A key figure in and historian of the New Left, Todd Gitlin was president of Students for a Democratic Society in 1964–65 and helped organize the first national demonstrations against the Vietnam War. He is the author of The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, among many other books, and a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, where he teaches an American-studies course on the 1960s. Sasha Abramsky spoke with him in April.
Sasha Abramsky: Fiftieth-anniversary dates for the events of 1968 are rolling out thick and fast. Let’s talk about what happened at the Democratic Party convention in Chicago that summer. Perhaps more than any other protest in that momentous year of upheaval, the street fighting in Chicago in August came to symbolize the crisis at the heart of American politics. You were there during that week of protest, and you’ve written extensively about it in the decades since. What made the events in Chicago so emblematic of the broader moment?
Todd Gitlin: 1968 was the crystallization of a lot of forces. Lyndon Johnson had been president for four-plus years. He had undertaken the most sweeping policy of domestic reform since [Franklin] Roosevelt. But he had also massively escalated the war in Vietnam. And beginning in April 1965, there had been repeated mobilizations against the war. By the fall of ‘65, they had settled into a pattern—big mobilizations on both coasts in mid-April and again in October. They had grown from the 25,000 who showed up in Washington in April 1965 to hundreds of thousands.
The anti-war movement was like a counter-nation. It was everywhere: in small towns, cosmopolitan centers, in the East and the West, but also in community colleges, state schools, high schools, and in every profession—doctors and nurses, clergy, social workers, and teachers. And also in labor, even though the leadership of American labor was hostile to the anti-war movement.
By ’68, the effort to find an [anti-war] Democrat to run against Johnson in the primaries had finally become successful: Gene McCarthy declared as a candidate against Johnson. He ran in the primary in New Hampshire, and he got a substantial minority of the vote—substantial enough to worry Johnson. Then Bobby Kennedy, coming late to the parade, declared his own candidacy. So now we had two anti-war candidates.
Troop strength [in Vietnam] had now grown to half a million—by the end of the year, more than 35,000 of them would be dead. The Tet Offensive [in January–February 1968] was a big, fat “What the hell, who do you think you’re kidding?” announcement to America. In conversations, Johnson had acknowledged the war was unwinnable. On the other hand, he’d been enlarging the commitment, upgrading the intensity of the war. Anti-war sentiment, even in Congress, had been growing. And the circle of advisers around Johnson who had signed off on the war, both in formal government positions and among informal elites known as the “Wise Men”—not dovish people, but Cold War pioneers, former secretaries of state, secretaries of defense, other officials, Wall Street honchos, and so on—they had been summoned to advise about the war after Tet. Their advice was, essentially: “Trim it, reduce it, end it. The country is coming apart; the armed forces are riddled with dissension.”
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So that’s our situation in the run-up to Chicago. By late ‘67, some of the better-known leaders in what was a rather sprawling, decentralized movement had decided that there needs to be a mobilization at the Democratic convention. These were the “politicos.”
Sasha Abramsky: Which groups?
Todd Gitlin: Students for a Democratic Society, having really triggered the national anti-war movement in ‘65, had backed away from taking the war as its central activity. It was doing all kinds of things relating to race and racism, university reform, military activity on campus, corporate activity on behalf of the war. SDS chapters were vigorously anti-war, but SDS itself wasn’t organizing national anti-war projects at that point. It fell to a number of veterans of the New Left, in particular Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis, to team up with some of the elders of the anti-war movement—in particular Dave Dellinger, who was the editor of Liberation magazine and a longtime pacifist. It fell to them to issue the call for the mobilization in Chicago.
At the same time, you had a separate crowd, the Yippies, [which began as] a half-dozen people stoned at a New Year’s party who said, “We declare ourselves to be the Youth International Party… YIP!”—who, in a wilder, less strategic, more hippie-ish, more extravagant, more flamboyant spirit, decided to call for a “Festival of Life” in Chicago, a cultural gathering that would stand in opposition to the war and militarism and so on.
Both the politicos and the Yippies had settled on the Chicago manifestation before Johnson opted out [of the election]. The politicos were organized into the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam. The Yippies were not an organization—Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman were the key people. They had a conspicuous media presence. They also had a theory: You announce photogenic events and spray America with the invitation to participate in them, and you aim to convert the media into your megaphones. They resolved to cluster in Chicago.
