The Whole World Was Watching 50 Years Ago Today – the Day a Whole Generation Was Radicalized

by on August 28, 2018 · 4 comments

in Civil Disobedience, History, Ocean Beach

One of the most famous photos taken during the Michigan Ave battle.

by Frank Gormlie

50 years ago today, the Democratic Party was in the midst of holding its 1968 national convention in the city of Chicago. While hundreds of party delegates met in the steamy convention hall to hammer out who was to be the nominee – which turned out – not unexpectedly – to be Hubert Humphrey, President Johnson’s vice-president who was decidedly pro-Vietnam war, thousands of protesters converged on the city in a massive protest against that very same war.

1968 – a year the entire nation was tense and rebellious; Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated that April, leading to violent upheavals from the African-American communities of most of the major cities – including Washington DC. Two months later, Bobby Kennedy – the likely Democratic frontrunner – was gunned down the night he won the California Primary. He and Senator Eugene McCarthy had broken ranks from mainstream Democrats and had raised deep questions about continuing the war.

Meanwhile, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley had turned his downtown into an armed camp surrounded by barbed wire, with 12,000 police officers deployed along with 15,000 National Guardsmen and federal police. By August 28, there had been already a couple days of skirmishes between police and demonstrators. The heavy-handedness and tactics of the police were becoming wide-spread and notorious.

50 years ago today, I was 20 years ago and living with my 19-year old spouse, Susan, in a small, one-bedroom cottage on Brighton Avenue in Ocean Beach. We were both students at UC San Diego – and as it was summer, we both had summer jobs. I was working at Convair building hardened fiberglass panels for US fighter jets. I was really not very political – having been discharged from the Army just 6 months earlier. But I was letting my hair grow – and the two of us identified with and were becoming intertwined with the emerging counter-culture.

The days the convention was going on, I would return home in the late afternoon and we would watch live TV news streaming in from Chicago – when, back then, there would be gavel-to-gavel coverage. For the first couple of days, we only could catch glimpses of what was going on behind the television cameras – but we knew there were widespread protests in the city.

So it was on this day, the 28th, 50 years ago; we switched on our small, black and white box TV and thought we’d settle in for another night of watching the convention.

We were in for a shocker.

We watched a amazing spectacle unfold on the Convention floor; delegates were agitating to have their Party endorse a peace plank – and as McCarthy was the last peace candidate standing, his people were particularly involved, as were Kennedy delegates. They were chanting anti-war slogans. On the floor of the convention.

Meanwhile, it was getting ugly outside, as the networks would occasionally switch to their cameras on the streets as more and more demonstrators were having run-ins with police. The scenes outside brought images of a ugly repressive crack-down on dissent American-style, much like images from Czechoslovakia, Mexico City or Paris where protests had been brutally put down. The uglier it got outside, the uglier it got inside the convention.

At one point, we watched CBS reporter Dan Rather on the convention floor get surrounded by Mayor Daley suits and actually get punched in the gut. We watched as Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff denounced the “gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago” from the podium. We watched as the camera panned to Mayor Daley down on the convention floor who clearly yelled “fuck you!” back at Ribicoff.

But it was the drama outside that was explosive. Having marched in from Grant Park, thousands of chanting demonstrators converged in front of the Hilton Hotel on Michigan Avenue, where many of the anti-war delegates were staying. A television truck sat there and captured everything.

Tear gas was being thrown by police at the peaceful protesters. Then light-blue helmeted Chicago cops – by the hundreds – charged the throngs with billy clubs flying, hitting everybody within reach; protesters, bystanders, journalists, delegates; blood was on the streets; bloodied heads, bloodied limbs; arms twisted; cops literally threw those they grabbed into paddywagons. All the time the cameras just kept whirring. Live.

And all the time, we just kept watching. We heard sirens, teargas grenades going “pop”, then we heard the screams as a giant plate glass window at the Haymarket Lounge crash in, as people who had been lined up on the sidewalks fell into the bar on top of the glass – having being pushed back by rushing cops. Cops were hitting those who had fallen.

