Next week marks the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Democratic Convention, held in Chicago at the International Amphitheatre. I remember it well: I was there.
Reports had been circulating for weeks beforehand about planned demonstrations by anti-Vietnam War activists. The more radical fringe elements, led by master provocateurs Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, were intent on protesting, creating a spectacle and having a good time, not necessarily in that order.
Hoffman and Rubin announced that tens of thousands of hippies and Yuppies would flood the city to protest the war. Their plan was to camp out in Lincoln Park. Mayor Richard J. Daley insisted the park’s 11 p.m. curfew would be strictly enforced. This set up a dynamic of potential conflict and confrontation.
Eager to witness history, I volunteered to drive a limousine for the Democratic National Committee and was assigned to chauffeur the legendary Averell Harriman, Secretary of Commerce under President Truman and Governor of New York from 1954 to 1958.
But along with many other prominent Democrats, Harriman sensed trouble brewing and declined to attend the convention. This was a blow. Squiring the Governor would have been memorable. Nevertheless I consoled myself that in his absence I had more time to take in the spectacle.
There was so much to take in. Thousands of people were pouring into the city. Clusters of them were gathering in the streets and parks, singing folk songs and mounting street-theater demonstrations. The famed poet Allen Ginsberg was leading sunrise Buddhist prayer sessions along the lakefront. The Yippies held a “counter convention” at the Civic Center downtown and nominated a pig for president.
One afternoon, walking along Michigan Avenue a few days before the convention started, I spotted an exotic figure familiar from his picture in my 20th century drama textbook. It was Jean Genet! The French novelist-poet-playwright was in town to cover the convention for Esquire magazine.
I walked up and said, “Monsieur Genet, oui, oui?” “Alors, oui, oui,” he replied. I had an inspiring thought. What if, I proposed, I were to be your driver in the limousine assigned to Governor Harriman? Surely, Esquire readers would appreciate the delicious irony of putting his car at the disposal of the gay rebel and famous anti-American journalist? Alas, but he already had transportation, merci.
Every day brought fresh reports of impending violence and mayhem. On the Sunday before the convention opened, protesters just south of the Lincoln Park Zoo had pulled park benches into a large circle and taken refuge inside, as if daring the police to attack their barricade. Amid loud cheers someone tied a Viet Cong flag to a pole. Police waded in wielding heavy wooden clubs and spraying tear gas. Friends of mine who were there said, “We ran for our lives, it was pandemonium.”
Early Monday morning a thousand protesters marched on police headquarters at 11th and State. Police cordoned the area and forced the marchers away, so they took refuge a mile east, in Grant Park across from the Conrad Hilton, the Party’s convention headquarters. Police swept the area and forced protesters to disperse. Nonetheless, from this point on the small hillside directly across from the hotel became the protesters’ rallying point.
The convention formally opened Monday and tension ratcheted up still higher. Responding to criticism, Mayor Daley said angrily: “The police aren’t here to create disorder, they’re here to preserve disorder,” and he was right. Chicago resembled a war zone. Even newspaper and TV reporters were starting to decry the police violence.
On Tuesday night Black Panther leader Bobby Seale spoke at a Lincoln Park rally and exhorted the crowd to defend themselves if attacked “by any means necessary.” Later several hundred church leaders, toting a giant cross, joined protesters rallying against the curfew. Once again police used tear gas and clubs to subdue protesters and clear the area.
Wednesday was the climax. Thousands of people attended an evening rally in Grant Park. Midway through the speeches news swept through the crowd that Party officials at the convention had rejected a peace plan calling for all troops to be withdrawn from Vietnam. Someone tried to lower an American flag and when police moved in to arrest him, new fighting erupted. The crowd dispersed and attempted to march to the Amphitheater, three miles away. Police moved in, swinging clubs and spraying tear gas and Mace on the crowd. The protesters shouted, “The whole world is watching.” The chant was picked up on the news, along with footage of police clubbing and dragging demonstrators to squad cars.
Appalled by the spectacle, I decided on Thursday to join the protesters. I wanted to show my solidarity and witness history close up. So after finishing my day shift at the Sun-Times and Daily News (where I was an ad-taker) I wandered the few blocks south to Grant Park and joined a somewhat restive crowd of young people across the street from the Hilton.
In the midst of the crowd were Hoffman and Rubin, conferring with various city officials. I walked up to Hoffman, a short, swarthy fellow with a swirl of long hair, and asked him what was going on. “I don’t know man,” he said gravely. “They promised we could march to the Amphitheater but now the pigs are reneging. [Blank] the pigs, man, we’re gonna march anyway.” Not exactly heartening words.
Hoffman took to the crest of the hill to make an announcement. “Listen up, people. The police have agreed to let us march to the Amphitheater!” The crowd shouted its approval. Hoffman said we’d march south on Michigan Avenue to Roosevelt Road, west to Halsted Street and south on Halsted to the Amphitheater. There we’d be permitted to rally peacefully against the war.
Around 10:30 p.m. we shoved off. Someone next to me pointed out this was ominous timing, coming right after the evening news broadcast. If there was to be violence, this would be the time.
Nevertheless spirits were buoyant as we slowly started to head south along Michigan Ave. It was a fine night and the crowd seemed to be in a festive mood. I was more elated than scared: at last we were under way.
A few blocks south, however, at 9th Street, forward motion accordioned to a halt. A few hundred feet ahead, arrayed like alien monsters in a sci-fi flick, were armored National Guard Jeeps seven or eight across and equipped with heavy metal frames strung tight with barbed wire. Slowly the Jeeps began to move in on us. Turning around, I saw half a dozen similarly equipped Jeeps close in from the north. It was a trap. Someone shouted “Tear gas!” and people stampeded in panic. I took off down an alley, escaping safely west to the next block. From there I walked back downtown, toward Grant Park. Others were streaming back too, but no one seemed hurt. After that, most people began to drift off, and so did I.
If I have any prominent memory of the evening, it was just this: God, what fun!