Bill Fesperman: Remembering the 1968 Democratic Convention
By Bill Fesperman
For the Salisbury Post
Aug. 26-29, 2008, will mark the 40th anniversary of the great Battle of Chicago, a series of massive protests surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in that city.
As a pre-emptive strike, before the mass media resurrect this historic moment, I offer a couple of my own memories, since I was an eyewitness to those events. At the time, I was a graduate student in Chicago Theological Seminary at the University of Chicago. In a Forrest Gump moment, I figured I needed to be where active history was going to be made.
You have to remember, 1968 was one horrible year. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4; urban riots ensued across the nation. On June 5, presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. The Vietnam War was claiming the lives of increasing numbers of American servicemen. To cap it off, On Nov. 5, Richard Nixon was elected president.
Thousands of hippies, Yippies and ordinary Americans poured into Chicago to protest war policies of the Democratic Party and the state of the nation in general. This arsenal of free speech was arrayed against 11,900 Chicago police, reinforced by 5,000 riot-trained U.S. Army troops, 7,500 members of the Illinois National Guard and more than 1,000 FBI and Secret Service agents. Titular commander-in-chief of this massive force was Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, one of the last of the big-city political machine bosses.
The main battlefield was Grant (as in Ulysses S.) Park, an expansive patch of green between Lake Michigan and the Conrad Hilton Hotel, where most convention delegates were staying, including eventual presidential nominee Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey.
Space limits me to two reflections.
On Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 27, I think, at the old Grant Park band shell, protesters were sedately sitting on the grass and on benches. On stage, in the lotus position, sat poet Allen Ginsberg, presenting a “meditation concert” consisting of one work: repeatedly and fervently changing “Ommmmmm…” over and over and over again. You know: peace, love, universal harmony etc.
Suddenly, a guy who was already stoned decided to get higher by shinnying up a flagpole to tear down our national symbol. That’s all it took. Blue-helmeted Chicago police charged, clearing the benches. I was a young 25 then and could run pretty fast, which I did. I don’t know if Ginsberg did an encore or not.
Wednesday night, Aug. 28, was the major confrontation in front of the Conrad Hilton. Protesters brought wet towels to put to their faces to protect against tear gas. National Guard jeeps had rolls of barbed wire on front bumpers, and the troops’ bayonets were fixed.
Protesters were threatening to march to the South Side convention center, the old Chicago Amphitheater. Over a jerry-rigged sound system, the crowd was being worked up by folk anthems like “If I Had a Hammer,” “This Land is Your Land” and “The Times, They Are a Changin’.” Some in the crowd were calling the police “pigs,” not a wise thing to do in Chicago. All at once, all hell broke loose!
The enormous crowd surged toward the Conrad Hilton Hotel. I felt myself being pulled along as if caught in a rip tide. I and my friends found ourselves in front of the plate-glass window of a restaurant at the Hilton. Cops were swinging billy clubs like baseball bats and spraying Mace. A hint of tear gas was in the air. People were chanting, “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!” to link these events on the streets of Chicago to a recent Soviet Union invasion of Czechoslovakia.
The force of the crowd shattered the large Hilton window. Someone in my group shouted, “Let’s get the (you know what) out of here!” We ran south on Michigan Avenue and ducked into a dark alley for protection. Bad choice. A cordon of Chicago police was standing at the other end of the alley. I don’t know how, but we escaped to the Roosevelt Road Illinois Central commuter train station and safely made it back to our homes in the liberal enclave of Hyde Park.
In the aftermath of this democratic debacle, Mayor Daley was skewered by the press and TV, some of whose reporters were beaten badly by police. Daley held a press conference on Sept. 9 to respond to charges of gross police brutality. In one of the greatest mis-speaks in political history, Mayor Daley told the City Hall press corps: “Gentlemen, get the thing straight, once and for all. The policeman is not there to create disorder. The policeman is there to preserve disorder.”
Daley’s press secretary, Earl Bush, eventually had to remind the news media of their responsibility: “Why don’t you people report what the mayor meant instead of what he actually said?”
There wasn’t much humor in the melee on Michigan Avenue. Except this: To sort out the issues on a higher intellectual plain, CBS anchor Walter Cronkite interviewed conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr. and super-liberal writer Gore (Al’s cuz) Vidal. Vidal called Buckley a crypto-Nazi and Buckley called Vidal a fairy. End of debate.
Boy! Those were the good ol’ days of American politics.
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Bill Fesperman lives in China Grove.