Then the crowd took up the chant, “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!” In one of the most dramatic moments in modern American history, live TV captured a night time scene that rose right out of one of Hieronymus Bosch’s painting; the chants were only interrupted by sirens and the crunch of billy clubs.

The melee continued in an unbelievably dark orgy of blood-letting by police. A few protesters fought back, but most didn’t. Most tried to run – many were grabbed and beaten to the ground.  Some delegates came down from the hotel in solidarity with those in the streets – and they too were beaten. It is a miracle that no one was killed. Many were injured – maybe because there was live TV everywhere …

Back in OB, we watched in agony as these young people were being beaten; these were students many of them; we were students – we really identified with those in the streets; these were our people. Shock and agony turned to grief. I remember Susan and me just collapsing into each other’s arms, sobbing.

I had been shaken to the bone at what live TV had thrust into my small OB living room – a horrible sight at my government beating my people. The shock and realization that my government was wrong in the streets of Chicago, and that my government was wrong in the rice paddies of Vietnam just electrified me – and I became a changed person. I was radicalized. Never again – or not for a long time – could I trust my government.

The Vietnam war was wrong. But it was our human and civil rights of peaceful assembly that were crushed that day in Chicago. And because millions of people across the country watched the same bloody scenes – the shock wave reverberated from coast to coast.

Clearly I wasn’t alone – as an entire generation of young Americans was radicalized. The next month as classes started, I attended my first SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) meeting – and it was packed. SDS was and had been the main, national student organization working against the war, and its enrollment during the Fall of 68 went off the charts. Protests against the war from then grew exponentially.

For me – it was no longer business as usual; I was no longer a bystander. Over the course of the next couple of years at UCSD, I joined numerous protests aimed at ending the war. In 1970, Susan and I moved back to Ocean Beach, and I began printing out the original OB Rag with a few, radicalized student friends.

Another young OBcean at that time, Doug Porter, was also deeply affected by what happened in Chicago. In a recent article about his experiences in Ocean Beach during 1968, he wrote:

The 1968 Democratic convention was a turning point. People in my world were both inspired by the imaginative protests and angered by the Chicago Police department’s brutal response. There was no doubt in our minds that the “system” was doomed.

It helped turn Porter into a “cub reporter” for OB’s first underground newspaper, The Liberator. He later wrote for the original OB Rag and today is the main regular writer for San Diego Free Press, our sibling online platform.

Another young reporter who cut his teeth on the early version of the OB Rag was David Helvarg. Helvarg – then only 17 – was in Chicago in 1968 and wrote about his memories recently on the Op-Ed page of last Sunday’s LA Times. He summarized:

I believed then that the tear gas and blunt force trauma of the “police riot” in Chicago could contribute to the end of the Vietnam War. I believe now that it did that and more, adding to the expansion of civil and human rights in this country and, ultimately, to the restoration of the rule of law, when President Nixon resigned six years later to the month.

At This Day in History, the scene in Chicago was described:

The ensuing riot, known as the “Battle of Michigan Avenue,” was caught on television, and sparked a large-scale change in American society. For the first time, many Americans came out in virulent opposition to the Vietnam War, which they had begun to feel was pointless and wrongheaded. No longer would people give the national government unrestrained power to pursue its Cold War policies at the expense of the safety of U.S. citizens.

In December of 1968, a government report came out, as a special commission had been appointed by President Johnson to investigate the protests at the  Convention. Known as the Walker Report, it characterized the violent events in Chicago as a “police riot” directed at protesters.

The Walker Report:

“The nature of the [police response] response was unrestrained and indiscriminate police violence on many occasions, particularly at night. That violence was made all the more shocking by the fact that it was often inflicted upon persons who had broken no law, disobeyed no order, made no threat. These included peaceful demonstrators, onlookers, and large numbers of residents who were simply passing through, or happened to live in, the areas where confrontations were occurring.”

