then the excellent Minneapolis Tribune, I sometimes covered street actions that were often were a part of the almost daily protests against the Vietnam War. The Nixon Administration and its supporters frequently – and rather clumsily -- used federal agents of various stripes to stir up as much violence as possible. One can hardly claim that the Bushies are more ethical in their pursuits.

In some places, though not much in the Twin Cities, local cops also played a part in the phony shows.

Any violence, or semblance of violence, of course enraged and energized the "Our country right or wrong" folks and persuaded a substantial hunk of the population that all those who opposed the war were hateful potential killers, communists, anarchists and (just like now) unchaste besides.

I particularly recall an incident involving a few hundred protesters and some street theater on the lawns and street in front of the student union at the University of Minnesota.

The kids – mostly university students – presented their playlets and chanted their chants. They did no damage to anybody or anything, nor did they threaten harm to any person or property. The Minneapolis cops were on hand, mostly in mufti. They stayed outside the perimeter of the protest and watched without much concern. A few of them who were on regular protest assignment chatted comfortably with some of the regular protesters who stopped by to say hello.

Then, well into the afternoon, a bunch of guys bearing armsful of flexible electrical tubing, cut to uniform length, showed up, dumped the tubing on the ground and started yelling at the students to "Get the warmongers!" and suggesting the crowd should "break some heads." By way of example, they each whipped a length of tubing around and swished it through the air as though beating someone with it.

The tough guys were youngish, but older than the average student by several years. They also had military hair cuts, their clothing leaned to new jeans or pressed khaki pants, starched short-sleeved sports shirts with razor creases in the sleeves. Glimpses of blindingly white tee shirts could be seen at their throats. Some of them wore highly polished black shoes. It was, those who were around then will recall, the absolute pinnacle of American Scruffy. Students of that era would make the punks of recent years look like stars of haute couture. (Oh dear, there I go again. Mea culpa.)

The kids didn’t bite. They and the cops laughed at the would-be provocateurs, and the squareheads left fairly quickly, as the protesters picked up the tubing and stacked it neatly by trash bins.

Bad guy agents weren’t always so obvious, of course, and sometimes, in some places, they did manage to stir young idiots to violence that led to rotten press and terrible television images for the antiwar movement.

That easily could happen again, as it has happened in the last few years during protests against International Monetary Fund and World Bank policies. And – this is important – it is easier now, I think, than it was in the early ‘70s to con the public about who did what.

We who were in the streets covering the demonstrations reported what we saw in those days, and stories like the one about the inept provocateurs at the University of Minnesota sometimes got into print and even, now and then, onto television. We got pretty much everywhere we wanted to go without being blocked by cops or feds in riot gear. Sometimes some of us took a clubbing, as did reporters during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, but mostly not. We talked to both sides, we were able to recognize protest pretenders, for the most part.

There were violent real protesters too, certainly, and we reported on them. But the key point is that we reported the whole story as it unfolded rather than acting as propagandists for either side.

If there is any mention of agents provocateur this year, you can bet it will be only in a quote from someone on the side of the protesters, and I will be flabbergasted if it is treated other than with sneers. Readers and viewers will get the clear message that the complaints are the wildest of fiction. I’ll lay odds on it.

It has been guaranteed that almost all of the real opponents of the war in Iraq and of the Bush Administration will be kept so far from the convention in New York that no one will see them or hear them. And they won’t know if something rotten is being done in their name until well after the fact.