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.
The End of Boss Conventions
Inside the convention hall, the Democratic Party honchos were battling as well. Rose argues that that turned out to be a very good thing for democracy – and Barack Obama.
Rose: The 1968 convention was the last boss-run convention. If Hubert Humphrey had come out within a few weeks with an antiwar position, he might have defeated Nixon and the world would be very, very different.
What happened subsequently were the so-called McGovern reforms, which emanated directly from the mishandling of the 1968 convention. It turned the power back to the people as it should have been. It began a series of reforms where the primary elections began to have real meaning. Primary elections at ‘68 and prior to that were really covers for what the bosses wanted. There were few legitimate primaries. Most of them were run by the hacks and that’s how Hubert Humphrey came to be.
…The reforms that took place under McGovern in subsequent years led us in a direct path to what happened this year. If we had had the same kind of boss-run convention, boss-run primary series this year, there is no doubt that Barack Obama would barely have struggled through it and Hillary Clinton may have been the nominee.
So the Democratic Party was reformed in many ways, with a lot of bad bumps along the way, by what happened in ‘68. Locally, the Democratic convention ignited the independent political movement largely along Chicago’s Lakefront, which later merged with black independents who had been working through the ’60s with the advent of Martin Luther King and so forth. Following the murder of Fred Hampton, black and white independents came together. And you can draw a direct line from that moment to Harold Washington.
The 1983 election of Harold Washington as Chicago’s first black mayor came courtesy of a progressive coalition of blacks, Latinos and so-called “Lakefront liberals.” Katz and Rose were there, once again, as advisors and operatives.
Katz: My straight line goes from ‘66/’68 to the folks who began to work together and formed the core group of the Harold Washington campaign. (Almost) everyone I worked with in 1982 I had met as a kid in ‘68. I believe that Barack Obama could only have emerged in Chicago. Why? Because since ‘68 there was a web of relationships between black civil rights groups, anti-war groups, women’s activities, immigrant rights activities, that has sustained and grown.
Drafting a Revolution
In 1968, an involuntary draft fueled much of the anguish over the war. If we had a draft now, would there be violence?
Rose: If there were a draft now, the anti-Iraq demonstrations would be a hundred-fold larger than they are now, maybe more. The difference between the size of demonstrations on the Iraq issue versus what happened back in Vietnam are attributable to two factors: the fact that 50,000 rather than 4,000 Americans died, but also the draft. This is why Charlie Rangel, the congressman from New York, said, “Let’s have a draft.” He wanted to create a backlash against the war. And that would have done it.
Whatever happened to the revolution? That story has not largely been told. Why did it fade away?
Katz: It is very hard to sustain a revolution after a moment of crisis. Very few people know how to do it anywhere in the world, which is why you have so much state capitalism. What is really interesting to me is that (’60s radicals) like Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn and Mike Klonsky have managed to live evolved lives in tune to fundamental social ideals, while figuring out a way to not only join the system but make changes. Small schools movement, juvenile justice, a whole series of things.
40 Years Later, a New Movement from Chicago
What we did here in Chicago had international implications: In ‘68 there was a workers’ movement in Paris, there was a worldwide movement of students. We lost that in the intervening 40 years. Now in 2008, with Barack Obama, we have a renewed sense that the whole world is watching again.
Rose: Looking back on ‘68, Chicago was the crucible of everything that was happening in America. It was a crucible of the student movement. We had the SDS headquartered here. We had the SDS meeting here. It was a crucible of the civil rights movement, beginning with the formation of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee). It was the crucible of the anti-war movement. Everything that epitomized the ’60s was occurring here, and it looks as if it is beginning again. The movement is not revolutionary, at this point, but evolutionary.
Katz: I think that millions of young people are flocking to Barack, as we did to the anti-war movement. In fact, the demonstrations in 2002 and 2003 were bigger than anything we had between 1963 and 1968. There were millions of people marching against Bush’s war, far bigger than anything against Vietnam.
Bush was successful in pointing out that no matter what we did, no matter how many millions of people demonstrated against the war, no matter how many state governments or city councils passed resolutions against the war, he was not going to change his policy. And the lesson for young people who are supporting Barack Obama in droves is that this is their chance to take government as they see it, for their generation. New paradigm, new generation.
The Democratic Party will gather once again later this month. Everybody is expecting a big party in Denver. Will it be an Obama coronation? Is that what we should be looking for?
Rose: I don’t expect anything serious to occur in the way of violence or significant demonstrations. They are setting aside protest areas as Chicago did in ‘96…there is a group of so-called anarchists. In my Red Squad file there is a wonderful line that says “Rose is a member of the anarchists.” There will be the nihilists demonstrating against the world, against the Democratic Party, against Obama, against everybody. I think it will be contained.
Katz: In 1964 the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were passed. Since that time, white men in the South have never voted for a Democrat in any majority. So while we look at ‘68 (in terms of) the war and the convention, the biggest reason for the loss was the Democratic Party and Congress embracing civil rights as their agenda. I believe in this election, with the issues of war and peace and the inclusive agenda. This election, more than any other, is not so much about two men, but who we are as a country and who we want to be.
So how do you resolve Obama’s move to the center? What about holding his feet to the fire? Don’t we need to keep him true to progressive issues?
Katz: We have to get him into office so then we can be the left opposition. I think it is a delicate balance between those of us who are progressive, how much you push, how much you don’t want to put him in very difficult positions that would embarrass him or give John McCain some advantage.
I think it’s a very complicated question. I think Barack is going to be who he’s going to be. I am going to argue quietly and be very supportive. On Jan. 20, if things aren’t going right, then I will lead the first demonstration.
Rose: I believe that almost everything the Obama people do, like the McCain people, like the Hillary people, is a fairly well-tested proposition.
Given that, I think Obama’s positions, the ones we like, don’t like and applaud, are all very well-tested. I know the guys who are doing these things, and they have run a virtually flawless campaign. So I have a lot of confidence that they know what they’re doing when they trim their sails and when they attack this way and attack the other way. I believe they are doing what will win and I think they have a concept of what will win.
That doesn’t necessarily mean they will win, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that I agree with everything they are doing in the process of winning, but what I do believe is that they are making correct political, if not moral judgments, every millimeter of the way.
Coining a Phrase
How did you coin the phrase, “The whole world is watching”?
Rose: It gets better with every telling. It was Sunday night, when the first head-beatings took place in Lincoln Park, and all the violence was occurring. I was in charge of the press for the MOBE. We had a big pressroom in a little storefront along State Street, not far from the Hilton Hotel. And the next morning we were holding a press conference where we were going to display to everyone the victims of the police rioting in Lincoln Park. Some of them were yippies, some of them were just ordinary people who had been going to the rock concerts there, some of them were MOBE people.
(SDS leader) Rennie Davis was our rotating spokesman that morning, and he got his first look at some of these victims and it made the Spirit of ‘76 look like a band-aid. And he looked at me before he went on, and he said, “Jesus, this is really bad, what can we say?”
And I said, “Oh, tell them the whole world is watching, and they’ll never get away with it again.”
Well, the whole world was watching, but I was wrong – they got away with it.
[Editor’s note: The transcript on which this article is based has been edited for clarity and brevity.]