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Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Chicago Convention, August 26, 1968

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Today in 1968, the Democratic National Convention opened in Chicago, Illinois. The purpose of the convention was to choose a Democratic nominee for the Presidency of the United States, but it was much more. The four-day gathering became a symbol of the divisions present in American society during the late 1960’s and is today viewed as one of the defining events of that decade.

The divisiveness that existed in the United States in 1968 was more pronounced than at any time since the Civil War. The biggest issue of the day was the Vietnam War, which had cost tens of thousands of American lives with no clear end or exit strategy in sight. Every large college campus in the nation played host to student protests against the war and protestors lined the sidewalk in front of the White House every day, sometimes shouting loud enough that they could be heard inside parts of the mansion. The college-aged kids who constituted the bulk of protestors nationwide were the children of the men and women who had fought in the Second World War. That generation’s notion of service and sacrifice seemed quaint to those who looked at Vietnam as an endless quagmire. Thus was created the term “generation gap”, a phrase used by those who believed anyone over 30 just didn’t “get it”.

1968 also saw the assassination of two giants in American political and cultural life: Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy. King was, for all intents and purposes, the head of the civil rights movement in the United States and had been for most of a decade. Kennedy was the standard bearer for the Kennedy legacy, the younger brother of a popular former President, himself gunned down after less than three years in office. Had Robert Kennedy lived, he would probably have been the Democratic Party’s nominee for President in 1968. With him gone barely two months, the party faced a difficult nomination process.

Today, political party conventions in the United States are well-organized affairs wrapped around speeches by party leaders; the Democratic Convention of 1968 was anything but. The two front-runners for the nomination were Hubert Humphrey, then Vice-President under Lyndon Johnson, and Eugene McCarthy, Senator from the state of Minnesota. McCarthy was fervently anti-war and favored a quick withdrawal of US troops from Southeast Asia. Humphrey believed that troop reductions should be contingent upon advances made during the Paris Peace Talks, a position similar to that of President Johnson. Johnson, also a Democrat, had announced earlier in the year that he would not run for a second term.

Everyone involved in the convention expected a large number of protesters. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley placed an 11PM curfew in effect for the city in the hope of stifling any potential violence. While the crowds were large from the beginning, the first day of the convention was relatively peaceful. Tempers started to flare, however, as protest leaders began stirring up the crowds with speeches and the nomination of Pigasus, the candidate from the Youth International Party which was, as you can guess, a pig. Bands were present both inside and outside the International Amphitheatre, including the Motor City 5, who played for eight hours.

What many of the protestors did not know was that no permits had been issued for the rallies and marches. This was on orders from Mayor Daley, who had hoped that some of demonstrations would disperse as people found out they had assembled illegally. It was not to be. Chicago’s police force and the Illinois National Guard were soon called in to break up the protests, leading to clashes in and around the amphitheatre and in nearby Lincoln and Grant Parks. Tear gas, mace and nightsticks quickly came into use as the protestors fought back or simply refused to disburse.

Things were not much better inside the amphitheater. Anyone seen as having the potential to cause a problem was quickly rounded up and taken away by police or the building’s own security force. Law enforcement was less than careful about who received rough treatment; reporters Dan Rather and Mike Wallace were both manhandled by security with both incidents being caught on film and broadcast to a shocked nation. All told, 119 police officers and 100 protestors were injured during the convention.

Mayor Daley quickly became the focus of blame for the overzealousness of his police force. Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff, in the process of nominating George McGovern, made reference to the “Gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago.” Daley, who was in the crowd inside the amphitheatre, was heard to yell an insult at Ribicoff, something that starts with an “F” and is way beyond the bounds of what should be said on a family-friendly podcast. Daley denied he ever used such a word.
Eight protest leaders among the nearly 600 hundred people arrested were charged with conspiracy for inciting violence at the convention. Bobby Seale, one of the eight, was tried separately after an initial mistrial, leading to the remaining men being referred to as the “Chicago Seven”. All seven were eventually acquitted, but five were found guilty of incitement as individuals. Those convictions were overturned on appeal.

Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic nominee for President, but was beaten in November, 1968 by Richard Nixon. Aware of which way the political winds were blowing, Nixon began slowly drawing down the number of US troops in Vietnam, a process known as “Vietnamization”.

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