Chicago, 50 Years On

Arthur Herman has a good recollection over at National Review of the climax of the Democratic Party’s disastrous 1968 national convention in Chicago exactly 50 years ago on this date. It was unhappiness with the grassroots of the party that led to the “reforms” that disempowered party bosses and insiders and made the Democratic Party more populist (that’s before “populism” became a dirty word for liberals), resulting in such sterling subsequent nominees as George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis.

The height of irony is that the cycle of politics has reverted back to 1968. The string of bad candidates led Democrats in the 1980s to re-empower party bosses and insiders with the creation of “super-delegates” (mostly national elected officials and senior state figures) to try to prevent more McGoverns and Carters. And this week the DNC has decided to dis-empower the super-delegates, partly because of the view that such party insiders blocked the supposedly more popular (and populist!) Bernie Sanders in 2016. I think this thesis is an exaggeration at best—Hillary would have beaten him without insider help, but nonetheless the Democratic Party grassroots is in an uproar and must be appeased. All of which increases the likelihood that Democrats will nominate an unelectable nutcase in 2020.

Meanwhile, back to Chicago 68 for a bit, and allow me to add more of the backstory to Arthur’s fine piece, drawn from volume 1 of my Age of Reagan. It is not hard to make out the close parallels between the radical left then and the left today—the Chicago protesters were, perhaps literally, the grandparents of today’s Antifadas. I’ll just pick it up in the middle of the story:

A popular song among disaffected radicals in the late 1960s was Gil Scott Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” an attack on the commercial and mass media sublimation of the counterculture’s wardrobe and style.  Yet at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in late August, the revolution—or as close as it ever came—was televised.  That was the whole point.  An estimated 89 million Americans watched as protestors clashed violently with Chicago police and National Guard troops on the streets (hence the chant on the last night of rioting: “The whole world is watching”) while a few miles away, at the convention hall, the Democratic party self-destructed.  Most of the blame for the violence on the streets of Chicago was laid at the feet of Mayor Richard Daley’s police; to this day, “police riot” is the phrase most strongly associated with the Chicago convention. The Chicago police reacted to a calculated provocation, and, like the case of fighting schoolchildren where the second child to strike a blow is the one usually caught by the teacher, the media caught the police reaction and attributed it as the cause of the violence.

Few events of 1968 had been more fully foreshadowed than the three days and nights of rioting during the Chicago convention, yet it proved impossible to avert.  Planning for the Chicago slugfest had begun the previous December among three allied factions of the New Left: The “Yippies” (short for “Youth International Party”), the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam (known as the “Mobe”), and the SDS.  The Mobe wanted a peaceful protest similar to the march on the Pentagon the previous October, while the Yippies, the semi-serious street clowns of the New Left, wanted to have a music festival and create havoc in mischievous ways, such as putting LSD in the Chicago water supply (which, though attempted, failed because automated chlorination neutralized the LSD).  The SDS, however, wanted a violent confrontation.  The Yippies had even tried a dress rehearsal at Grand Central Station in New York City in March, when about 3,000 protestors occupied the station and had to be ejected forcefully by the police.  The Village Voice commented that the riotous Grand Central Station protest “seemed to be a prophecy of Chicago.”  SDS leader Tom Hayden ended nearly every public statement in the winter and spring of 1968 with the slogan “See you in Chicago.”  On the eve of the convention, Hayden made his intentions even more clear: “We are coming to Chicago to vomit on the ‘politics of joy.’”  It was to be, in the words of Rampartseditor Peter Collier, “the Kristallnacht of the New Left.”

Contrary to popular belief then and now, the success of the antiwar candidacies of McCarthy and Kennedy made violent confrontation in Chicago more necessary to the Left, because the Left saw the McCarthy and Kennedy campaigns as a threat.  After McCarthy declared his candidacy, the SDS warned against “the danger of cooption by liberal elements within the antiwar movement.”  Hayden wrote: “If radicals really believe that President McCarthy could not solve America’s problems but only reveal the problems of liberalism, then McCarthy is even a better establishment figure to pressure and expose than Humphrey.”  Yippie leader Jerry Rubin commented: “We expected concentration camps and we got Bobby Kennedy.  I am more confident of our ability to survive concentration camps than I am of our ability to survive Bobby.”  Mobe leader David Dellinger warned antiwar groups in April—at the flood tide of the McCarthy and Kennedy enthusiasm—that “It would be a mistake to think that the fight against the war can be won in the ballot box.  It still has to be won on the streets.” To Hayden, the United States was an “outlaw institution under the control of war criminals,” a “police state,” requiring a confrontation with a “people’s movement.”

For Hayden and many others in the New Left, the cause for protest went far beyond the war; the entire social order of “Amerika” needed to be overthrown. Peace in Vietnam was not enough; it didn’t matter who the Democrats nominated.  Violent confrontation, Hayden thought, would be a “dramatic national experience” and a means “to make a leap of consciousness.”  The convention riot would serve as an anvil, against which to smash Democratic party liberalism into a thousand bits.  The irony about the New Left’s comparisons of the United States with Nazi Germany is that the New Left was emulating the same strategy that the German Left had embraced in the 1920s—destroy the liberal center, and ride to power in the ensuing clash of the extremes.  Hayden had described the strategy to Todd Gitlin several months earlier: “arouse the sleeping dogs on the Right.” The Left aided Hitler’s rise to power in this fashion in the 1930s—much to their detriment—and in seeing Nixon as Hitler in 1968 the New Left proved it had learned nothing from their forebears.

While many of the 12,000 protestors (the planners had boasted of 100,000) came to Chicago in the naive but sincere belief that they were going to stage a peaceful protest, the hard core leaders of the Left knew it would be easy to manipulate the situation into a violent confrontation with police—and be able to blame the police.  Chicago’s police were notoriously aggressive toward protestors and rioters.  Mayor Richard Daley had famously ordered his police to “shoot to kill” arsonists and looters during the riots that followed King’s assassination in April.  (It should be noted, however, that no one was shot during the convention riots.)  The protestors had applied for a parade permit for 200,000 people to march on the convention hall, and an assembly permit for Grant Park on Michigan Avenue for 150,000 people—huge numbers that assured the permits would be denied, even if Mayor Daley had been inclined to grant them. One of the assembly permit applications had been wrapped in a Playboy “Playmate of the Month” centerfold, with the inscription: “To Dick, with love—the Yippies.”  The protest organizers were not above even attempting a little blackmail.  At one point the organizers offered the city “to drop the whole thing” for a payment of $200,000.

The provocateurs knew that the police could be expected to act harshly when provoked; organizers had arranged for medical care for the anticipated injuries, and had instructed protestors to try to stay close to journalists so that police violence would be reported.  Many protestors were armed with caustic items such oven cleaner, hair spray, and ammonia; 198 policemen were injured, many with chemical burns to the face and eyes. The provocateurs knew that the police would overreact when screamed at (“Fuck the pigs”) and when they were the object of thrown bags of excrement, but the Left knew they could rely on the media to amplify the situation as well.  According to some reports, the news media had advised Jerry Rubin where their cameras would be so that the provocateurs would know where to plan their activities.  Democratic Senator Dale McGee said he witnessed a TV camera crew instigate a clash between National Guardsmen and one cell of protestors.  Regardless of the veracity of these reports, it certainly helped generate media sympathy for the protest that the police injured 32 journalists and photographers. (The Chicago police had it in for the media as much as they did for the protestors, because they understood class warfare better than the New Left did.  They knew that the Left represented not the working class—such as the police themselves—but the elite “new class” that wanted to overturn institutions wholesale. As a police spokesman put it after the convention: “The intellectuals hate Mayor Daley because he was elected by the people, unlike Walter Cronkite.”) NBC declared the convention to be “an armed camp,” and broadcast a “highlight” film that alternated scenes of street violence and scenes inside the convention hall of celebration over Humphrey’s nomination, even though these events were not contemporaneous.  But the damage was done.  David Dellinger said “It was a clear-cut victory because the police acted abominably and our people showed courage, aggressiveness and a proper sense of values.” Yippie leader Stew Albert said Chicago was “a revolutionary wet dream come true.” Hayden declared that intensive media coverage made the protest a “100 percent victory in propaganda.”  Just as he had declared in April that there should be “two, three, many Columbias,” Hayden now urged that the Movement should go on to create “one, two, three hundred Chicagos” around the country, or a “mini-Chicago” wherever nominee Humphrey appeared on the campaign trail.

But while the media sympathized with the protest, ordinary viewers across America did not.  The general public did not share the verdict of the commission appointed to study the protest after the fact that it had amounted to a “police riot.” A poll taken shortly after the riots found that 71 percent of Americans thought Chicago’s security measures were justified; 57 percent thought the police had not used excessive force, while 25 percent thought the police had not used enough force. Public sentiment about media coverage of the riot was even more lopsided.  CBS received 9,000 letters criticizing the network’s coverage of the riots by an 11-to-1 ratio.  Several Democratic members of Congress demanded—and got—a Federal Communications Commission hearing to review media coverage of the riots.

As the protestors had intended, liberals in the Democratic party were riven over how to respond to the riots.  Unable or unwilling to make a distinction between the naïve peaceful protestors and the radical manipulators who made sure they were all caught up in the manufactured maelstrom of violence with the police, many Democratic party liberals, intellectuals, and journalists decried that the Chicago police had beaten “our children.”  Sociologist Chrisopher Lasch thought Chicago showed a “fascist mentality” was ascendant in America, which required a swing further to the Left by intellectuals.  Senator George McGovern, watching a clash from his hotel room window, said: “Do you see what those sons of bitches are doing to those kids down there?”  Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff set off pandemonium when, in the course of placing Senator McGovern’s name in nomination from the convention podium, blasted the “Gestapo tactics” being used in the streets.  A furious Mayor Daley screamed at Ribicoff: “Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch, you lousy motherfucker go home.”  Humphrey, backpedaling furiously from his statement two years before that had he lived in a ghetto he could have led a pretty good riot himself, now turned into a hard-liner.  After the convention Humphrey said it was time to “quit pretending that Mayor Daley did anything that was wrong. . .  There are certain people in the United States who feel that all you have to do is riot and you can get your way.  I have no time for that.”

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