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The Whole World Was Watching
40 years ago this week, Chicago police battled protesters at the DNC. Two ’60s radicals remember the madness, and look to Denver for change
In August 1968, the most wrongheaded war in American history was being executed badly and brutally in distant Southeast Asia.
Yet 40 years ago this week, when the Democratic Party gathered in Chicago to nominate its standard-bearer, the world was riveted by the blood on avenues, sidewalks and parks much closer to home.
The ‘68 Democratic National Convention debacle remains a symbol of everything that went wrong with American politics, society and culture in that tumultuous and iconic year. It was five days of mayhem in the Windy City, five days that left the Democratic Party in shambles.
Outside, along Chicago’s gleaming Michigan Avenue and in leafy Lincoln Park, Mayor Richard J. Daley’s police department went on an officially sanctioned rampage. The cops clubbed and tear-gassed antiwar protesters and bystanders alike. Inside the Chicago Amphitheater, “Boss” Daley wrestled with other Democratic Party leaders over Hubert Humphrey, the unpopular and ultimately doomed nominee.
In August 1968, those explosive battles put Chicago at the epicenter of one of the most searing political and social upheavals of the 20th century. In August 2008, a U.S. senator from Chicago will be anointed the first black major-party nominee for the presidency of the United States.
On a sweltering Chicago evening early this month, two ’60s radicals – veterans of the ‘68 convention – gathered with a diverse crowd of journalists, progressive activists and students on the city’s North Side to contemplate the past and future of the Democratic Party.
Don Rose, famous for coining the phrase “the whole world is watching” amidst the convention chaos, was press secretary for the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE) in August 1968.
The political wise man has helped elect mayors and senators since then, from Harold Washington to Paul Simon. Now 77, Rose - a mentor to David Axelrod, Obama’s top campaign strategist - is also an accomplished food and jazz critic.
In ‘68 Marilyn Katz was a petite sorority girl-turned MOBE security chief who knew her way around a bullhorn. Today Katz runs a well-connected communications consulting firm that advises Boss Daley’s son, Richard M. Daley, on a plethora of causes, from affordable housing to environmental policy.
Over dinner at Yoshi’s Café, the two reflected on political lessons learned and previewed Obama’s coronation in Denver.
Rose arrived in a black T-shirt from the 1996 DNC convention in Chicago. On the front was a Chicago Police Department seal, and on the back:
YOUR FATHER’S ASS
….WAIT ‘TIL YOU SEE WHAT
WE DO TO YOU!
The evening’s theme was the violence of the era – the American Vietnam War casualties that would eventually reach 50,000, the murders of Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and that calamitous August.
‘We’re still right’
LW: What was the impact the 1968 convention had on America and the world? Was there one key moment?
Rose: The Battle of Michigan Avenue can be fought and re-fought. I don’t intend to do that. All I can say is we were right, they were wrong. We’re still right, they are still wrong.
The violence that took place at the convention must be understood in a worldwide conflagration of violence from the War in Vietnam to the uprising in Czechoslovakia, to the uprising in Paris. In France they look upon ‘68 as the defining year for the French Republic, the defining year of the 20th century.
We saw the murder of Dr. King, for whom I had been working for the past three years. We saw the murder of Robert Kennedy. We saw an April peace march in Chicago destroyed by police who were sending a signal to the world to stay away from Chicago.
The really pivotal moment in 1968 was the murder of Robert Kennedy. I was never a Robert Kennedy fan…but believe, had he lived, he would have been the nominee of the Democratic Party and would have won. Chicago would have been much more peaceful…
Is there a lesson to learn from that violence? Lessons we haven’t learned?
Rose: There was a lesson learned. The white progressive community saw police brutality taking place right before their eyes. Police brutality was the battle cry in the black community for decades, and it became one of those things that people were inured to. (Whites would say) “Well, blacks always talk about police brutality. Was it true, was it not true?”
In April 1968 and in August, police brutality became a reality, something people can no longer forget.
Katz: In the next four years, 28 Black Panthers were assassinated by the FBI or their agents. I think it was a wakeup call where we saw the underbelly of our own country, that when the velvet glove was stripped away, there was an iron fist beneath it.
Like many of my generation, I was willing to use violence to fight violence and I had an arrogance about the value of life. That is the one thing I would have to say has profoundly changed in me. I would have to say for me permanently, I would probably reject violence as a useful form of revolution.
In this age of terrorism, there has been much said about regrets. Would you do anything differently if you were back in Grant Park in the last week of August of this month?
Rose: The only thing in retrospect is, it would have been better to have teased out some of the police spies in our own organization. As it turned out…much of the violence was perpetrated by police moles.
I suppose if we’d been more vigilant about who might be the moles and traitors among us, it might have been different.
Katz: I regret nothing. In fact one of the things that motivated me in 2002 to organize that first demonstration against the war at which Barack spoke was the lesson I learned from it – is that you’d better take the public space before the public space becomes nonexistent. You either create space or it goes away.
If there was a mistake in 1968, it was by the Democratic Party. If they had embraced the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, they would have won. It was not the demonstrators that caused the failure of the Democratic Party to win, it was the failure of the Democratic Party to look at the emerging (progressive) movements and know that was where their future was. That failure to understand that…has hamstrung the Democratic Party from that moment until today.
Katz’s Road to Chicago
Katz, then a privileged co-ed, was first radicalized by the violence against civil rights activists in the South. It led to a “loss of innocence.”
Katz: I was raised in Chicago, modeled at Saks Fifth Avenue, was a sorority girl, came home to Northwestern (University) to get married. In 1966 I was standing in my dorm room one morning, listening to King lead people over the bridge at Selma and where the white southern police beat the crap out of people, just demonstrating for civil rights, and at that moment I decided that I couldn’t just write about history, I needed to make it.
So I marched off to my first Students for a Democratic Society meeting, determined to show the world that it wasn’t just dirty hippies who could be against the war and for civil rights. Normal people like me could be, too. That was in the spring of ‘66. Eventually I broke the engagement, turned in the sorority pin and became an SDS leader.
During ‘66, ‘67, ‘68, I also met folks like (Jose) “Cha Cha” Jimenez, Bobby Rush and (Black Panther) Fred Hampton. And all the folks in both the black and the white communities who were beginning to create a dissenting bloc against both the war in Vietnam and against the oppression of blacks and people of color in Chicago and elsewhere.
What was really moving to me in ‘68 is that there was an alliance between Dr. King, the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican group. There was a moment in early April when Dr. King, just before he died, made his first public speech condemning the war…
It was hopeful because King had embraced the anti-war movement, and it felt to me as if young people were in touch with Paris and Prague and Mexico City and Sienna. We felt like we were really on the brink of a revolution of peace and love and real change. …And then he was killed.
In ‘66 we had hope. We had hope that if we acted we could change it. The killings of King, Malcolm X, Robert F. Kennedy and Fred Hampton were a loss of innocence…
…In ‘68 it was a small demonstration, people were scared. The SDS was fairly small, the hippies did not have a base, though they had good dope.
Sunday night (on the eve of the convention), when the police decided to close the park at 11 and came forward – with fire trucks mounted, with tear gas, with billy clubs – and marched westward, running over everything, people for the first time ever, unlike April, fought back.
It wasn’t just a change about politics. It was a change about culture, authority and who is in control.
Laura S. Washington
Laura S. Washington, an In These Times contributing editor, is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and political analyst for ABC 7-Chicago.