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Chi-town conversation

Democrats brace for anti-Israel protests at Chicago convention

Disruptions at recent Biden campaign events hint at confrontations during the August convention

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The logo for the Democratic National Convention is displayed on the scoreboard at the United Center during a media walkthrough on January 18, 2024 in Chicago, Illinois.

An unusual and, for Democrats, potentially worrisome dynamic has emerged at recent Biden campaign events: When President Joe Biden begins speaking, someone interrupts him to protest the administration’s support for Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza. Then, the rest of the crowd responds with a pro-Biden cheer. It feels a little like that moment at a sports game when the home team fans band together to drown out the taunts of the visiting team’s supporters. 

Last week, at a campaign event in Northern Virginia, one protestor interrupted Biden two minutes into his speech: “Genocide Joe, how many kids have you killed in Gaza?”

The rest of the crowd responded with a hearty “four more years,” cheering Biden and getting his speech back on track. 

It is a scene that has played out in various, but similar, forms in recent weeks. Earlier this month, Biden was interrupted by protesters while speaking at Mother Emanuel AME, the Charleston, S.C., church where nine Black parishioners were killed by a white supremacist in 2015. Over the weekend, pro-cease-fire protesters camped outside the Arlington, Va., home of Secretary of State Tony Blinken.

Some Democrats are beginning to think about how to handle similar disruptions at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago this August, where such protests are viewed as an inevitability. As a marquee event that will draw hundreds of thousands of Democrats to Chicago, the convention is more like the World Series, with the small-scale disruptions in the last month akin to minor league games.

With seven months until the convention, the war in Gaza could go in any number of directions by the time delegates gather in Chicago. But enough Democrats and affiliated political constituencies, such as unions, Arab Americans and pro-Palestinian Black clergy, have signaled their dismay with Biden’s approach that the issue is certain to appear in some form. 

“What makes this difficult is there’s going to be a lot of people who legitimately should be there, like credentialed, probably even high-up people — relatively high up, obviously not the highest — but relatively high-up people who will have access to sort of exclusive areas of the convention,” said one person who previously worked on several Democratic campaigns. “They might protest, but it’s not like you can just keep out, like, a vice chair of [a state] Democratic Party.” 

That the convention is taking place in Chicago highlights Democratic divisions over Israel. Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson last week announced his support for a resolution calling for a cease-fire, diverging from Biden. Alderman Debra Silverstein, the only Jewish member of the Chicago City Council, released a letter opposing the resolution — arguing, in part, that the measure sends the wrong message ahead of the convention.

“Chicago, of all the cities within this nation, ought to be perceived as a stronghold of support and fortitude for President Biden and Vice President Harris,” Silverstein wrote. Rich Guidice, Johnson’s chief of staff, told Politico in November that the city anticipated “a lot of tension and very passionate positions.” He said “de-escalation training” is underway for local employees. 

Pro-Israel Democrats told Jewish Insider they are largely unconcerned by the threat of protests, noting that Biden’s strong support for Israel means any disruptions are unlikely to affect party policy. (The drafting of the party’s official platform, a process that has already played host to major disputes on Israel in past years, is likely to again include messy debates on the issue.)

“If there are anti-Israel protests, it will be further proof that Joe Biden and the Democratic Party remain staunchly pro-Israel, and that’s a badge of honor,” said Steve Sheffey, a Democratic consultant from Chicago. 

Jewish Democrats are “not cowering or overly concerned about protests,” said Halie Soifer, CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America. “We’ll show up and convene in Chicago, proud of the fact that the Democratic Party, led by President Biden, stands with Jewish Americans and Israel.”

A Democratic Convention spokesperson declined to comment on specific security arrangements but said organizers are paying close attention to both security and the First Amendment rights of Americans.

“The safety and security of convention delegates and guests is a top priority. We are closely coordinating with law enforcement overseeing security, including planning for expression of First Amendment rights, and we look forward to hosting what we are confident will be a safe and successful convention,” the spokesperson said. U.S. Secret Service teams have been in Chicago for months preparing for the convention, a spokesperson told JI. 

Because the conventions are a way for parties and candidates to make their case to voters, a key concern is optics. 

“It is always important to remember your real audience are the people who are at home watching this, and what they will think of Democratic Party and what they will think of the Democratic nominee,” said Ann Lewis, a former high-ranking Democratic Party operative and the co-chair of Democratic Majority for Israel. 

Preparing a slick telecast and a smooth experience for convention-goers and viewers at home is in part the work of the Biden campaign’s advance team, the staffers who travel “in advance of candidates to set up everything you see when they appear on TV, from stages and lighting to signage and hay bales,” Politico wrote last month. At a convention, that involves keeping the cameras on the speakers and cheering crowds, and keeping protestors out of the shot. 

“You’re not allowed to bring in a sign to a convention. If you are in the hall, everything is controlled. Everything is part of the performance,” said Ken Baer, who worked as a speechwriter at five Democratic conventions.

Conventions have always been heavily scripted affairs, with dozens of speeches prepped and fine-tuned by a campaign speechwriting team with a commitment to remaining on-message. This year, when the Democratic nominee is already known and the convention is not expected to be divided, the message is straightforward: Promote Joe Biden and garner support for his reelection bid. (Compare that to 2016, with the party split between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, when activists aligned with Sanders staged major protests.) 

Protests that take place inside the convention hall, or speakers who defect from the approved pro-Israel messaging, could detract from the pro-Biden message. 

“Certainly, if there are delegates, people in the hall, I think that would be challenging,” said Jarrod Bernstein, who served as White House liaison to the Jewish community under former President Barack Obama. “But I just don’t think people are showing up there against Joe Biden, not when it gets that close.”

Democrats’ hope is that the threat of a second Donald Trump term will override some convention-goers’ interest in promoting anti-Israel positions.

“I think that by November the conflict [in Gaza] will not be the focus it is today,” said veteran Democratic strategist Joe Trippi. “The contrast between Trump and Biden and the threat of MAGA extremists will dominate the debate and overshadow everything else.”

Trump’s allies are already cheering on the prospect of a contentious Democratic convention. Jason Miller, a longtime aide to Trump, took to the social media platform X to share a Wall Street Journal article about internal Democratic fears about Biden’s position on Israel. “The Democrat Convention in Chicago is going to be AWESOME,” he wrote, with a laughing emoji.

The biggest challenge for Democrats may be one they cannot fully prepare for, which is what happens outside the convention hall. 

“If at 4 o’clock on the day that Biden is supposed to get the nomination, there are thousands of people marching down the street in Chicago, with keffiyahs and shouting, ‘No genocide, bloody Joe,’ that’s the story of the day,” said Baer. “Not only is that the story, it’s that every single reporter is like, ‘Is this going to be 1968 all over again? That’s in the back of their mind. We’re in Chicago.” 

The 1968 Democratic convention, also in Chicago, played host to large anti-war protests that gained international notoriety due to a violent police response. The whole affair was immortalized in Norman Mailer’s classic Miami and the Siege of Chicago and recently revisited in a 2020 Oscar-nominated movie. 

Republican Richard Nixon beat Democrat Hubert Humphrey that year.

Jewish Insider features reporter Matthew Kassel contributed to this report.

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