A Killer Kulture
As we mark the 50th anniversary of the Democratic National Convention held in Chicago in 1968, the Democratic National Committee is set to hold a significant meeting – in Chicago – August 24th and through the weekend, to consider election issues that have been critical for a long time.
That coincidence of time and place evoked in me deep memories of the debacle I witnessed 50 years ago.
April 1968 was “the cruelest month”, in the words of T.S. Eliot, blooming in red, black and blue with the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., undisputed king of the civil rights movement, and a hero of mine.
With that spring of 1968 came an offer from my college professor, to join a group of student activists headed to Mississippi for a summer of registering voters of color – mostly African Americans blocked from exercising rights enshrined for them in the Voting Rights Act. I wanted to go with that group.
By 1968 I’d been a foot soldier in the nationwide movement against the war in Vietnam for a few years. I’d helped to swell the ranks of the hundreds of thousands marching in New York and Washington. I’d participated in a reading of the trendy play MacBird! with Smith and Amherst students – as a witch chanting “double, double toil and trouble, Burn Baby Burn and Cauldron Bubble…” I went on to organize teach-ins against the war.
But I hadn’t devoted much time to focusing on civil rights and voting rights. So I called my parents, who always supported my student political activities both morally and financially. “I’m going with a Smith group to register voters in Mississippi!”
After an unexpected, stony silence at the other end of the phone conversation, my father finally responded, “Over my dead body.”
“You’re not going there, Lynn,” my mother added. “You have no idea of the danger involved.” They pointedly reminded me of the gruesome deaths of three CORE field activists, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner just 4 years previously during “Freedom Summer” of 1964.
My parents linked forces to demand that I do something else. When the conversation ended I was, to use a phrase of the time, “hung up”. I couldn’t go without their financial support, and I clearly had neither that nor their emotional support.
A few days later my father called and cheerily informed me that he’d gotten me a position as a liaison assistant between the California McCarthy and Kennedy delegations to the Democratic National Convention, slated for August in Chicago.
“You’ve been working for Gene McCarthy, you like Kennedy…” while my father continued describing what I’d be doing, and whom to contact to prepare for the internship, my mind wandered back in sadness to the death of Dr. King. I felt I’d be letting the great man down, not going to Mississippi now.
But indeed I had been working for the anti-war candidate, Eugene McCarthy, and the thought of being able to join with the big “MOBE”, the Mobilization Committee to End the Vietnam War, was just as compelling. I wanted to join the thousands of students planning to make their collective voice heard by the Democratic party – in an attempt to wrest from it a platform genuinely committed to ending that war.
My parents were relieved when I chose to head for Chicago, likely thinking they’d shielded me from the brutal danger of the bloody world beyond the Mason Dixon line.
Dr. King knew better. In 1966 he had moved his family to Chicago, to expose and change an entrenched segregationist housing policy – which perpetuated the debacle of the slums, in Chicago and nationwide.
During one protest Dr. King organized in 1966, he was struck by a rock thrown from a mob of furious white segregationists. At another protest and march, inspired by a speech Dr. King delivered in Chicago’s Soldier Field, demonstrators marched into white neighborhoods where, King wrote: “…swastikas bloomed in Chicago parks like weeds…our marchers were met by a hailstorm of bricks, bottles and firecrackers…”
In Cicero, a “lily white” neighborhood known for its violent racist attacks on any blacks who tried to live there, 100 police and 2,000 national guard couldn’t control Cicero mobs chanting “Two four six eight, we don’t want to integrate…”
Said Dr. King of Chicago in 1966: “I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hateful as I’ve seen here in Chicago.” King felt dread for his family there. He was challenging, in the name of fair housing, an entrenched power elite of slumlords and realtors… and Mayor Richard J. Daley’s Democratic party machine.
The Daley machine was to set the tone for the Chicago Democratic National Convention that year.
But first, students, activists and the Democratic left – to say nothing of the Kennedy family – were forced to endure the third assassination of a popular, beloved US leader in less than 5 years. Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down in Los Angeles.
