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Noting campus protests, Democrats are preparing for intense action at their summer convention

WASHINGTON — As pro-Palestinian demonstrations escalate on college campuses around the country, critics of President Joe Biden ‘s handling of the Israel-Hamas war suggest this summer’s Democratic National Convention could be hit by protests and scenes of chaos that undermine his reelection campaign.

Already, 65-plus organizations in Chicago and elsewhere have formed a coalition to “March on the DNC” when it opens there on Aug. 19. Activists have sued in federal court, alleging First Amendment violations because the city has only offered permits for demonstrations miles from the United Center, where Biden is scheduled to accept the Democratic presidential nomination.

Protesters preparing for the convention have vowed to march on it anyway, raising the specter of clashes with police that could undercut Biden and further divide the Democratic base. They think the campus demonstrations — and broad Democratic disapproval of the war — will fuel their efforts.

Some are suggesting August’s meeting could look like 1968’s Democratic convention in Chicago, where a violent police crackdown on anti-Vietnam War protesters created indelible scenes of chaos widely blamed for weakening the eventual party nominee, Hubert Humphrey.

“The DNC is likely to become a flashpoint because these movements are going to continue to escalate,” said Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of the progressive activist group Our Revolution. “I can see a replay of 1968, unless the administration does a course correction.”

National Democrats say they’re prepared to keep the convention on track and limit disruptions.

“There will be people at this convention and it would not be a surprise to any of us if they were quite visible,” said Lavora Barnes, the chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, who added, “I don’t think there’s any weakness in allowing people to exercise their First Amendment free rights to speech.”

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson said keeping protesters away from the convention site is about ensuring “optimal safety” while protecting people’s constitutional rights. He pushed back on the idea that this summer will resemble 1968.

“I’m not the mayor of the city of Chicago if a generation ago, and a generation before that, did not protest,” said Johnson, a former union organizer who is Black. “I want to assure people that it’s not 1968. I am not the mayor of 1968.”

Many campus protesters have focused more on individual universities than on White House policy. Among the common demands is pushing their schools to end investments that support Israel’s military.

“We can go to the White House at any given moment (and) scream our lungs out, but what’s going to change?” asked Raf Hawa, 25, a student protester at George Washington University in Washington. “The universities, their goal is to listen and to understand.”

Still, protesters have for months followed Biden events, decrying him as “Genocide Joe.” At George Washington, fliers proclaimed “Come November, We’ll Remember” over a sinister likeness of Biden.

An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll released in February found that just 31% of U.S. adults approve of Biden’s handling of the conflict, including only 46% of Democrats.

Faayani Aboma Mijana, a spokesperson for the Coalition to March on the DNC, sees foreshadowing between campus unrest and what might unfold in Chicago, while stressing that its demonstrations will be family friendly. Mijana said national Democrats waiting for emotions to fade once universities break for the summer are misguided.

“People are only growing angrier,” Mijana said, adding, “I think that’s wishful thinking on their part to think this will go away. Our coalition’s not going to let it go away. We’re going to keep pushing.”

In 1968, 10,000-plus protesters opposing the Vietnam War and assorted other causes held huge demonstrations near the convention site and throughout Chicago. Police and National Guardsman responded with force prompting clashes that are better remembered than the nomination of Humphrey, who lost to incumbent President Richard Nixon that fall.

Columbia University students that year occupied the same building, Hamilton Hall, that pro-Palestinian demonstrators briefly occupied in New York before police last week cleared the building and arrested dozens. On Monday, Columbia canceled its university-wide commencement scheduled for next week.

However, Sean Wilentz, a Princeton University history professor who was a campus activist at Columbia then and also in Chicago in 1968, noted that the Vietnam War and its draft affected far more Americans than the current conflict in Gaza, and that the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy only added to the domestic upheaval.

“The divisions in the country were profound in ’68 in a way they are not now,” said Wilentz, who has advised Biden during his presidency.

Authorities insist they are prepared in ways unimaginable in 1968. The convention has been designated as a National Security Special Event which allows officials to enlist the Defense Department as needed. The U.S. Secret Service says that teams have been in Chicago “for months preparing an intricate security plan with the full weight of the federal, state, and city government” and city police are receiving training anticipating large demonstrations.

Congress has also approved $75 million for to cover security costs for Chicago and Milwaukee, which is hosting the Republican National Convention. Protesters are expected in Milwaukee, though presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump has not drawn mass protests this year.

And while protests have been a fixture at both parties’ conventions in recent cycles, the demonstrations haven’t triggered 1968’s bloodshed — including when Democrats returned to Chicago in 1996.

“When the country looks to Chicago this August, the unity and excitement of Democrats will stand in stark contrast to the chaos and extremism stewing in the GOP,” said Matt Hill, a spokesperson for the Democratic National Convention.

DNC vice chair Ken Martin said that support for Biden remains strong and that some are looking at campus protests and seeing “a much deeper problem than it really is.”

“We have, clearly, differences of opinion within our party on critical issues,” said Martin, who is also head of the Democratic Party in Minnesota. “But dissent and debate are hallmarks of the Democratic Party, and we’re not going to allow those divisions to turn us inward.”

Biden has condemned protests turning violent. Top Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, who is accepting the GOP nomination weeks before Democrats gather, has pointed to instances of antisemitic chants and blamed Democratic-led cities for failing to restore order.

Trump has made concerns about crime key to his campaign, linking the issue to illegal immigration and accusing Biden of allowing an “invasion” of the country. His messaging is another echo of 1968, when Nixon promised to restore “law and order.”

The Biden administration is still working to achieve a Gaza cease-fire and for Hamas to release surviving hostages from its Oct. 7 attack, which could undercut the rationale for protests in August.

The White House also has decried antisemitism and sought to assure some American Jews who are worried about their safety and criticized the campus protests. But it has faced significant dissent from key constituencies — Arab American voters and younger voters who are broadly more skeptical of U.S. support for Israel — that shows no sign of dissipating.

“There is widespread discontent among progressive voters, young people, people of color and the progressive voting bloc writ large, and he needs that in order to win,” said Geevarghese, head of activist group Our Revolution. “I’m not sure if the administration fully recognizes the danger leading into the convention and the optics that could be created.”


Associated Press reporter Sophia Tareen contributed from Chicago.

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