Chicago, Chicago: how 1968’s unrest is still making waves

Almost 50 years on, the American electoral system is still trying to come to terms with what happened at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” said American novelist William Faulkner. Chicago in 1968 is a good example.

Almost 50 years on, the American electoral system is still trying to come to terms with what happened at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, just a year after the Summer of Love.

It was late August and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson had decided not to run again, either because of CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite’s anti-Vietnam editorial, Vietnam itself, general civil unrest, or an interpretation of the two-term rule (he’d served out the late President John F. Kennedy’s term and one of his own).

Sen. Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King had both been assassinated earlier in the year. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey was the front-runner, but the late Robert Kennedy (he was killed in June) and Eugene McCarthy had more combined votes. Humphrey won the nomination with Sen. Edmund Muskie as his running mate. (Republican Richard Nixon beat Humphrey for the presidency in November 1968.)

But outside of the convention hall in August 1968 in Chicago, there was even more intrigue. The National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE), the Youth International Party (Yippies), and the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) mounted protests and festivals. Yippies were for decentralization and communal living. They favoured stunts and pranks. Their plan to levitate the Pentagon building in 1967 was designed to mock institutions and authority.

The Yippies planned a six-day Festival of Life. They also threatened to block roads, storm the convention and put the hallucinogenic drug LSD in the drinking water.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley was famous for helping many vote repeatedly for John Kennedy in 1960. He may have extended the franchise to dead people, too. Daley refused to let MOBE or Yippies have a permit to protest. He had 6,000 Illinois National Guardsmen, 12,000 police officers and another 6,000 troops airlifted to Chicago as the convention began.

Yippie leader Jerry Rubin and folk singer Phil Ochs nominated a pig for president. They, the pig and six others were arrested. Further protests and fights occurred in Lincoln Park and then on the streets – the Battle of Michigan Avenue.

Daley was denounced from the podium in the convention, and he responded with what appeared to be expletives and anti-Semitic remarks.

The eventual inquiry noted provocation by protesters. It also note “police violence … often inflicted upon persons who had broken no law, disobeyed no order, made no threat … simply passing through, or happened to live in, the areas where confrontations were occurring. [Journalists and] … photographers were singled out for assault, and their equipment deliberately damaged.” (Walker, 1968 in Joyce and Wain, 2014). It was called a “police riot” for which there was no disciplinary action.

Yippies and others were charged with conspiracy and incitement to riot. They were the Chicago Eight: Abbie Hoffman, Rubin, Lee Weiner, Tom Hayden, David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, John Froines and Bobby Seale. The courtroom took on a riotous atmosphere – Seale was gagged and chained to his chair to prevent his outbursts. The judge sentenced all of them (Seale for contempt of court) and two attorneys to long sentences. The sentences were all overturned on appeal.

The evidence that the past is not even the past is that a new generation of protesters has learned from Chicago. Those in the Occupy movement, The Rules, the anti-globalization movement, hack-tivists and many others, have harnessed the web and social media to reach people. They sometimes don’t turn out a crowd but they do churn out chaos digitally.

Meanwhile, American political parties have tried to correct the errors of Chicago by having primaries and caucuses judge the will of the people, or super-delegates express the will of longstanding and successful party members.

What few foresaw was a candidate who might marry the will of the people, the stunts of the Yippies and the power of reality TV.

The lessons of Chicago in 1968 live on.

 Troy Media columnist Dr. Allan Bonner has consulted on some of the major planning and public policy issues of our time on five continents over 25 years. He is the author of Safer Cities. 

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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