I’d returned to LA to prepare for the convention and to get out the vote for Gene McCarthy. But I admired RFK as well. So when he won California’s primary June 4, I was willing to get on board with his campaign. I hoped to bring other McCarthy workers on board as well.
I went to the Ambassador Hotel to see him, to hear his victory speech, and to swell the crowd cheering him on. He was radiant, handsome, ready to win in November – which he would have done handily.
Elated, I returned to my family’s home, rang the bell, and my brother Neal opened the door. “Kennedy’s dead. They killed him.”
I ran into the den where the news was covering on TV the assassination of Robert Kennedy, minutes after it happened, barely an hour after I had left the Ambassador. Shocked mindless, I burst into tears and wept hysterically for about an hour. I was silent, numb, for hours afterward.
We became, then, a nation that could accept assassination of its own chosen leaders. King, Malcolm X, JFK, RFK, the most popular leaders. We could witness it, bury it and never even make an honest attempt to learn from what had happened.
For a teenager this knowledge was devastating. I wondered, what was the point of a democratic process at all if the true representatives of the people’s voice and will could be murdered with impunity – by the hidden “masters of war” unmasked in Bob Dylan’s 1963 song…
The denial was being challenged on all levels of society, with the mass rebellion against the draft for Vietnam; the free speech movement – wherein Mario Savio demanded that we throw our bodies on the gears of the odious war machine our nation had become; the uprising for civil rights and the birth of women’s consciousness. Something huge was happening in the United States.
“Hello Democrats, Welcome to Chicago, the City That Works”
Billboards displayed that slogan August 26th 1968, as the Democratic party convened in Chicago, in a city that would cease to work at all, would become a nationally televised showcase of American alienation, and of highly uncivil discourse.
Most of my time there was spent running between the Hilton Hotel, where Kennedy and McCarthy delegates joined forces to back McCarthy and Kennedy – and Grant park adjacent to the Hilton, where over 10 thousand protesters staged an alternative nonviolent “convention” of their own.
Headed by “Yippie” leaders Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, anti-war activists Dave Dellinger and Rennie Davis, poets and performers like Allen Ginsberg, Jean Genet and Dick Gregory, and inspired by the songs of Phil Ochs, the euphemistically named “youth festival” nominated their own presidential candidate: Pigasus.
Pigasus was indeed a pig. At one point he even had a stand-in, a second pig, when he was arrested along with Hoffman, Rubin and others.
I saw Pigasus as the perfect symbol for this protest, a satire on the word “pig” used to indicate police, and a satire on the game of politics as it was being played.
Curiously, it was our alternative candidate Gene McCarthy who, when interviewed by Norman Mailer for the book “Miami and the Siege of Chicago”, said: “Politicians are like pigs in winter. When things get really cold, they put their noses in each other’s asses to keep warm”.
Gene, with his tough sense of humor, was our former day Bernie Sanders.
Grant Park, August 28, 1968: A young protester lowered the US flag in Grant park, to chants of “Hell No We Won’t Go”, “Hey hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”, “Dump the Hump” (Vice President and candidate Hubert Humphrey) and Phil Ochs’ song “The War is Over”.
Police charged the young man, beating him while nearby protesters chanted “pigs are whores”. The police attacked other protesters who were sitting on the ground in the park, members of Women Strike for Peace, Veterans Against the War, the Poor People’s Campaign, The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, students chanting “Om” with Allen Ginsberg.
The tear gas flowed. Phil Ochs sang while he was tear gassed. A medical supporter stood next to him throwing water in his face while he was singing, but finally he couldn’t any more, and he broke down crying. Then he yelled into the microphone, “Wake up America, can’t you see you’re gassing and beating your own children?”
A chum of mine from my high school days had brought an audio kit, recording all that he witnessed in Chicago those few days, and particularly that “Bloody Wednesday”, as it came to be called.
“I look around me and I see so many cops, I don’t know what to do,” he commented. “I must see at least 500 pigs (there were 700)… I have not always referred to policemen as pigs, but believe me, during this week in Chicago it is very difficult to describe them by any other term.”
