1968: A war on dissent in the streets of Chicago

August 27, 2018

The famous chant “The whole world is watching” rang out in Chicago 50 years ago as police waged war on antiwar protesters — on orders of an arrogant Democratic Party mayor who helped impose the party leadership’s plan to nominate a pro-war presidential candidate, even as more and more people turned against the Vietnam War. Lance Selfa tells the story as part of SW’s series on the revolutionary year of 1968.

THE 1968 presidential election campaign unfolded in an atmosphere of crisis for U.S. rulers.

The Vietnam War was the decisive issue. The Tet Offensive by Vietnamese fighters, launched on January 30, 1968, shattered U.S. government claims that it was winning the war. Within months, opinion polls showed that a majority of the American public, having supported escalating U.S. involvement for years, had turned against the war.

As more and more establishment voices turned against an “unwinnable” war, the government shifted tack. It initiated “peace” negotiations with the North Vietnamese government, while making plans to “Vietnamize” the war — by building up the South Vietnamese Army to fight on behalf of its American sponsors. U.S. officials spoke of an “honorable peace.”

The shift in establishment opposition found an outlet within the Democratic Party, which dominated the federal government. Liberal anti-communist Sens. Eugene McCarthy and then Robert F. Kennedy challenged incumbent President Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination on an antiwar basis.

Chicago police assault antiwar protesters during the 1968 Democratic convention
Chicago police assault antiwar protesters during the 1968 Democratic convention

McCarthy’s campaign, which urged young activists to “get clean for Gene,” exercised the strongest pull on the antiwar movement. In the spring of 1968, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) chapters reported widespread defections from the group’s radical activism to the McCarthy campaign.

Lyndon Johnson had been elected president in 1964 on a “peace” platform, and had promptly escalated the war. But many activists new to the movement still looked to more liberal segments of the Democratic Party to end the war for them.

In the first primary election of 1968, in New Hampshire, McCarthy finished a strong second place to Johnson. This was a major factor in Johnson deciding to end his re-election campaign, leaving the race wide open.

Suddenly, the Democratic presidential nomination seemed like it might fall to an antiwar “rebel.” During the rest of the primaries, antiwar candidates McCarthy, Kennedy and Sen. George McGovern won about 80 percent of the overall vote.

Kennedy seemed likely to arrive at the Chicago convention, set for mid-August, with a lock on the nomination. He was far from the radical that he was perceived to be, having served as attorney general in his brother John F. Kennedy’s administration. But to many, his success seemed to prove that “working within the system” could bring an end to the war.

FOR RADICALS and socialsits, the Democratic presidential primaries offered a different challenge.

1968: A Revolutionary Year

Socialist Worker contributors remember the great struggles of the revolutionary year of 1968 — and the lessons they hold for today.

Following on the success of the 200,000-strong October 1967 March on the Pentagon, the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam (known as the “Mobe”) initiated plans to hold a “counter-convention” to the Democratic National Convention plan for Chicago the following August.

At that point, it seemed like Johnson — the very symbol of the war makers — would be the unopposed nominee for the Democrats. Mobe organizers predicted that hundreds of thousands could be mobilized for mass demonstrations and a march on the convention hall during the week of the convention.

In December 1967, Mobe activists Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis called for a half-million people to march on the convention site, “pinning the delegates inside the International Amphitheater until the choice is presented to the American people.”

This formulation was ambiguous. Was the Mobe to serve as a pressure group for one of the “peace” Democrats? Or would the movement try to present a more far-reaching challenge to the system?

Because of this ambiguity, SDS remained aloof from initial preparations for the convention demonstrations, fearing, as a January 1968 article put it, “the danger of co-optation by liberal elements within the antiwar movement...to channel dissent that is potentially radical into Democratic Party confines.”

Later that spring, SDS changed direction, deciding to send a core of several hundred organizers to Chicago to attempt to win the “McCarthy kids” in attendance to revolutionary politics.

Plans for the Chicago action were thrown into turmoil by two shocks with national implications: Johnson’s resignation at the end of March and Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination in June.

The net effect seemed to be that the convention demonstration was unnecessary. The Democratic Party “doves,” led by McCarthy, would dominate.

Still, Mobe organizers pressed on with plans for Chicago. They found unlikely allies in the Yippies, an organization created in late 1967 to sponsor a “festival of life” rock concert in Chicago’s Lincoln Park during the convention. Yippie leaders Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman distinguished themselves with shocking media stunts — for example, threatening to throw LSD into Chicago’s water supply.