The Black Panthers were not involved in this at all. It’s a peculiarity of history that when the indictments were issued by the federal government for conspiring to organize the Chicago demonstrations, they roped in Bobby Seale, whose involvement was minimal. He was chairman of the Black Panther Party; he was in Chicago for only a few hours—flew in, gave a couple of speeches, and left. [The protests were really the work of] the “Mobe” and the Yippies—a loose network.
Sasha Abramsky: By the summer of ’68, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy have been assassinated; you’ve had the uprising in Paris and the Prague Spring, the urban conflagrations following King’s assassination, and the campus occupations. They are all, obviously, different events, but they all feed into the idea that 1968 is a year of revolution. My sense of ’68 is that as the months progress, history speeds up—it’s one of those periods where everything gets condensed.
Todd Gitlin: That’s a crucial element in understanding the mentality of both the movement and the establishment. There was a swelling up of apocalyptic feeling, a sense of chaos, a sense of astonishment and shock—what was going to be next? Just pair these two events: Johnson on March 31 says he’s not going to run [for reelection]; there’s dancing in the streets in places like Madison, Wisconsin, centers of the anti-war movement. And then, four days later, King is killed. Imagine the whiplash. Everything is accelerated; old centers are not holding. Some people think that what’s coming is revolution; others think that what’s coming is fascism.
Whatever is coming is coming fast and precipitously. The authorities in Chicago have made it plain they’re going to organize a massive, quasi-military—and in some cases, actual military—apparatus, ostensibly intended to protect the convention. Permits to provide sleeping space in public parks are denied. Permits to protest near the convention site are denied. The [Chicago Mayor Richard J.] Daley administration is looking for a fight—they’ve made it clear already, in response to utterly peaceful local demonstrations, that they’re going to come out swinging. At the same time, the movement organizers are moving toward a more militant and confrontational spirit. There is fighting in the streets and, on the campuses, attempts to prevent Dow Chemical, inventor of napalm, or the military or the CIA from recruiting. By April, there was the occupation of the buildings at Columbia University over racism and war-related issues. This culminates in about 700 arrests and many injuries in the clearing of the buildings. There’s a sense of a looming confrontation, which could very well result in violence. To some people in the movement, this is exactly what’s required. Some of the leadership looks forward to polarization. Tom Hayden was already feeling in 1967 that the only way to win the war was to “arouse the sleeping dogs on the right”—that is to say, to animate a division, a social conflict, so intense and so destructive of business as usual that it would force America out of Vietnam.
Not only were Chicago police being mobilized in mass numbers, but so was the National Guard. Also, units of the Army were flown in from Fort Hood in Texas. They rolled down Michigan Avenue between the Hilton Hotel and Grant Park with these barbed-wire-covered armored personnel carriers. I was in Grant Park when the Army arrived. There was something of a cheer on our side, because the spirit of the demonstrations at that point was: “Now we’ve penetrated the fraudulent pretense of the administration that it’s lawful and orderly. We’ve shown they can only rule by force.” This would have been on Tuesday or Wednesday; there’d already been nights of fighting. Lincoln Park, on the North Side, had been cleared with a lot of tear gas and a lot of beatings by police. The chant was heard resoundingly when the Army rolled in: “The whole world is watching!” Network cameras were there. There were scads of reporters. It’s an important element of the intense craziness of the week that under Daley’s rule—and there’s no doubt this was a command decision—the authorities meant to punish the press. They targeted photographers, cameramen, journalists with press passes, injuring dozens: “You think you have rights here? No.” We were already getting a whiff then that the powers that be had decided the press was their enemy. The targeting of journalists was not incidental to their general project of belittling the scope and the legitimacy of the opposition, while presenting themselves as [defenders of] what Nixon would soon call “the silent majority.”
Sasha Abramsky: So these themes that will play out over the next 50 years are coming out in embryonic form in Chicago. Are we seeing in this the emergence of a new order?
Todd Gitlin: I’d put it differently. What we were seeing was the dissolution of an old order. The Democratic Party, which had mostly been in power since 1933, was now coming to the end of its hegemony. In the run-up to the Chicago demonstrations, public opinion was now for the first time concluding that the war was a mistake. Then there was the violent resistance to the civil-rights movement, and the desertion of much of the white population from the alliance that had held it within the Democratic Party for decades. That resistance was fierce enough that the sense both of America’s stability and shining destiny was battered to the breaking point. And we haven’t even talked about the emergence of the women’s movement, which began to shatter the taken-for-granted order of things.
