WASHINGTON -- The magnificent work of the New York Police Department last week under the masterful leadership of Commissioner Ray Kelly obscured an ugly fact of life today in America. The protesters, while unable to disrupt the Republican National Convention as intended, represented a disturbing new development in the nation's politics: hatred in the streets.
The organized demonstrations were purely negative, attacking George W. Bush with scant expression of support for John Kerry. Individual marchers singled out any person they thought might be a convention delegate, firing off angry, often obscene, denunciations. The streets of Manhattan were not pleasant for anyone foolish enough to wander around wearing a convention badge.
I have covered every national political convention beginning with 1960 and never before encountered so unpleasant an atmosphere. Not even the infamous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago approached last week's level of animosity. The irrational loathing expressed daily on the Internet by passionate, though poorly informed, bloggers was transferred into the streets. While Sen. Zell Miller's old-fashioned stemwinder inside Madison Square Garden was upbraided by news media critics for being too harsh, they largely ignored the real hatred in the streets.
Organizers of last week's protests in New York threatened to repeat the havoc of 1968, when blood was spilled in pitched battles with the Chicago police. But there really is no comparison. The Chicago protesters were trying to force a change in Vietnam policy by a Democratic Party where close to half its party and half the delegates supported anti-war demonstrators. The attempted disruption in New York had nothing to do with changing the position of a political party. This was an attack on "The System."
The model for last week's demonstrators was less the Chicago convention 36 years ago than anarchist attacks around the world at global financial conferences. When hundreds of thousands of protesters marched down 7th Ave. outside the Garden, the signs predominantly called for Bush's defeat and the departure from New York of all Republicans. Any support for Kerry was extremely hard to find.
While the 1968 demonstrators foolishly risked street combat with the Chicago cops, their 2004 brethren wisely kept their distance from New York's finest. Unlike their predecessors of 36 years earlier, last week's protesters wanted to single out individuals with verbal abuse that was often vile for the sole reason that they were presumed to be Republicans.
Tim Carney, a reporter for this column, got a taste of that last Thursday night as he left the Garden. He was wearing a three-piece suit and presumably was mistaken for a delegate by a young woman, who yelled at him: "Get out of New York!" She added to Carney, a native New Yorker: "You don't belong here!"
That was much milder treatment than one journalist (who preferred his name not be used) underwent one day when he probably also was mistaken for a delegate. Walking out of the arena, he was called a "Nazi." That was a favorite epithet used by protesters, along with "fascist," "scumbag" and "crook." This reporter, who has spent much more time in Europe than I, says such harassment in the street is commonplace in European cities. He regrets its spread to this country.
Delegates and journalists mistaken for delegates were attacked as anonymous lackeys of the global economy. Unfortunately, many demonstrators recognized me from my television appearances and condemned me as a "traitor" because of the CIA leak case, some suggesting I should kill myself. I had to resort to using a security escort to move a short distance to fulfill commitments for CNN.
Noisy and obnoxious though the protesters were, they were careful to avoid physical confrontation with the police. The NYPD was businesslike in carting away anybody who broke the law. When the new jail inmates whined about the facilities and civil libertarians protested, Mayor Michael Bloomberg correctly observed: "This is not Club Med."
Many individual police officers also recognized me, and I was flattered to be encouraged by their support of positions I take. I have not always gotten along with law enforcement officials during 56 years in journalism, but they are truly welcome counterweights to today's street radicals.