“I see the regular army, this is not just the National Guard, the regular army, they have their guns up, they are ready to shoot…. There have to be a couple thousand of them… There are tanks here. Tanks! This has to be one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen, and I guess I’m resigned that this is America. And I feel like crying.”
As violence escalated at Grant park and on the way to the convention hall at the Chicago Amphitheatre, Pigasus seemed a mirror image of the Chicago police, almost exclusively white, crew-cut males whose skin and beige clothing had taken on a weird pink hue in the fog of tear gas surrounding and penetrating everywhere.
Said Dick Gregory, “I think America deserves this, maybe we’ll know what the Vietnamese are going through.”
The police stormed over the area beating, macing and gassing anyone and everyone, in what was officially acknowledged as a police riot. The Walker Report concluded that police used “unrestrained and indiscriminate…violence on many occasions, particularly at night. That violence was made all the more shocking by the fact that it was often inflicted on persons who had broken no law, disobeyed no order, made no threat. These included peaceful demonstrators, onlookers, and large numbers of residents who were simply passing through, or happened to live in areas where confrontations were occurring.”
My high school friend caught up with Louis Lomax, a veteran journalist and an activist at the convention. “I have been in Selma, Montgomery, Little Rock, I’ve been in Cuba… I’ve been in Haiti in the middle of a revolution. I have never in my life seen anything as oppressive and brutal as this…”
Late that evening I had to walk to the bus that would take me to the suburb where I was staying in Chicago. Suddenly a fog of tear gas, two chunky cops waving their nightsticks, sauntering in front of me, laughing together and slapping the sticks on their thighs.
Quickly I hid my convention badge, and my button that said “US Out of Vietnam”.
The cops were a few feet in front of me, cursing and bellowing like bulls, in celebration of their own violence. They stared straight at me. I was invisible.
They looked through me, as if I was permeable, a shade. I turned around slowly and headed back to the Hilton.
I entered the Hilton, where there were two sets of stairs ascending from the lobby to the mezzanine floor. The stairs were packed with people during the entire convention, screaming “We Want Gene!” and “End the War!”.
I stopped to chat briefly with a California delegate, a psychologist, his suit and goatie perfectly middle class. I left him to brave the throng of screamers to the mezzanine. Looking back to wave at him, I saw a crazed cop enter the hotel, grab that psychologist from behind by the neck, slam him on the head with a club, and drag him out. I never saw that delegate again.
Panicked, I grabbed the elevator to the floor where the California delegation had its offices, to tell them what I’d just seen. The elevator door opened just as the elevator next to mine opened. What I saw was that Mary McCarthy, Gene’s daughter, fell out of that elevator, a cop behind her, hitting her with his stick.
I ran down to the California delegation office and blurted out everything I’d seen . People rushed out in the direction of the elevators. A television was blaring… I sank into a chair, stared at it.
It was TV coverage of the convention at the Chicago International Amphitheater, where network journalists had been attacked by police on the floor of the hall. There, as people chanted “the whole world is watching”, Mayor Richard J. Daley was flipping the finger to the cameras.
When Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff nominated George McGovern for president, he condemned the police violence, saying “With George McGovern as president of the United States, we wouldn’t have to have Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago.” Many witnessed that Mayor Daley responded “Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch.”
I sat numbly in front of the TV, long enough to witness an ill-famed debate between commentators William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal. The vitriolic rhetoric flew between them and escalated.
As I vividly recall it, they were focusing on police brutality during the convention, Vidal was emphasizing the police violations of freedom of assembly, and Buckley was singling out leaders like Tom Hayden to criticize. Finally, as I heard it, Vidal called Buckley a “fucking fascist” and Buckley retorted “you fucking fag”. Video of the debate appears to have been cut and pasted – and Vidal refers to Buckley as a “crypto-Nazi” prompting Buckley to yell “Now listen here you queer…”, threatening to beat up Vidal.
Herein lies a mystery of my convention chronicle. You see, those words were not the words I heard. I truly heard “you fucking fascist” and “you fucking fag”… Look at this footage, it’s been edited at precisely the moment to which I refer.
Even if I was advised by the most reputable of “experts” that I remember it wrongly, I was a clear-eyed teen, with perfect hearing, perfect eyesight.