BOTH THE Democratic Party “doves” and the Mobe and the Yippies faced a determined adversary in Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and his Democratic Party machine. Daley, a stalwart supporter of Johnson, vowed that there would be no disruptions to the convention.

In the months before, Chicago police backed up Daley’s threats with continuous harassment of activists. The cops’ unprovoked attack on peaceful antiwar marchers in April 1968 signaled what was to come. So did Daley’s command to police to “shoot to kill” looters during the uprising after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in April.

Chicago officials refused to grant Mobe organizers permits for demonstrations and gatherings in Chicago parks until a week before the convention.

The legality of the protests was important. Many demonstrators, fearing police violence if the Mobe was forced to call illegal demonstrations, chose to stay home.

By the beginning of convention week, the threat of police violence combined with the attraction of the “antiwar” candidacies “working within the system” to reduce attendance to only about 10,000 demonstrators.

Those 10,000 found an armed camp when they arrived in Chicago. More than 600 armed National Guardsmen patrolled the downtown streets near the hotels of conventioneers. The city threw up a barbed-wire fence around the International Amphitheater. Hundreds of undercover police agents swarmed through crowds of demonstrators as they gathered in Chicago’s lakefront parks.

Movement newspapers compared militarized Chicago to Prague — the capital of Czechoslovakia, behind the so-called socialist Iron Curtain, where Russian troops had invaded earlier in August to crush a pro-democracy uprising. The headlines read: “Welcome to Czechago.”

The first confrontations took place when police attempted to impose a previously unenforced curfew against the Yippies and other demonstrators in Lincoln Park — several miles north of downtown where the delegates were staying, and further still from the convention site itself.

One writer described the battle:

Shrieks and screams all over the wooded encampment area...Rivulets of running people came out of the woods across the lawn...Next, the cops burst out of the woods in selective pursuit of news photographers. They’d taken off their badges...to become a mob of identical, unidentifiable club-swingers.

Similar scenes played out over the next several nights. Police sought out demonstration leaders, arresting both Hayden and Hoffman on trumped-up charges.

ON AUGUST 28, the Mobe called a rally in downtown Grant Park, where organizers debated whether to lead a march on the convention site to the south.

Rather than march into a certain police ambush, organizers decided to move demonstrators to a part of the park across from the Conrad Hilton Hotel, where most convention delegates were staying. About 7,000 demonstrators massed in the streets in front of the hotel. Facing them were lines of police and National Guardsmen with bayonets drawn.

At 8 p.m., Daley’s police force decided to disperse the demonstration. With no warning, cops advanced on the crowd, which sat down in the street in nonviolent protest.

Police waded in, bludgeoning anyone within reach of their clubs. One group of demonstrators was pinned against a front window of the hotel. The window shattered under the pressure, injuring dozens with flying glass. Many more stumbled around, trying to avoid being beaten as they were incapacitated by police tear gas.

National television broadcast images of the police mayhem into the convention hall as voting for the Democratic presidential nominee was taking place.

From the convention podium, Connecticut Sen. Abraham Ribicoff decried the “Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago.” A television camera captured Daley on the convention floor, shaking his fist at Ribicoff and yelling, “Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch.” Daley stormed out of the hall.

Nevertheless, when the convention finished its business that night, Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s vice president and the choice of the party establishment, emerged as the Democrats’ nominee. He had been rejected by Democratic voters in primary after primary — but he triumphed thanks to the support of party hacks who packed the convention, while the streets outside erupted in protest.

Daley’s police and their mayhem, the bayonets of the National Guard, and backroom convention deals exposed the true nature of “democracy” in the Democratic Party. he determination of the U.S. ruling class to prosecute the Vietnam War to an “honorable” conclusion required ever-greater repression against the forces of opposition at home.

For the Democrats, Chicago was a disaster — the party’s pro-war candidate was defeated in the general election by Republican Richard Nixon, even as antiwar opposition deepened in society as a whole.

As for the left, “Chicago proved once and for all,” in the words of SDS historian Kirkpatrick Sale, “for those still needing proof, that the country could not be educated or reformed out of its pernicious system, even by establishmentarian reformers like McCarthy.”

In short, many activists who came to Chicago as pacifists or “McCarthy kids” left the city as revolutionaries.

Further Reading

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