Sunday, August 19, 2018

The whole world was watching

     When the paper asked me to write a Sunday story commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, I at first despaired. How to compress such a sprawling, complicated mess into the span of one newspaper story? And how to make something so familiar interesting again? But I happened to know someone who was there—Abe Peck, my old Medill professor. And talking to him, I realized, "I need a cop to balance him." And the rest sort of fell into place.

     Abbie Hoffman is dead. So is Jerry Rubin. Tom Hayden, too. Their fellow protesters who disrupted the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in the last days of August 1968 are either gone or have become the very thing they once viewed with contempt: old.
     But Abraham Yippie is very much alive at 73. 

      “It’s a long strange trip, from Daley/Nixon to Donald Trump,” said Abe Peck, now a professor emeritus at Northwestern’s Medill School, surveying the 50 years from today’s roiling political scene to when he was editor of the Chicago Seed underground newspaper, his pronouncements signed “Abraham Yippie.”
     Mayor Richard J. Daley is dead. So are police Supt. James B. Conlisk and his deputy, James M. Rochford. The public officials and police officers who thought they were protecting their city from an onslaught by hippies, communists and radicals are gone or scattered.
     But Officer Robert Angone is very much alive at 78.
    “It was a big joke,” said Angone, then a tactical cop assigned to the Gresham District, now retired to Florida. “The SDS, Jerry Rubin’s group, Abbie Hoffman’s group — they were in a competition to get the attention they wanted. They wanted to get arrested the most, yell the loudest. We had all these goofy factions going on.

       The generation that didn’t trust anybody over 30 is now in their 70s and 80s. Their crew-cut contemporaries who didn’t trust those with long hair are the same. The divide they both gazed across with mutual incomprehension and disgust is very much with us, as the earthquake events of their era reach their golden anniversaries — traditionally the moment when human memory begins a steep decline and dry history picks up the story to carry it forward into eternity.
     But before that happens, stand on Michigan Avenue, in front of what was then the Conrad Hilton Hotel, and feel your eyes sting from the tear gas. Cock your head and listen, hard, for the chant, faint at first, but returning to the roar it was in Chicago that final week of August 1968.
     “The whole world is watching. The whole world is watching…”

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  1. I remember seeing the Seed every once in a while. It was unreadable due to it being printed in multiple colors, not just the type, but the pages too.

  2. Great history, Neil. I have just one thing to add: Humphrey "won" the nomination after entering zero primaries. None. Not a single one. No rank-and-file Democrat ever got the chance to express a preference for him.

    He dithered about Vietnam all through the election because he was afraid of standing up to Johnson. If he couldn't take on a lame-duck president--who earned that status precisely because of his bumbling on Vietnam--then maybe he just wasn't ever presidential material at all.

  3. Epic, formidable, full of detail and nuance I never perceived before. Kudos.

  4. When I was a student at Roosevelt University during this period, we would stand in the (then) student lounge facing on Michigan Ave at Congress and watch the police fired tear gas into Grant Park. Educational indeed.

    Great story that you did, as usual.

  5. The first night of bloodletting was mostly directed at the press covering the clearing of Lincoln Park. While the protesters were not blameless, the police were criminal in their assaults. Wrong on both sides, Trump would say, but not in equal measure. Today Trump swings a verbal club at the Press with similar venom to the worst of Chicago Policemen that night. The concerted response last week should be just the beginning of a front page campaign of an institution as vital to freedom as our government, if not more so. And again, the whole world is watching.

  6. Interesting take from a retired CPD "lifer"...the same Robert Angone whose tactical unit chased the graffiti "taggers" through the CTA subway tunnels in the early Nineties, and kept Chicago's transit system from looking like New York's.

    And here's my take on 8/28/68...from someone who was there:

    The infamous "Battle of Michigan Avenue" actually began hours earlier, an anti-war demonstration at the old Grant Park band shell. Demonstration organizers planned to march all the way to the Amphitheater, but were blocked by the city and the police. When the American flag was pulled down and replaced with the pink-and-purple "YIPPIE!" flag, the cops charged into the throng, clubbing and gassing. Objects were thrown and there were injuries on both sides.

    Haskell Wexler used footage of the bandshell riot in his 1969 film "Medium Cool." I'm the tall skinny guy with the blue-and-white McCarthy "flower power" sticker on the back of his denim jacket, visible for two or three seconds.

    Grant Park was then sealed off by ranks of police and platoons of bayonet-wielding National Guardsmen, who also employed gas. Somehow, one bridge was left unguarded, and thousands swarmed onto Michigan Avenue.

    At that very moment, in a quirk of history, a "Poor People's Campaign Mule Train" (with actual mules and wagons) was headed south on the Avenue, with a permit to march to the convention hall. The ranks of protesters joined it and surrounded it, and began marching toward the Conrad Hilton. Busloads of police met them at Balbo Drive. The eighteen mad minutes of mayhem followed. For the next few hours, there were clashes all over the Loop, along Michigan Avenue, and as far north as the intersection of North and Clark in Lincoln Park.

    I've always enjoyed reading about Chicago in '68, because I witnessed and participated in most of it. I had just turned twenty-one the week before. Fifty years have gone by much too fast. Some of us didn't manage to make it to the Golden Anniversary. The rest of us are just old.


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