There would be, from these different sectors, different accounts of something breaking. But there was a consensus that an old order was breaking down, and that—the assassinations are central to this—violence had shattered the orderly pace of things. America was now a country with a question mark.
As I mentioned, the encampments in Lincoln Park were chased out two nights running. A lot of people were arrested and injured. There was a sense of the squall and unpredictability of violence, a growing and brooding expectation that things would get worse. They got dramatically worse on Wednesday, when there was a permitted demonstration in Grant Park, which was the largest of the week.
There were, in the crowd, agents provocateurs—this became known when they testified later in the Chicago Eight trial. One succeeded in becoming Jerry Rubin’s bodyguard; someone who looked and played the part of a biker turned out to be an undercover cop. There were a number of provocative incidents. One of them had to do with the taking down of an American flag by a kid whom none of the movement veterans recognized. It is likely this person was also an agent provocateur. Eventually, we came to learn that there were a large number of military-intelligence people illegally in the crowd.
People were throwing things at the police. And the police had been incited to smash and batter. They smacked a lot of the speakers; they knocked down the speakers and bloodied them. Some of the leadership of the Mobe, in particular Hayden, urged the crowd to spill out. He said that if they’re going to spill blood, let it be spilled all over Chicago. In the meantime, tear gas had been released over a large area of Grant Park. The crowd was being corralled and pressed against the east side of the Hilton Hotel. The police weren’t letting anyone out; they were squeezing those people against the edge of the hotel and smashing them with clubs. Had it not been for the decision by one activist to use his boot to smash through a window of the Haymarket Lounge, the bar in the Hilton Hotel, so people could rush in there—had it not been for that decision, there very well could have been killings.
And so it went. The details are less important than the mood, and on the movement side this was: “They’ve declared war on us.” There was an apocalyptic, confrontational spirit. There was a lot of improvisation, great spikes of rage, and also among the crowd a certain exhilaration, a kind of joy of confrontation. As Dylan put it, “The line it is drawn / The curse it is cast…. The order is rapidly fading.” [There was] this sense of purification and exhilaration now that the sides were clear.
Sasha Abramsky: Why isn’t this just ancient history? Why, 50 years on, is “Chicago ’68” still so relevant? Is the very phrase a shortcut for a host of political assumptions?
Todd Gitlin: I’ve often thought, “What the hell are we doing, 20 years after—30, 40, 50 years after—these events?” We’ve enshrined some version of these events—propagandistic, simplified, cartoonish—as part of common consciousness. If someone had proposed in 1968 that we remember 1918 and its politics, people would have said: “What?” There would have been a collective mystification. We were not singing the songs of 1918 in 1968; we were not irradiating the culture with oldies-but-goodies. Yet ’68—and the 1960s in general—have played a part in virtually every presidential election, for example, since ’68. There’s some sort of shadow presence.
Hillary Clinton is, in the worldview of the right, some kind of demonic incarnation of what is, to them, the most regrettable activities of the ’60s. The ascendancy of a woman, an Ivy League woman, a woman who’d worked against Nixon… She’s a symbolic hag of the undead ’60s, the ’60s that pushed men around—pushed white men around in particular.
You know, it even crops up a little bit on Trump’s side. It’s weird and interesting, and I’m not sure what to make of it, but Trump represents the other side of the ’60s. He’s not operating in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr., God knows—he’s operating in the spirit of Hugh Hefner. That’s his ’60s: the liberated guy fucking around at will, grabbing women. He’s living the Playboy philosophy as Hefner articulated it. The cleavages over sex and then sexuality, over race, over cosmopolitanism, over the virtues of the majority—those are unresolved, unfinished business, deep, crisscrossing dimensions of social life. And, obviously, 1968 for many reasonably assumes the proportions of a kind of prologue or overture or intimation of what else is coming. Certainly for the right, especially over race—the unforgiving white supremacy, especially as it’s being re-weaponized by white men whose economic position has only fallen in the intervening decades.
What we are living in now is, in important measure, the return of the repressed. That’s Freud’s term. In his terminology, when emotions that crop up in early life are not properly dealt with, they continue on in a kind of rancid and poisonous, subterranean churn that bursts up like [pus from] an unhealed wound. These are more than “issues”—they are conditions of American life.