One More Chicago ’68 Story!

(AP Photo/Michael Boyer)

Chicago police attempt to disperse demonstrators outside the Democratic National Convention headquarters in Chicago on August 29, 1968.

Followers of this column may have hoped that I had sufficient self-control not to inflict yet another of the endless 50th anniversary remembrances of 1968 on unsuspecting readers.

You hoped wrong. Here goes:

Fifty years ago this week, on the final night of the cataclysmic Democratic Convention that left the New Deal order permanently shattered, I was sitting glumly in a hallway on the 15th floor of the Conrad Hilton Hotel in Chicago—the headquarters hotel for the convention, the hotel where the staff of Eugene McCarthy’s campaign was domiciled, the hotel that looked down on what was left of Grant Park after the police had run amok there for the past two evenings.

I had plenty of glum company. This floor (I remember it as the 15th, but Jamie Galbraith insists it was the 14th) was the one for junior staff, among whom, at age 18, I was just about the junior-est. Sad farewells and apocalyptic humor were the order of the day, or more accurately, night. After devoting many months to a presidential campaign focused on ending our horrific war in Vietnam, we had little but our friendships and some modestly enhanced political smarts to show for it. McCarthy hadn’t won the nomination, Bobby Kennedy was dead, the proposal for a peace plank in the party platform had been voted down by machine-appointed convention delegates (the age of primaries and caucuses hadn’t really begun); the antiwar demonstrators in the parks—whom most of us had joined when we could snatch some moments during the week—had been clubbed, kicked, and thrown into paddy wagons by the Chicago cops, who, having run out of demonstrators, continued on their merry rampage by beating unsuspecting passers-by in front of the hotel, all this beamed live to the nation on split-screen televisions—on one half, the cops attacking anything that moved (the official governmental report on the convention was to term their conduct “a police riot”); on the other, the candidate nominating speeches from the convention hall. Seconding the nomination of one late-entrant peace candidate, former JFK cabinet member and Connecticut Governor Abe Ribicoff, having witnessed the mayhem, said, “If George McGovern were president, we wouldn’t have these Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago.” One of the many cameras prowling the convention floor showed Chicago Mayor Richard Daley bounding to his feet and yelling at Ribicoff—there was no microphone around to broadcast what he was saying, but even a novice lip-reader could make out, “Fuck you, you mother-fucker Jew, you.”

Ah, memories.

Now, in the glum aftermath of these festivities, the McCarthy kids were sprawled on the hallway carpets and in the rooms, playing guitars, singing, moping, embracing, having no idea which grim future lay in store for the nation but being pretty sure it was grim. The mood was mournful, and sweet.

Then, what to our wondering eyes should appear but the Chicago cops, bursting out of the service elevators. Their story (which they didn’t bother to tell us; Chicago cops didn’t explain themselves in those days, and don’t seem to explain themselves these days, either) was that someone had thrown something down at them from a hotel window, and it had come from our floor. Brandishing their nightsticks, they charged down the halls, clearing out the rooms and the hallways, beating the couple of guys who offered some resistance, and herding us into the elevators, whether we all fit or not. Though I was rail thin at the time, I nonetheless protruded just enough from one packed elevator that the door wouldn’t close, so a cop assisted me in moving backward by bopping me on the chest with his nightstick. The door closed and down we went, tumbling out in the lobby like the occupants of the stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera.

My Chicago ’68 story.

The war still raged pointlessly on, of course, as did ever larger antiwar demonstrations. So, one more anecdote, if only because it’s less of a downer—this one from the huge demonstration on the National Mall in protest of our invasion of Cambodia and the killings of students at Kent State, in May of 1970. With a friend, I had hitchhiked down from New York to D.C., and hitchhiked back with a station wagon full of self-described Greenwich Village independent filmmakers (all Greenwich Village filmmakers in 1968 were independent). The tens of thousands of demonstrators who’d come down from New York now made their way back, slowly, then glacially, on I-95. Somewhere in northern Maryland, the traffic ground to a complete halt. In the warm early evening, with the sun not yet set, we sat—and sat. The windows were down, the kids who’d demonstrated were talking to the kids in the next car over. Somebody opened a car door, got out, walked over to the next car and passed that person a joint. Then another person did that, and another, and still others, and in a few moments, all I-95 appeared to light up. Not socialism in one country, to be sure, but counter-culture, the Sixties, on one federal highway.

I have other 1960s stories, but I’ll leave it at that.

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