Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Chaos in Chicago

"The confrontation was not created by the police; the confrontation was created by the people who charged the police.

"Gentlemen, let's get the thing straight, once and for all. The policeman isn't there to create disorder; the policeman is there to preserve disorder."

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley
August 1968

I think it is fair to say that America in 1968 was a nation mired in a malaise.

It had not been an uplifting year. It began with the Tet offensive in Vietnam that showed everyone how easily the Viet Cong could penetrate the grounds of an American military post.

In the months ahead, first Martin Luther King and then Bobby Kennedy were assassinated and then, a week before the Democrats were scheduled to hold their convention and nominate their presidential candidate, Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia.

And through it all were the demonstrations. They never seemed to end. Most of the demonstrations were against the war in Vietnam, but others were focused on other things — racial injustice, sexual injustice, the "gap" between the generations.

If there was one thing on which the average American could depend, it was that each night's news report would have something about a demonstration for or against something somewhere.

There would be some uplifting moments later in the year, but 45 years ago today, there wasn't much for anyone to be happy about.

The Democrats were holding their 1968 national convention in Chicago. There was important business on the agenda — the nominations for president and vice president took center stage, but there was unrest in the land as well. A sizable portion of the population had soured on American involvement in Vietnam, crime seemed to be out of control, and racial discord could be seen in every major American city.

Perhaps no one summed up the scene better than historian Theodore H. White in his book, "The Making of the President 1968."

"A contagion of madness, a sense of helplessness, a sickening loss of control denying order and identity to all, had been spreading" prior to the start of the convention, he wrote.

By the second day of the convention — 45 years ago today — nearly all of Chicago "slept peacefully and went to work tranquilly," White observed, "[b]ut, politically, the contagion had begun to flush and agitate downtown Chicago with high fever."

Chicago, in August 1968, was about to put on display, for the whole world to see, a microcosm of the division that gripped America.

It was probably inevitable that there would be a clash between the dissatisfied (i.e., radical) elements of American society and the Chicago police, who represented (in the public's eyes) the establishment. Both were moving into place like planets forming a celestial line, the immoveable object and the irresistible force.

Something had to give.

I watched it unfold on TV, I heard Abraham Ribicoff accuse the Chicago police of "Gestapo tactics," and I asked my parents what was happening, but they never found the words to explain it all. I guess it was too complicated for a child to comprehend.

Actually, it was pretty hard for adults to comprehend, too. My parents had trouble explaining it to me, and I always figured that meant they didn't understand everything, either.

I remember that my father got frustrated and stopped trying to explain. In hindsight, it seems like that scene was replayed in many households around that time. And that was the thing that stood out about the Vietnam era, I suppose — very little seemed to make sense, and, consequently, very little could be adequately explained.

To be sure, it was a surreal scene. There was chaos outside the convention hall, but there was chaos within as well. CBS newsmen Mike Wallace and Dan Rather were roughed up by security guards on live television. CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite observed, "I think we've got a bunch of thugs here."

Viewers clearly got the sense they were watching actual muggings — in living color, to use the popular broadcasters' phrase of the time.

Outside the hall, police were beating demonstrators in the streets. There was a lot of what appeared to be smoke, but it was probably tear gas. There was commotion in Grant Park, where Barack Obama would celebrate his first election as president 40 years later.

While the nation and the world watched on TV, demonstrators retreated to Grant Park and re–formed, chanting "Sieg heil" or "Stop the war!" over and over as they protested under the watchful eyes of the broadcast media.

As Tuesday became Wednesday, other groups joined with the original group — and the folks watching at home saw total mayhem in the streets and at the convention hall, which journalist Terry Southern described as "a military installation; barbed wire, checkpoints, the whole bit."

The Walker Report described what took place in Chicago as a "police riot."

And the sight of the chaos in the streets of Chicago — compared to the relative calm of the Republicans' convention in Miami a few weeks earlier — may well have played an important role in Richard Nixon's eventual victory in November.

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