Ignoring its own report, the government came down hard on some of the main protest organizers and alleged leaders (like Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman), and indicted 8 – including Black Panther Bobby Seale, who all became cause celebres as the Chicago 8 – then Chicago 7 as Seale’s case was severed. They traveled the country, from campus to campus and mobilized and radicalized more students. They were convicted in February 1970 after a crazy show trial (some of the defendants wore colorful customs to court, Seale was chained and muzzled in court) – but their convictions were overturned on appeal.

But Chicago 68 changed America for ever. And for good. It made an entire generation wake up to the repressive society the country had become. Young white Americans had been treated in the streets of Chicago as African-Americans and Mexican-Americans and Native peoples had been treated all along. With brutality. With repression. And it awoke an entire generation to the realities of the “velvet glove and iron fist” approach to managing dissent and opposition by the governing elite.

Any time a government, even our government, comes down on its people, it’s times like Chicago 68 that can serve as an inspiration to us now today and shows us how revolting against despotic oliarches is – at times – patriotic.

 

 

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Avatar rick callejon August 28, 2018 at 2:48 pm

Leonard Steinhorn writes in today’s LA Times, “a TV audience of 90 million Americans watched the police riot. In a poll 71% said the police measures were justified and 57% rejected claims that the police used excessive force. It was the police who earned the public’s sympathy.”

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Avatar Brett Warnke August 28, 2018 at 3:23 pm

I really like this article, Frank. I never knew how you became political. You make me want to reread Mailer’s book on the conventions in Chicago and Miami. I saw Humphrey’s memoir the other day but couldn’t bear to read it–1968 like 2016 was such a colossal blunder and missed opportunity. But it makes me proud that you were a war-resister in the streets rather than a draft-dodger like Clinton, Bush, and Trump. One choice was about a principled stance against a hideous imperialistic war and the other was about self-preservation and careerism. The Prague Spring, the Paris protests against de Gaulle, uprisings in Poland, and King’s death made it such a crucial year. King’s death year really was the tragedy–he was a kind of hinge radical who connected the antiwar struggle with the civil rights and labor struggles. And I think his death broke that intersectional unity which devolved into the listless Boss unionism and radical “empowerment” talk of the 70s. At least now there’s a genuine and widespread suspicion of government power whereas imperial Presidents like Johnson and Nixon benefited from the public’s widespread trust. Sadly, 68 also brought us Nixon and then Reagan and the Right has used some of the suspicions of government–those wise lessons learned– as a cudgel against those pushing for basic government services like healthcare and guaranteeing incomes.

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Avatar obcliffhanger August 28, 2018 at 3:44 pm

thank you – that’s a very well written piece, Frank.
I was only 11 at the time but had a real interest in the election and remember watching this on TV. I think it was on TV in our home because my parents liked watching mayhem on the Democratic side.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mR6BeerSSWw

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Avatar Steve Zivolich September 2, 2018 at 11:23 am

Frank thanks for sharing your thoughts regarding 1968. I was not far from you, living in Mission Beach on a couch during the school year. I was radicalized while still in high school with you, not sure why, but I was always opposed to the killing on both sides of the Vietnam war. I began speaking out against the war as a freshman at USD (yes the Catholic school known at that time as horny hill, since we were not co-ed). And then the next year at Mesa college as a leader promoting free speech and anti war events. We had a lot of anger toward our anti war activities at Mesa from the school administration and war vets returning home and going to school on the GI bill. But at the same time lots of support from the faculty. The black student union had to attend some of our events to provide protection from other right wing student threats.
During the summer of 1968 I had moved up to LA to attend CSULA, and experienced the awful events of Chicago like you did on the TV. I was planning on going to Chicago to protest the convention, but my future wife talked me out of it, due to her concern for my safety; as usual she was right. Thanks again for sharing your experiences during this difficult time of 1968.

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