Taking it to the Streets: Protesting at the 1968 Democratic National Convention

2020-08-07T14:29:16-04:00July 23, 2020|

Excerpted from Conspiracy to Riot: The Life and Times of one of the Chicago 7 (Belt Publishing, 2020)

By Lee Weiner

On the Saturday before the convention, the park began to fill up a little more, mainly with young people, but also with straighter looking, somewhat older guys everybody assumed were undercover cops. Things stayed relaxed, though, and if the crowd still wasn’t as large as we’d hoped, the day was pleasant enough.

But that night, a little past the 11:00 p.m. curfew, cops came in on three-wheeled motorcycles or walking in small skirmish lines. They moved fairly slowly and without much apparent malice to clear everybody out, and they stopped their efforts when they reached the park’s outer perimeter. Allen Ginsberg led a fair-sized group of people out toward the west; I walked south out of the park with other folks to where I had parked my car. Driving back to my apartment, I remember thinking, “that wasn’t so bad.” But I was still worrying about what might be coming on other nights. I was right to be concerned.

On Sunday, the Mobe [National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam] had planned to begin its actual demonstrations against the war and to protest the convention with marches and picketing around some of the hotels where delegates were staying. I helped organize a picket in front of the Conrad Hilton on Michigan Avenue, the major hotel for convention delegates. Later in the afternoon, a march of several hundred people from Lincoln Park—led by the effective co-leaders of the Mobe, Dave Dellinger, Rennie [Davis], and Tom [Hayden]—joined the picket lines. In the meantime, the Yippies [Youth International Party] were setting up in the park for a concert by the MC-5, the only band that showed up in Chicago. By late afternoon, the park had filled up with people, and there was music, balloons, and free food.

It didn’t take very long before things became less idyllic. When the electric power for the band failed, there were minor clashes between small groups of police and young people, resulting in several protesters being clubbed and arrested. But things calmed down fairly quickly, and there were still a lot of questions about what people might do when the cops tried to enforce the curfew that night and how rough the cops might be. Before the 11:00 p.m. curfew, I was talking with a group of marshals, along with some others, when Tom [Hayden, of the Mobe] and Wolfe [Lowenthal, of the Yippies] were grabbed by two cops who had seen them deflating the tires on an unmarked police car. Tom had been under constant surveillance, and he and Wolfe were trying to give him a break from being watched by the police. Acting without any plan, and only reacting to what we saw going on, a group of us crowded around the cops and Tom and Wolfe, chanting to let them go. There were a lot of us, and only the two cops, so they released them.

Conspiracy to Riot - WeinerAt 11:00 p.m., the cops again moved to clear the park, only this time much more aggressively. With a few other marshals, I moved in front of their skirmish lines, encouraging people to leave and telling them there was no good place to fight where they were. But even though most people slowly gave way and moved west out of the park, some kids resisted, throwing bottles and lighting fires in trash cans. One of them was caught by two cops who clubbed him repeatedly in the head and left him bleeding on the ground. Once the police were at the border of the park, they didn’t stop as they had the night before. This time they crossed over into the nearby neighborhood and began chasing and clubbing anyone they could—kids, local residents, newspaper reporters, and photographers—as they rampaged to clear the streets. There wasn’t even the charade of arrests; it was all brutal, physical punishment for daring to be out on the streets.

I was still walking behind a small crowd of people I was helping to herd out of the park when in front of me, two cops used their clubs to beat a kid who was on his knees with his arms up, trying to deflect the blows. Then another cop caught me from behind and clubbed me hard on my upper left arm and back. But he was more interested in chasing down a group of three or four kids who were taunting him with cries of “Pig!” so I luckily managed to get out of the way and into a sheltering doorway. Small groups of cops were everywhere, hitting, jabbing with their clubs, and beating anyone they caught. Some of the protesters tried to fight back by throwing rocks or bottles, then running and turning back to scream at the cops, and then maybe throwing something else before running again. My arm was hurting and I’d had enough, so I got to my car and left. The hit-and-run fighting on the streets went on into the early hours of Monday morning.

On Monday afternoon, after an uneventful opening of the convention that no one on the streets was paying any attention to, the police arrested Tom and Wolfe in the park again for messing up the cop car the evening before. Rennie quickly organized a march downtown to demand Tom’s freedom. After the previous night’s violence, none of us were particularly happy about cooperating with the demands of the cops to stay on the sidewalk. The people marching were bunched closely together, loudly jeering the cops or chanting for Tom to be freed. The crowd also occasionally heckled the demonstration marshals for trying to keep folks moving and as separated from the cops as they could be. By the time we got just south of the Hilton on Michigan Avenue along Grant Park, people had had enough of being “permitted” to protest.

