Rennie Davis, who died on February 2, was one of the New Left’s most talented organizers—and also one of the sanest and best-liked. Fifty years after his heroic days as a leader of the anti-war movement of the 1960s, he returned to the news when the Aaron Sorkin film The Trial of the Chicago 7 opened on Netflix in September. Rennie had been one of the organizers of the anti-war protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, charged by the Nixon administration with inciting a riot, but his portrayal in the film was a travesty—Sorkin’s Rennie was a nerdy guy concerned mostly with not offending his girlfriend’s conservative parents. “I felt sorry for Tony winner Alex Sharp who played me,” he said. But he nevertheless urged people to see the film, because of its “timely” message about the value of protest and the necessity of speaking truth to power.
Rennie, whose father had been a top economist for the Truman administration, was a student at Oberlin in 1960 when “four black freshmen took their seats at an all-white Woolworth’s lunch counter.” Because of the sit-in movement, he wrote, “my ‘normal’ life changed forever.… I joined millions of others, most of them in their 20s, who wanted to change the world.”
He became one of the founders of SDS, Students for a Democratic Society. In the early ’60s, before the escalation of the Vietnam War, he led the group’s efforts to build an interracial movement of the poor, working as a community organizer among poor whites in Chicago.
When the war became the dominant issue of the decade, Rennie and Tom Hayden in 1967 were among the first Americans to travel to Hanoi to witness the devastation American bombers were inflicting on civilians. They returned in time for the March on the Pentagon, and then set out to organize an anti-war protest at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
He had hoped for hundreds of thousands, but only 10 or 15 thousand showed up after Chicago’s Mayor Daley made it clear that the Chicago police would do everything they could to stop the marchers. But the police attacks on the marchers made headlines around the world, and indeed what happened was later judged a “police riot” by the commission that investigated it.
In the trial, five of the defendants including Rennie were convicted of inciting a riot and sentenced to five years in prison. The verdicts were overturned on appeal, along with the sentences for contempt of court.
After that, Rennie went on to organize a much bigger and more amazing anti-war protest, although it’s much less known: the May Day protests in Washington, D.C., in 1971—the slogan was “Stop the war or we’ll stop the government.” Mass civil disobedience, blocking the streets, led to the arrest of more than 12,000 people. It was the largest mass arrest in American history.
As the ’60s came to an end, Rennie became a follower, for a time, of an Indian boy guru. The move puzzled and dismayed his friends and earned widespread ridicule. For the last few years, however, he had been working on creating a network of intentional communities in response to climate change.
Rennie was warm and engaging when we did a Nation event in October. He talked about his trip to North Vietnam in 1967 and described being taken to an underground shelter while American planes bombed Hanoi. To pass the time, their Vietnamese hosts read them news reports, one of which was that the Democrats had announced plans to hold their 1968 convention in Chicago. “They said, ‘Aren’t you from Chicago?’” he recalled, laughing. “It was there that I learned about the Democratic National Convention,” he said. “It was there that I made the decision: I am going to Chicago.”
And he spoke recently about today’s social movements. In an interview with The Guardian in October, he paid tribute to Black Lives Matter and “also the women’s movement and the youth movement and the environmental movement and the Extinction Rebellion movement, and how they see themselves as being, in a way, one voice.… The greatest hope right now is that movement.”