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Monday, August 25, 2008

40 Years Ago

(An occasional reminiscence on the events of 1968)

The Whole World is Watching

The Democratic National Convention opened in Chicago on August 26.

For months, anti-war groups had petitioned the city to get space to carry out demonstrations while the convention was ongoing. The Youth International Party (YIPees) had decided to hold their own national convention, a five-day "Festival of Life" the same week as the democrats, nominating a pig as their presidential candidate.

Mayor Daley had responded by denying permits, calling out the national guard and barricading the convention sites. The city was crippled by taxi and bus strikes. The weather was hot and humid and air conditioning was erratic.

The television networks and party insiders had encouraged the Democrats to move their convention to another city, maybe Miami Beach (which President Johnson had rejected, saying 'Miami Beach is not an American city').

Yippee flyers posted around Chicago in the weekend leading up to the convention advertised "free motel...sleep with us in Lincoln Park. Vote Pig in '68". The city refused to allow any gatherings in Lincoln Park and said everyone would have to clear the park at 11 pm. On Sunday night, a concert was to be held in the park, but the unorganized event turned into a disaster, as the music lasted only a short time and police drove the crowd out with tear gas and clubs at curfew.

On Monday night, convention opening day, thousands milled around the park, where beat celebrities like Allen Ginsberg, Terry Southern, William Burroughs, and Jean Genet would speak in support of the crowd. Norman Mailer was drawn to the event, but missed the aftermath:
he ...enjoyed himself until the morning when he discovered the attack by the police had been ferocious, and Ginsberg had been targeted, his throat so injured he could barely speak....And worse. Seventeen newsmen had been attacked by the police...the counterrevolution had begun.
Inside the convention hall, several miles away near the stockyards, there were ' daily shouting matches between red-faced delegates and party leaders often lasting until 3 o'clock in the morning' according to Haynes Johnson, who was there. The nomination of Hubert H. Humphrey was in progress, but was not taken well by the many supporters of Eugene McCarthy and the late Robert F. Kennedy. Many supported the nomination of Kennedy's younger brother Edward. One of those pushing for Ted Kennedy's nomination: Richard J. Daley. George McGovern had also offered himself as an anti-war candidate.

On Tuesday, President Johnson's birthday (he stayed at his Texas ranch), an 'anti-birthday party' was held at the Coliseum, where attendees protested the Chicago police and their violent tactics. When protesters returned to the streets, police attacked again. Chicago streets smelled of mace, tear gas, and blood. Thousands then marched to Grant Park, across from convention headquarters at the Hilton. The National Guard moved in, and surrounded the hotel with armored car barricades. All night kids in the park sang songs and appealed to convention goers to flash their room lights in support. Tear gas drifted into hotel public areas.

When the convention leaders delayed the debate on a Vietnam platform plank, dove delegates began an impromptu demonstration, finally cut off by an order by Mayor Daley.

On Wednesday afternoon, the plank calling for an end to the war in Vietnam was defeated by a 3-2 ratio, despite many speeches in support by party leaders. After the vote, delegates began an impromptu chorus of "We shall overcome", eventually drowned out by the convention orchestra, ordered to play loudly by mayor Daley. Delegates responded by holding up 'Stop the War' posters.

Meanwhile, another mass meeting was held in Grant Park. Protesters started a candlelight march to the convention hall at the Stockyards. On the way, police attacked once again. Lines of police wielding billy clubs trapped the marchers at an intersection overlooked by the Hilton. Convention attendees watched in horror as protesters were mowed down. The crowd began to shout "The whole world is watching". At home, watching this on television, we began shouting it too.

At the convention, one delegate asked for the floor to enter a motion to delay the convention for two weeks, moving it to another city. Delegates kept leaving the floor to watch the mayhem on television. As the nomination speeches continued, CBS correspondent Mike Wallace was punched in the face as he tried to ask why a delegate had been turned away from the floor.

At one point, Connecticut Sen. Abraham Ribicoff, in nominating McGovern, said "With George McGovern as President, we would not have to have such Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago." As the cameras turned to Mayor Daley in the front row, he could clearly be seen to be shouting 'fuck you' at Ribicoff, along with an ethnic slur. Ribicoff's answer: "How hard it is to accept the truth".

Finally, Hubert Humphrey was nominated, with 1,761 3/4 votes, to McCarthy's 601, McGovern's 146 1/2, and 100 for other candidates. (Among the others: Rev. Channing Phillips of the District of Columbia, the first black candidate ever to be put in nomination; he got 68 votes. Ted Kennedy got 12 3/4.) When, during the celebration, a picture of Humphrey's wife Muriel was splashed on the screen behind him, he ran over to kiss her image.

After the nomination, a film was shown honoring the late Bobby Kennedy. When it was finished, delegates began singing "Battle Hymn of the Republic". As convention leaders tried to gavel the demonstration to a halt, the singing got louder. After several minutes, Chicago leaders signaled their minions to start chanting, "We love Daley". The two demonstrations continued for several minutes until floor leader Carl Albert announced a tribute to Martin Luther King.

The next morning, Humphrey announced his vice presidential candidate: Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie.

After the convention adjourned that night, police who claimed someone was throwing objects from rooms at the Hilton, stormed the building in the early morning hours, dragged young campaign workers from their beds to the lobby, and beat them. Haynes Johnson, on his way to an appearance on the 'Today' show, saw the results:
They had been bludgeoned by Chicago police, and sat there with their arms around each other and their backs against the wall, bloody and sobbing, consoling one another. I don't know what I said on the "Today" show that morning. I do remember that I was filled with a furious rage. Just thinking of it now makes me angry all over again.
We watched the whole thing, in shock. Was this America? It changed everything we knew. Nothing would ever be the same.

On the last day of August, the Rolling Stones released the single 'Street Fighting Man', based on Mick Jagger's experience watching the spring antiwar demo in London's Grosvenor Square. It was the song of 1968.

Sources: Mailer, Miami and the Siege of Chicago; Witcover, 85 Days; Haynes Johnson, Smithsonian Magazine, Aug '08, 1968 Democratic Convention: The Bosses Strike Back.

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