Twenty or thirty young kids in the march broke away, ran up a gently rising slope to the statue of Civil War General Logan riding his horse, and climbed the statue. A few carried up and waved Vietcong flags. I stood at the bottom of the hill, behind a line of angry cops who circled the statue in preparation for winning it back. I was worried about kids being hurt, but I was also experiencing a fierce joy and pride at their defiance. The cops didn’t wait long. They charged into the small crowd at the base of the statue, then struggled to grab and remove the two or three kids who had climbed to the top of the statue and seemed determined to resist them.

That defiance carried over into the park that night. I was walking around the park close to eleven, and I could hear people arguing in favor of getting out of the park before the cops attacked and back onto the streets where it would be easier to fight back. Some did leave, but there was a strong core that weren’t going to exit the park. I watched them build a flimsy barricade by piling together park benches, picnic tables, and ripped-up wooden fencing they tossed over the trash baskets.

The impossibly bright lights from TV camera crews trying to film what was going on would briefly illuminate the building of the barricade and other small slices of the park. In the background were loudspeaker warnings from the cops about the curfew. Each one drew chanted responses of “We won’t go! We won’t go!” When a police car moved slowly toward the

barricade, protestors threw stones at it. When the car stopped, its windows were broken by a barrage of more stones. Other cops began lobbing tear gas canisters over the barricade. Some of them, outfitted with gas masks, began assaulting anyone they could reach before the gas finally drove almost everyone out of the park.

I was gassed. My eyes wouldn’t stop tearing up and they burned. I forced myself to take short, shallow breaths, but my chest still hurt. I kept trying to spit out the saliva collecting in my mouth. Walking out toward Old Town, I knew enough not to rub my eyes, and finally got some sort of liquid to rinse my face and eyes from one of the volunteer nurses who was working on the streets with the Medical Committee for Human Rights. The only cops I saw who were not using their clubs to viciously beat people either had shotguns and pistols out in a far more menacing posture, or were wearing the white shirts of police lieutenants and captains and were just watching the show. I avoided getting hit that night, but shotguns in the hands of enraged cops scared me, and when I drove home, I was unsure what I should be doing on the streets.

I spent most of Tuesday resting in Lincoln Park with lots of other people, thinking and worrying about what would come that night. I spoke to Jerry [Rubin, an anti-war demonstrator, and one of my oldest friends] and we shared war stories—where we’d been, what we’d done so far. He was filled with energy and excitement. After a few minutes, he bounded off to introduce a new speaker named Bobby Seale, who was the Chairman of the Black Panther Party, an avowed socialist, disciplined revolutionary black political organization, which was deeply admired by the white Left. Nobody in the Yippie or Mobe leadership really knew Bobby; he was a last-minute substitute for Eldridge Cleaver, an even more prominent member of the Panthers who people did know. Bobby gave a tough speech to an enthusiastic crowd of young people about resisting the pigs and an oppressive, racist power system.

That evening, knowing the fighting would begin again in both the park and the streets, I couldn’t bring myself to leave the park, even for the “Anti-Birthday Party” for LBJ that the Yippies and the Mobe were hosting at the Coliseum, an indoor space south of the Loop. I stayed in the park, and I was there to see a group of grown-ups, some wearing clerical collars and helped by a few of the kids, carry a big wooden cross into the park. They conducted a long prayer service I didn’t pay attention to. I was certain it was intended to ask for peace, and possibly even understanding and forgiveness, but I wasn’t ready to forgive anybody, and I was certain there’d be no peace that night.

There wasn’t. On Tuesday night, with no particular provocation from the people in the park, but acting on the city’s determination to clear the park and punish demonstrators, the cops threw more gas at us more quickly. They had borrowed a gas-dispensing machine of some sort from the army, rigged it onto a garbage truck, and then sent the truck into the park. But while the lines of gas-masked cops were able to catch and beat some people, we were all faster out of the park that night. On the streets it was all hit-and- run action, with small groups of protestors throwing rocks and bottles, running away, and then anxiously waiting for another cop car to come by to throw rocks at. I joined up with a small group on the street and did my own share of throwing rocks and bottles at police cars.

Whatever had been going on inside the convention, and whatever would happen, had become almost completely irrelevant to any of us. The convention was happening in a different, almost imaginary city. Reality was what we were experiencing on the streets.

Wednesday, August 28, was the only day a permit had been granted for a protest rally, and the Mobe was determined to make use of it. I went to a morning meeting in the Mobe office with many other marshals and heard the Mobe leadership decide that people would be given choices. After the rally at the Grant Park bandshell located just across from the Loop, they could join a nonviolent march to the Amphitheatre where the convention was being held, leave the park and gather in front of the Hilton hotel on Michigan Avenue for a rally, or just disperse and do what they could to stay safe.

More out of a continuing sense of obligation than any belief that it would make any positive difference, I joined in helping the marshals form a ragged protective line between the thousands of people at the bandstand rally and the more disciplined ranks of police who were lined up with their clubs on the west side of the crowd. I paid almost no attention to the speeches, even though I saw and heard Jerry early on. I was watching the cops, trying to anticipate any menace.

