With another sultry August nearing a close, the GOP national convention (finally) in full swing, and a hot fall political season to come, I can’t help recalling the first major political event that I covered, or even attended, (many anti-war marches in DC were to come) forty-four years ago this week. Yes, it was the infamous Democratic convention in Chicago, when the conflict in the streets, and on the convention floor, turned bloody—on this day in 1968.
I never made it inside the convention hall—but I did grab a front-row seat for what “went down” in the streets, as we used to say.
The week culminated on the night of August 28 in the crushing of Senator Eugene McCarthy’s anti-Vietnam crusade inside the convention hall and the cracking of peacenik skulls by Mayor Richard Daley’s police in the streets. Together, this doomed Hubert Humphrey to defeat in November at the hands of Richard Nixon. McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy had gained most of the votes during the primaries, but HHH still got the nod at the convention.
I’d been a political-campaign junkie all my life. At the age of 8, I paraded in front of my boyhood home in Niagara Falls, New York, waving an “I Like Ike” sign, and in 1960 took Nixon’s side in a big school debate (I lost that vote, 22-3). In 1968 I got to cover my first presidential campaign when one of McCarthy’s nephews came to town, before the state primary, and I interviewed him for the Niagara Falls Gazette, where I worked as a summer reporter during college. I had been chair of the McCarthy campaign at my college and lived and died with his campaign that spring.
My assignment for the Gazette: I was to hang out with the young McCarthyites and the anti-war protesters. To get to Chicago I took my first ride on a jetliner.
To make a long story short: after two nights of skirmishes in the streets, on the climactic night of August 28, 1968, I ended up a dozen feet from ground level at the Conrad Hilton Hotel in downtown Chicago. I was in McCarthy headquarters watching the anti-war plank get voted down by the Dems, as reporters got pushed around by cops on the floor. Then McCarthy (and George McGovern, who had carried the ball for the forces of the assassinated Robert F. Kennedy) got ready for his inevitable rejection at the hands of the delegates.
Suddenly the TV screens were filled with images of protesters getting beaten up near a major intersection on Michigan Avenue near Grant Park. Almost as one, in a surreal moment, we realized that, hey, that was just a few dozen yards directly below us. With the windows on the street side of the huge room tightly closed we couldn’t hear the screams or even smell the tear gas—that is, until we pulled back the curtains and cracked open the glass.
Then we could see police savagely attacking protesters with nightsticks at the intersection directly below. What would later be labeled a “police riot” by a federal panel was in full swing.
Within minutes, I screwed up my courage and headed for the streets. By that time, the peak violence had passed, but cops were still pushing reporters and other innocent bystanders through plate glass windows at the front of the hotel. I held back in the lobby, where someone had set off a stink bomb.
Finally, I crossed to Grant Park where the angry protest crowd gathered, with armed soldiers and jeeps covered with barbed wire and carrying machines guns forming a line along the street. We feared they could move forward and try to push us out of the park at any moment (and many were ready to resist). Yet there I stayed all night, as the crowd and chants of “pig” directed at the cops increased. Many in the crowd wore bandages or had fresh blood on their faces. Phil Ochs arrived and sang, along with other notables, including some of the peacenik delegates, plus Dick Gregory.
In the morning some of us filled the lobby of the Hilton and when delegates exited for the final day of the shattered convention we chanted, “You killed the party! You killed the party!”
When I returned to Niagara Falls that Friday, I wrote a column for that Sunday’s paper. I described the eerie feeling of sitting in Grant Park, and thousands around me yelling at the soldiers and the media, “The whole world is watching!”—and knowing that, for once, it was true.
Greg Mitchell’s political campaign books include The Campaign of the Century, Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady and Why Obama Won.