When the 1968 Democratic National Convention was awarded to Chicago, Mayor Richard Joseph Daley promised that law and order would prevail during the convention week. The fact that the city had remained quiet during the tumultuous summer of 1967 certainly must have had a calming effect on the organizers when choosing it as the host for the convention. Mayor Daley’s iron grip over the city would keep any protesters in check and would help the Democrats put together a dignified convention so they could re-elect Lyndon Johnson as president. But as the year wore on, things began to fall apart. Johnson’s approval ratings plummeted in the weeks following the Tet Offensive, and he decided not to accept the Democratic nomination. The race came down to Sen. Eugene McCarthy, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, and Sen. Robert Kennedy, but Kennedy was assassinated in June just as he was emerging as the front-runner in the race. The city itself was plunged into violence during the 1968 Chicago race riot, cumulating in Mayor Daley issuing his infamous shoot to kill order.
Protest groups and so-called “radicals” from around the country were targeting the convention as the place to go to get their messages across to the world. Of these, the most interesting was the whimsical Youth International Party, or the Yippies. The group’s leaders, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, reveled in the press coverage they received in the weeks leading up to the convention. They declared that they would fill the Chicago River with LSD and “turn on” the whole city, they would send 230 male Yippies to seduce the delegates’ wives, and that they would pull down Hubert Humphrey’s pants while he was standing at the podium. And the press took it seriously!! When Hoffman goofily told city negotiators that he would call off his plans for a payment of $100,000, the ever-staid Chicago Tribune headline read “Yippies Demand Cash from City.”
But the city should not have been too worried. The Chicago Police Department’s infamous “Red Squad” had already infiltrated many of these evil, communist groups, such as the National Lawyers Guild and the League of Women Voters. The Red Squad knew the real plans of the groups and were already working to disrupt them and set them against each other. When one Red Squad member was caught breaking into the offices of Students for a Democratic Society, Mayor Daley insisted, “The police have a perfect right to spy on private citizens. How else are they going to detect possible trouble before it happens?”
As the convention began on Sunday night, most of the protesters were being confined to Lincoln Park, which was actually several miles from the International Amphitheatre where the convention was being held. Any time the protesters wanted to stage a rally or march out of the park, they were stonewalled by the city and unable to get a permit. If they did manage to get out of the park they were swiftly met by police brandishing their riot batons. By midnight there were only 1,000 people left in the park. Lincoln Park had a curfew of 11:00 p.m., but it was never enforced. This was in the days before air conditioning, and on hot summer nights the park would usually be filled with people sleeping outside. But on this night the police were determined to clear out the park at any cost. For three hours police beat unarmed protesters and reporters until the park was emptied out for the night. One reporter was warned, “the word is out to get the newsmen.”
The next day, as Mayor Daley addressed the convention, he declared, “As long as I am mayor of this city, there is going to be law and order in Chicago.” As he was speaking those words, Lincoln Park was in the middle of what would later be termed a “police riot.” Policemen charged through crowds, firing off tear gas and swinging clubs and chanting “Kill, Kill, Kill.” Some removed their nameplates to avoid being identified. Once again they seemed to be singling out reporters – who were all wearing distinctive white armbands – for harsh treatment. One Chicago Tribune reporter was told he would have his “head busted” if he did not leave.
The Whole World is Watching
The worst fighting occurred on Wednesday. The protesters had been permitted to stage a rally in Grant Park and 10,000 people showed up. Soon a skirmish broke out between police with nightsticks and protesters who were throwing garbage. The rally deteriorated into a brawl, with National Guardsman firing tear gas directly into people’s faces. Things were much worse at the Conrad Hilton Hotel, where most of the delegates were staying. Five thousand protesters were gathered outside the hotel, facing down more than 800 members of the National Guard who were there “protecting” it. Just before 8:00 p.m., deputy police superintendent James Rotchford* ordered the crowd to leave the area, after receiving no response, the police charged.
The violence that followed would later be known as The Battle of Michigan Avenue. Police beat up demonstrators and bystanders, fired tear gas canisters and shoved people through restaurant windows. Demonstrators were knocked to the ground and kicked repeatedly. One secretary, who was walking by the hotel when the violence broke out, later recalled:
I was hit for the first time on the head from behind by what must have been a billy club. I was knocked down, and while on my hands and knees I was hit around the shoulders. I got up again, stumbled, and was hit again. After my second fall I remember being kicked in the back, and I looked up and noticed that many of the policemen around me had no badges on. They just kept hitting me on the head. I eventually made it to the hospital, bleeding badly from a head wound. I needed twelve stitches.
For twenty minutes the police rampaged through the streets, terrorizing anyone they came up against.
The battle on Michigan was carried live to television audiences around the country. The networks would quickly cut back and forth between footage of the attacks and a laughing Mayor Daley on the convention floor, making it look as though he was celebrating the violence. Soon the television monitors in the convention hall began to carry the footage of the attacks. Connecticut senator Abraham Ribicoff took the podium to nominate George McGovern for president and declared, “With George McGovern we wouldn’t have Gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago.” Daley’s face turned bright red as he shook his fist towards the stage and screamed, “Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch, you lousy motherfucker, go home!” Daley’s aids later said that he was calling Ribicoff a “faker.”
As convention week wound down the protests and police attacks ended. Hubert H. Humphrey was eventually nominated for president, despite the last minute efforts of Mayor Daley to draft Senator Edward Kennedy from Massachusetts. The anarchy of the convention no doubt contributed to Humphrey’s defeat by Richard Nixon. Media from around the country decried the violence and they placed most of the blame squarely on the mayor. But the common people, especially the people of Chicago, supported the mayor’s actions, and no doubt became the “silent majority” that gave Nixon the election.
The mayor’s office later published a report on the riots called “Strategy of Confrontation.” The report talked about “revolutionaries” who had come to Chicago to engage in hostilities and the policemen who did their best to avoid being drawn in. It also talked of “schemes to assassinate Eugene McCarthy and Mayor Daley and other political leaders,” and that the protesters had come with “battle supplies” such as “revolutionary literature”, “paint” and “dangerous drugs.”
Some of the protest leaders were eventually tried for inciting a riot. See: The Chicago 7 Trial
Chicago was again awarded the Democratic Convention in 1996. Many police officers were seen wearing shirts saying: “We kicked your father’ s ass and we can kick your ass too.”
*James Rochford is my best friend’s grandfather. He is currently a funny and quick-witted old man.
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