Younger kids and the tougher veterans of the previous nights in the park were there as well. But I was also a little stunned at how many classic anti-war, older, straighter people were there, sitting in white folding chairs and on benches. It was almost as if they hadn’t gotten the news that the demonstrations against the war in Chicago had become dangerous and violent.

While the speeches were still going on, some kid decided to climb the flagpole and lower the flag to half-mast as a signal of distress. When the cops suddenly charged into the crowd to get to him, they knocked me over and made sure I was well trampled, then moved on without even bothering to hit me. They knocked over other marshals and people seated in chairs, randomly clubbing people in a rage and fury. As the incident escalated, Rennie ran over to try to help re-form the marshal line, but the cops recognized him, clubbed him to the ground, and continued beating him bloody until he managed to crawl away under some fencing. Rennie would later need thirteen stitches on his head.

Then the cops pulled back almost as quickly as they had charged, and the rally continued on with its speeches. Tom made an angry plea, demanding people join him on the streets, and then Dave gave people the option to join the nonviolent march he would lead to the Amphitheatre, to just stay in the park, or to join in “other actions.” Acting out of my last shreds of obligation, I joined the other marshals who were helping people line up to march with Dave and other Mobe leaders out of the park. Dave was at the head of the somewhat frightened but determined crowd. Despite his last-minute, heroic-sounding public declarations, nobody was seriously thinking anymore about actually getting to the Amphitheatre where the convention was being held. Instead, most of us were hoping to simply move toward Michigan Avenue and the Hilton hotel that was housing many of the convention delegates.

I was walking toward the front of the crowd and off to one side when Dave and the rest of us were stopped by a couple of police cars and National Guard jeeps. Some command police officers and two or three armed guardsmen blocked the street and sidewalks we were on. The jeeps had semi-coiled barbed wire strung in front them from each bumper up to the top of the hoods.

I listened and watched as Dave patiently endured being stopped before stubbornly insisting he was going to continue on in a peaceful but determined manner to Michigan Avenue and the Amphitheatre. In the meantime, people in the crowd had discovered that there were unblocked streets just to our north that also led out of the park and onto Michigan Avenue. The whole back half of crowd, and then most of the people behind Dave, began half-running, half-flowing out toward the north and around the blockaded street. But Dave stayed in his quiet confrontation with the police and guardsmen.

I finally left him and joined the crowd crossing over the Jackson Boulevard Bridge into the Loop. I slowly worked my way closer to the Hilton, occasionally bumping into people I knew from Lincoln Park. I also talked with a small group of marshals, still together and determined to stay on the street and fight back against the cops whatever might happen.

Around eight that evening, police lines were stretched across Balbo, blocking any further movement south, and along both sides of Michigan Avenue. Thousands and thousands of demonstrators massed near the Hilton in front of the stationary network TV cameras that had been mounted in front of the hotel all week to catch the delegates come and go. I never heard what I assume was a pro forma, half-hearted order for the crowd to disperse before the police simply charged. This time they were using clubs, fists, knees, and mace on anyone they came close to in the crowd. People at the front and along the edges of the crowd were fighting back and throwing rocks, and it all became a fierce swirl of fighting and people being beaten to the ground, arrested, and dragged into paddy wagons while still being clubbed.

I was toward the front of the crowd on the east side of the street, closer to the park than the Hilton, when it began. I heard men and women screaming as they were being hurt by clubs or sprayed with mace, but the first police rush didn’t reach me immediately. I was soon clubbed on my left arm and side, but people around me had already started running to get away, so I had time and space to avoid getting trapped by the charging cops. I succeeded in disengaging from the crush of yelling and fighting and, a little dazed, I walked a short distance north up Michigan Avenue to the wide steps of the Art Institute.

Sitting on the steps of the museum, I smoked a cigarette and watched the surging crowds on the street. For the first and only time in my life, I thought that maybe a revolution could actually happen in America. I still take time to remember August 28 every year and have a drink or two for who we all used to be. The fighting in the streets lasted for what seemed like hours, until most of the crowd had either been beaten and arrested or had finally scrambled away onto the side streets away from Michigan Avenue. ■

 

 

Lee Weiner was born and raised on Chicago’s South Side. His activist life began with free-speech demonstrations at the University of Illinois in 1960, included community organizing in desperately poor neighborhoods in Chicago, and led to his indictment in the notorious Chicago 7 trial in 1969. His later political work included direct response fundraising for members of Congress and national non-profit organizations. Along the way, he collected a couple of master’s degrees and a PhD in sociology. He now lives in Florida.

Cover image: A demonstrator falls to the pavement as he is pursued by Chicago Police officers carrying nightsticks on Aug. 27, 1968, during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. (Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

Belt Magazine is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. To support more independent writing and journalism made by and for the Rust Belt and greater Midwest, make a donation to Belt Magazine, or become a member starting at just $5 a month

 

Get the best regional writing sent straight to your inbox.