Perspectives: Fighting in the Streets: The 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention.

This short essay was first published in the Wichita Eagle on Thursday, August 8, 1996 as part of a short-lived experiment the newspaper conducted called “The Eagle Writer’s Group”. It was short lived because the writers tended to publish controversial, original, topical and unusual stories that didn’t fit the profile the newspaper was trying to establish for “civic dialogue”. However, I’d been on the streets of Chicago during 1968, being chased by the police, tear-gassed, harassed. I narrowly escaped being beaten by a beefy, outraged cop. During three days on the streets in front of the Hilton Hotel, I watched as Peter, Paul and Mary appeared downstairs and attempted to give first aid to injured kids. Eugene McCarthy (who bravely crossed Michigan Avenue alone and addressed the “protesters” while standing on a park bench) did something one can’t imagine a United States Senator doing now by joining a “mob”, as did Allan Ginsburg, who looked right at home among the hippie throngs. I’m proud of my days in Chicago.  Not long after this essay was published, the “Wichita Eagle” abandoned the ‘Writer’s Group’ concept and toed the Republican line.

In the month of August 1819, some 10,000 men, women an children congregated in the borough of Peterloo, Manchester, England. Being farmers, artisans, home craftsmen, petty-bourgeoisie and peasants, their purpose was to air a grievance against the rotten, aristocratic regency government that had given them hunger, Imperial war, Corn Laws (driving up the price of bread) and high taxes. Many were starving after bad harvests. Most were just then being forced from their traditional cottage-work into huge factories where they were paid slave hour-wages. In these grim and sooty confinements they worked arm-in-arm with their own children and wives for 16 hours a day, six days a week.

As the Peterloo crowd listened to speeches, suddenly an armed force appeared from all sides, Crown soldiers on horseback, ruffians hired by emergent capitalist factory owners, magistrate police. By all reports, 11 were killed and hundreds wounded, the majority of men by sabre wounds, the women and children from being trampled by horses’ hooves, in what came to be known as the “Peterloo Massacre”. In the years that followed, an embarrassed government represented by the Whigs and Tories of the “King and Church” faction attempted to revise the history of Peterloo. The crowd, so said the Tories, “carried pitchforks and staves.” Some had cudgels. They were a seditious rabble.*

During another August—1968—political conditions in Chicago, Illinois were unsettled as well. A huge Asian war was being prosecuted by the United States. Many students and intellectuals said it was an evil and immoral war. So did many religious leaders and politicians. Many of these, perhaps 3,000 or 4,000, gathered in Grant Park across from the Hilton Hotel where many Democratic Party leaders had made their campaign headquarters in conjunction with the Democratic National Convention then being held. The purpose of the crowd was to air a grievance against a relentlessly arrogant military-industrial government.

That summer I was a naïve 21 year-old. Through a college friend whose father was a Sedgwick County Kansas politico I was invited to go to the convention “floor” to see democracy in action. And so it was on one hot Wednesday afternoon I found myself on the streets of Chicago in front of the Hilton Hotel. Standing there in my too-tight black suit and white socks and pointy black shoes I watched Eugene McCarthy address a small crowd of students and clergy. The poet Allan Ginsberg wandered by in white robes chanting a mantra. Peter, Paul and Mary stood and watched the speeches and poetry.

I walked across Grant Avenue to join the peaceful crowd that was mostly young. There were many women, some of whom had children with them. There were many clergymen and women. Just then a huge policeman barred my way. “You don’t want to be there,” he said, gesturing disdainfully to the crowd. Looking past his shoulder I saw dozens of police vans parked on an overpass. The sky was bright blue with some puffy clouds rolling. I edged around the policeman and joined the crowd.

On the podium somebody was making a speech. The crowd listened dutifully. And, suddenly, from a line of thick elms surrounding the podium, hundreds of armed and helmeted police emerged to encircle the crowd. With nightsticks raised, the police began to beat those they could reach. Those who could not run quickly enough. Just behind me, three policemen swarmed a young student and beat him to the ground. In front of me a Catholic nun stumbled and grabbed my arm. Together we ran for our lives, finding shelter ultimately in a deserted storefront across the street, cowering as the riot swirled around us. All that day and well into the night and into the next day the Chicago police roamed the streets, hounding the protesters, many of who fought bravely back. Mayor Richard Daly, foaming at the mouth, denounced the protesters from his perch on the convention podium. Hundreds were injured, many trampled by horses’ hooves.

In weeks past, “The Wichita Eagle” printed a story about the Chicago police who wish to revise history, to “tell their side of the story.” It was the protesters who were at fault. They were waving Vietcong flags. They were a seditious rabble.

To the Chicago Police I wish to say: You needn’t bother. Everywhere the history from which you seek absolution has engulfed us all, protesters and police alike. Many of the protesters became junk-bond salesmen and now live in beige enclaves in the suburbs or on Wall Street. The old military industrial complex is now the new military-entertainment-health complex. Politics is still a carnival of dollar signs.  And this August, the Democratic Party will hold its National Convention in Chicago, Illinois. The mayor is Richard Daly.

Pardon me if I sit this one out.

* The great poet Shelly wrote a poem called “The Masque of Anarchy” in response to the Peterloo Massacre. We know what slavery is, Shelly wrote in part:


‘Tis to work and have such pay

As just keeps life from day to day

In your limbs, as in a cell

For the tyrants’ use to dwell


‘Tis to be a slave in soul

And to hold no strong control

Over your own wills, but be

All that others make of ye