Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"The Whole World Is Watching": The Democratic Disaster in Chicago

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Here, I describe the disastrous Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August 1968.

Like Richard Nixon, by 1968 Vice President Hubert Humphrey had sought the presidency for eight years. Unlike Nixon, however, Humphrey had to answer for the unpopularity of Johnson’s war in Vietnam. Humphrey avoided the party’s primaries, preferring to campaign behind the scenes, lining up the support of Democratic Party bosses who controlled a majority of the delegates who would attend the Democratic Party Convention in August.

Approximately 80 percent of Democratic primary voters had supported the chief anti-war candidates, Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy. However, the math that mattered was that in thirty-three states, pro-administration party officials chose who would attend the convention. Throughout the 1968 campaign, Humphrey would not clearly break with the president on Vietnam.

To the young, rebellious voters who backed the anti-war candidates Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy in particular, Humphrey seemed the embodiment of a hack machine politician. “A balding man who dyed his remaining hair an implausible shade, often sounded fatuous, and seemed unable to free himself from the yoke of a dubious president, Humphrey came across to many as a parody of all the establishment’s failures,” author Charles Kaiser wrote. “He hardly needed any additional disadvantages in his quest for younger supporters. However, by ignoring the primaries, and getting nearly all his delegates through the party’s power brokers, the vice president was making a difficult situation impossible.”

Humphrey campaign rallies in the summer drew few supporters, but many war protestors shouting, “Dump the Hump!” and “Bring the Troops Home!” often drowned out the vice president’s words. Even Johnson preferred that Republican Nelson Rockefeller replace him in the White House rather than Humphrey.

A bad atmosphere pervaded Chicago even before the Democratic National Convention started. Several strikes – by telephone installers, electrical workers, and bus and taxi drivers – made communication and transportation difficult. Daley turned the International Amphitheatre, where the Democrats convened, into a war zone. Barbed wire that could be electrified surrounded the building, as did a literal army of 12,000 police officers working 12-hour shifts, 6,000 National Guardsmen as well as another 6,000 soldiers who, as Kaiser noted, “were armed with rifles, flamethrowers, and bazookas.”

Anti-war activists planned a confrontation in Chicago during the convention. The Youth International Party, or Yippies, and other activists anticipated that the Chicago Police, under corrupt and almost dictatorial Democratic Mayor Richard Daley, would respond with violence to anti-war protestors outside the Democratic Convention. A bloody clash, Yippies like Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman hoped, would prove that the United States had become a police state.

The Yippies saw politics as theater of the absurd. By dressing and acting in a ridiculous way, they hoped to illuminate what they saw as the farcical, unreal actions of the political establishment. When the Yippies requested permission to camp at Grant Park during the convention, they dispatched a white girl dressed in a Native American costume who went by the name Helen Running Water, who presented the permit form to Deputy Mayor David Stahl wrapped in a Playboy magazine Playmate of the Month photo upon which was written the message, “To Dick [Daley], with love – the Yippies.”

The press heavily covered the Yippies’ plans for convention week, whether they were real or not. Leaders Hoffman and Rubin announced they would contaminate the city’s water supply with copious amounts of the psychedelic drug LSD (chlorine used by the Chicago water department would have neutralized any attempt to spike water), that Yippie women would seduce convention delegates and slip LSD into their drinks, that ten thousand nude protestors would hold a “float-in” in Lake Michigan, and so on. Meanwhile, more serious and more politically focused protestors led by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) figures such as Tom Hayden, also converged on the city.

Daley had given his police department “shoot to kill orders.” The city banned any permits for groups wanting to camp at city parks. Protestors ignored the order and occupied Lincoln Park. Late on the Sunday night before the convention opened, the police charged into the protestor encampment determined to clear the anti-war protestors from the area. Yippies and others yelled, “Pigs!” and cried “Oink, oink,” prompting many officers to shout, “Kill the Commies!” as they cracked the heads of young people with nightsticks. A Chicago police officer shouted an obscenity at a Newsweek magazine reporter when he displayed his press credentials and clubbed him on the head and body. Police injured ten journalists that evening.

While pro-Johnson delegates at the convention shot down a Vietnam peace plank by a vote of 1,567 ¾ to 1041 ½, around 10,000 protestors gathered in nearby Grant Park. On Wednesday, disappointed and angry Eugene McCarthy supporters (who realized that the fix was in and that the convention would anoint Humphrey as the nominee) joined Yippies and the more conventional anti-war types who had participated in earlier events like the March on the Pentagon.

One demonstrator donning an army helmet attempted to remove the American flag from a flagpole at Grant Park and was mauled by police. Another group took the flag down and replaced it with a red T-shirt, provoking what a later investigative commission would call a “police riot.” Swinging nightsticks and pelting the protestors with tear gas and Mace, Chicago police launched a full-scale crackdown. As TV cameras rolled, the footage competing with scenes inside the convention hall, viewers watched as police bloodied protestors and innocent bystanders as well. Police pushed onlookers, reporters and demonstrators on the sidewalks of Michigan Avenue through plate-glass windows fronting the Hilton Hotel. Meanwhile, protestors chanted, “The Whole World Is Watching.”

The disorder inside the convention hall often matched the battle raging outside. On the second night of the convention, television viewers saw Daley’s security people punch CBS News reporter Dan Rather in the stomach, prompting the anchor of the network’s convention coverage, Walter Cronkite, to remark, "I think we've got a bunch of thugs here, if I may be permitted to say so."

Humphrey’s inevitable nomination served as a harder truth for protestors and many delegates. Just before midnight the night of the Grant Park riot, the vice president had secured enough votes for the nomination, and he eventually secured 1,761 ¾ votes, to 601 for McCarthy, 146 ½ for McGovern and 100 split among other candidates. His nomination defined the term “Pyrrhic victory.” More relevant than the nomination was the image fixed in the minds of the voters, of the Democrats as a party of violence and anarchy. In contrast, the relatively calm Republican convention projected an image for Nixon and the GOP as the forces of law and order.

As Humphrey celebrated his nomination, five hundred marched in a candlelight vigil, which the organizers described as a “funeral” for democracy. During the convention, more than 12,009 had been arrested. A total of 65 journalists covering the convention had been assaulted and/or arrested. Area hospitals reported treating 111 demonstrators, while volunteers with the Medical Committee for Human Rights reported treating more than 1,000 at the scenes of protests. Polls afterwards showed that a clear majority of Americans supported the actions against the protestors taken by the mayor and his police department. At a press conference on September 9, Daley, famous for being tongue-tied, announced, “The policeman isn’t there to create disorder, the police is there to preserve disorder.”


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

No comments: