When the Whole World Was Watching

August 18, 2008 8:53:25 PM PDT
Chicago, 1968, chaos erupted during the Democratic convention.The protestor, the photographer and the cop might define this event differently, but they all agree that 1968 was a time of tremendous turmoil.

There was Vietnam, civil rights, riots, King was assassinated, then Kennedy.

And when the Democrats came to meat-and-potatoes Chicago to pick a candidate, the whole stew boiled over.

There was a lot of anger and determination. Opponents of the war and advocates of cultural revolution made clear well before the convention that they would be heard.

The mayor made clear that law and order would be preserved.

On the eve of the convention, police moved into Lincoln Park to move out the protestors.

"Hippies, Yippies and just plain kids have wanted to sleep in the park during the convention, but the city has repeatedly said no, and police have enforced that order," one report said.

"It was very, very clear that police were given free reign to do what they wanted to do," said political consultant Don Rose.

Forty years ago, Rose was an organizer for Mobe, a group against the war in Vietnam. The morning after that first bloody night, Rennie Davis, one of Mobe's leaders, gathered some of those who'd been clubbed in the melee for a press conference.

"These people were really terribly beaten up, and we were quite shaken by it, and Rennie says, 'My God, what can we say?' And I said, 'Well, tell them they can't get away with it again, because the whole world is watching,'" Rose said.

The phrase stuck. The confrontations continued in Lincoln Park and Grant Park.

"I do remember the sound of the clubs hitting heads. I do remember that, that clonk, clonk, clonk," said Luke Williamson.

Photographer Williamson, 40 years ago, had just started his career at ABC. Luke was also a member of the Illinois National Guard. His military police unit was sent to the Conrad Hilton. They were young and scared. The protestors were their contemporaries. When they moved too close, the NG commander said fix bayonets.

"That command was picked up by officers down the line, and we were all in unison and we fixed those bayonets, and it made a distinctive sound - cold steel, click," Williamson said.

For that moment, the crowd kept its distance. But the nights were long.

The Democrats were deeply divided. Their convention was a mess.

The mayor was ridiculed for what Abe Ribicofff called Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago. A commission headed by future Governor Dan Walker would later brand this "a police riot."

"This was all politics when he wrote his report. It was like all these folks came to have a good time, and we provoked them and that wasn't true," said Jim Maurer, retired CPD chief of patrol.

Maurer, 40 years ago, was two years into his career as a Chicago cop. He remembers, as do other coppers, coming home between their 12-hour shifts and being cheered by their neighbors.

A lot of the cops were veterans and took the insults personally. A lot of them stood and took the occasional rock or hurled bag of feces. But some also removed their nameplates and badges as they waded in. There was no science to their approach.

"And nobody had really been trained in that type of crowd control, you know. How do you move a large group of people in a large open space?" Maurer said.

And that was a lesson learned by police - unorganized baton swinging is an inefficient means of crowd control.

"It wasn't a change about politics. It was a change about culture, authority and who was in control," said Marilyn Katz.

Opinions today remain as fixed as they were 40 years ago. But '68, it's argued, crystallized political change - the last of the Boss-run conventions, the beginning in Chicago of a progressive political movement that embraced race and a spectrum of reform as the world watched 40 years ago.

Mayor Richard J. Daley, 40 years ago, staunchly defended the behavior of his police department and approved sizable pay raises in their first contract cycle after the convention.

The '68 protests were remarkable for their magnitude and mix, and police departments across the country took note and made changes. Today, protestors are permitted to protest in designated areas, so-called free speech zones. The protest area for the upcoming Democratic convention in Denver is 800 feet from the convention center.


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