Meanwhile, on the convention floor, 350 delegates wept openly when the heir presumptive, Hubert H. Humphrey, was nominated on the first vote early in the morning of August 29th. He was a candidate ushered in by party insiders, one who had not even run in any state primary election…
Humphrey’s appearance at the convention was delayed because he’d been disabled by tear gas, while taking a shower in the Hilton.
But appear he did, and the pandemonium on the convention floor was not enthusiasm for him. California gave him only 14 of its 174 votes, the remainder going to Gene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. 70% of Democrats wanted either McCarthy or Kennedy.
When the bunting was ripped down, the citizen chorus loosed its grip on Chicago, and the tear gas blew away, what remained of the deeply fractious, violent, marvelous apotheosis that was the 1968 Democratic national convention?
There were the recriminations and the prosecutions. Eight leaders of the anti-war and civil rights movements were put on trial for “conspiring to cause riots” – as if they could set the police in motion.
During the trial of the Chicago 8, the theatrical absurdity of the proceedings was literally embodied by the physical restraint of Bobby Seale, a founder of the Black Panther party – bound to a chair and gagged throughout most of the “trial”. A poster child for the suppression of free speech.
But no other television I’ve ever viewed was as real as the coverage of the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Newscasters were caught broadside by the events in Chicago. They couldn’t help but show the United States, its politics and parties, for what we truly are.
That was reality TV. Our current fare doesn’t hold a candle to it. Coverage of the 1968 Democratic National Convention had authenticity that exposes our current “reality TV” for what it is. Canned, fake.
“There’s a Battle Outside and It’s Raging”
I came of age in a nation that murdered you for taking certain moral stands, and for having certain political viewpoints. Clearly, those labeled “left wing”, “liberal”, “progressive” were in physical danger in America. The so-called “right wing” – not so much.
And as the Republican party has become more bigoted, more exclusive, more greedy, more ruthless and undemocratic in its strategy and tactics, we on the left have appealed to the Democratic party to listen to us, to vision with us, to help drag this nation, violently kicking and screaming if need be, to its stated goal of “one nation – with liberty and justice for all.”
One of the reasons the election of 2016 was handed to the hateful incompetent, is that the 2016 Democratic National Committee insiders went out of their way to reject and alienate Bernie delegates. We know that for fact now, because of the email scandals.
My syndicated media series, Women Rising Radio, asked a California Bernie delegate, Cecili Antares, to act as a correspondent to the convention for us. What she reported sounded like a warmed over, tightly controlled Chicago 1968. It wasn’t as violent. It was more subtle… for example, Bernie supporters were forbidden to hold up signs for him. They were given “Stronger Together” signs, and told when to hold them up.
Of course they didn’t follow orders. They walked out instead.
Scroll down to Cecili’s convention coverage at:
Fifty years after Chicago 1968, we struggle with many of the same issues: with government assaults against constitutional rights; with police brutality augmented by “urban shield” military weaponry, and exacerbated against communities of color; with the rights of free speech and free assembly.
Is it just a coincidental irony that a key Democratic National Committee meeting is being held this week in Chicago? It certainly isn’t a passing irony that progressives are pressing for a vote there, to eliminate the influence of super delegates in future Democratic presidential primaries. The grassroots base wants more democracy from the Democrats.
And we are decisively slamming open the hallways of government, replacing insiders like the Bronx’s Crowley, with new visionaries like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez.
“Come Senators, Congressmen please heed the call, don’t stand in the doorways, don’t block up the halls…” So sang Dylan, and so we say today. Get out of the way if you can’t lend a hand.
Democratic party insiders, yes you, whose campaign money comes from Wall Street and scheming corporate lobbyists, and whose fat salaries are paid by our taxes – we “leftists”, we “progressives”, call us what you wish, we appeal to you again.
Will you embrace us truly, and our critical issues? Will you democratize the Democratic party? Or….
“Will our children ever forgive us for our own dismal confusion?” from “1918” Michael Parenti
“Democracy is a very fragile flower. It’s very difficult to make it grow, and so easy to trample it.” Yanis Varufakis