by Ina Jaffe / NPR / August 23, 2008 ·
Democrats are gathering for their national convention in Denver with their party divided by a bruising presidential nomination contest and the country mired in an unpopular war.
The situation was similar 40 years ago, when Democrats convened in Chicago. But what riveted the nation’s attention were the battles in the streets between Vietnam War protesters and police. A federal commission later called it a police riot, and the mayhem outside the Chicago convention continues to influence political protests today.
No one who knew Chicago thought August 1968 would be another Summer of Love. The Chicago Seed, an alternative weekly newspaper, wrote: “If you’re coming to Chicago, be sure to wear some armor in your hair.” Mayor Richard J. Daley had amassed a force of 12,000 police officers, 6,000 National Guard members and 6,000 Army troops.
He assured convention delegates that all would be well.
One of the chief organizers of the anti-war demonstrations, Tom Hayden, says protest leaders worked for months to get permits from the city to march, to rally and to camp in the parks.
“We were used to the idea that authorities would stall on permits, but I think some of us thought that the permits would come through at the end, so we went forward,” he says.
But the permits didn’t come. So there was almost nothing protesters could do without violating the law. The massive crowd that the organizers hoped for didn’t materialize.
“When the week started, there were only 600 or 700 people in the park,” Hayden says. “It grew to about 10,000, nearly all of them from Chicago.”
Violence became a daily event, with marches and rallies broken up by police with nightsticks and tear gas. It was the same most nights in the parks. Protesters would gather, and after the 11 p.m. curfew, the police would move in with clubs and gas, chasing them into the streets.
Violence In The Street
On one of those nights, Vivian Stovall and a mixed-race group of friends sat down in Grant Park and formed a human chain.
“Next thing we knew, we were being kicked, being pulled apart and some very racial statements being made. And then I looked up, and when I looked up that’s when I got hit. I still have the scar right here,” Stovall says, pointing to her eyebrow. “I remember feeling that warm wet stuff on my face, and I was bleeding.”
She was 19 years old in 1968. She’d been driving from Washington, D.C., to Louisiana to start the new semester at Grambling State University when she and some classmates decided to take a detour to Chicago.
“We were talking while we were on our way there about the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the assassination of Martin Luther King [Jr.]. We talked about the Vietnam War,” Stovall says. “We just felt nobody was listening to us at that time anyway, and we wanted to just have our say or at least be part of something.”
The most infamous battle took place on Aug. 28 outside the Conrad Hilton hotel. It wasn’t the most violent confrontation that week by most accounts, but it’s the one that got the most news coverage, because the Hilton was where the media were stationed.
As it unfolded, CBS engineer Fred Turner described what he saw from his fifth-floor window:
“Now they’re moving in, the cops are moving and they are really belting these characters. They’re grabbing them, sticks are flailing. People are laying on the ground. I can see them, colored people. Cops are just belting them; cops are just laying it in. There’s piles of bodies on the street. There’s no question about it. You can hear the screams, and there’s a guy they’re just dragging along the street and they don’t care. I don’t think … I don’t know if he’s alive or dead. Holy Jesus, look at him. Five of them are belting him, really, oh, this man will never get up.”
It’s not the sort of experience anyone would want to repeat. But there are people who see something in those days worth reviving.
The Spirit Of The ’60s
Mark Cohen is the co-founder of the activist group Recreate ’68. Although he wasn’t in Chicago in 1968 — he was in Africa with the Peace Corps — Cohen says his organization’s name was meant to get attention and recall the spirit of the ’60s, not the violence. He’s been planning to protest at this week’s Democratic convention since he heard it was coming to his hometown of Denver.
“The reason we’re protesting is because Mr. Obama’s reputation as a progressive is not really deserved,” Cohen says. “For example, his so-called anti-war stance involves a program to remove combat troops from Iraq over a period of 16 months. The majority of American people want those troops removed immediately. As soon as possible.”
He was standing in what will be the official demonstration zone for the convention. He and the rest of Recreate ’68 will be in parking lot A, nearly 300 yards from the convention hall.
“We call it the freedom cage,” says Cohen, 62.
The zone will be ringed by two layers of fencing behind a huge white tent set up for the media. And for protest marches, the sanctioned route will leave marchers more than a quarter of a mile from the convention site. Recreate ’68 and other groups sued the city of Denver and the Secret Service to get closer to the action, but a federal judge upheld the city’s plans. Katherine Archuleta, Denver’s lead planner for the convention, said the demonstration zone provides a fair and safe platform for activists.
“People can go and come as they like. The other thing that we are doing in the demonstration zone is to provide a stage and speakers and microphone, so that they can be heard [at] a greater distance,” Archuleta says. “And that’s the city’s role — finding a balance between safety and security and the rights of those who would come and want to raise their voices.”
Hayden doesn’t see it that way. “I don’t mean to exaggerate, but it is the end of freedom. This is the freedom to protest as designed for you by any authoritarian state under the direction of the police,” he says.
Caged or not, when demonstrators raise their voices in Denver, they will be talking — or singing or shouting — about more than the war in Iraq. The environment will be on the agenda, as well as poverty, health care, immigrant rights and more.
Michael Heaney, a political scientist at the University of Florida, says that because of 1968, “we’ve now become a ‘movement society.’ ”
“What 1968 demonstrated was that protest could be an effective tactic for bringing about social change,” he says. “So important new protest tactics were invented: the sit-in, the large demonstration. And people learned that this was a way they could effectively influence the government.”
Heaney’s been studying the current anti-war movement and has noticed something interesting about who’s in it. He says there are essentially two groups — one made up of people who were active in the anti-war movement 40 years ago, and the other made up of people in their 20s — and very little in between.
The convention protests planned in Denver will have a kind of retro quality. In addition to Recreate ’68, there’s another activist group called Tent State University, a reference to Kent State in Ohio, where four students were killed while protesting the war in Vietnam.
Outsiders Moving In
Meanwhile, the organization that Hayden helped found in the 1960s, Students for a Democratic Society, is springing up again on college campuses.
Over the past four decades, Hayden has gone from outside agitator to Democratic Party insider. He served in the California state Legislature for 18 years and has been a delegate to national Democratic conventions six times.
Stovall has also become a party activist. She’s been to four conventions, and she’ll be in Denver as a delegate for Barack Obama. It’s kind of silly, she says, to try to keep protesters away from the delegates, many of whom have put in time on picket lines and marches just like she has.
“A large percentage of those delegates have people out there who are rallying or protesting issues that they care about,” Stovall says. “And as a matter of fact, as a delegate, I might get out there myself.”