The 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention Riots, 50 Years Later
by Kaye Northcott
September 6, 1968
Editor’s Note: A deeply divided country, a polarizing president, a national conversation about police violence, and a media circus broadcasting it all: These words describe 1968 as well as they do 2018. Fifty years ago today, thousands of antiwar protesters clashed with Chicago police during the Democratic National Convention, and the Observer’s Kaye Northcott was there watching.
The recent assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, as well as the morass in Vietnam, meant tensions were high even before the convention began. As Northcott noted, Chicago mayor Richard Daley set the stage for a confrontation by taking a firm stand against the protesters. Daley “made it clear that it was his convention” by refusing to issue permits to the activists, amping up the police presence and, eventually, calling in the National Guard.
“Certainly there were revolutionaries determined to stage violent confrontations in Chicago, but there were at least an equal number of cops looking for an excuse to bash in a few heads,” Northcott wrote. They found that excuse in Grant Park on August 28, when a teenager climbed a pole and lowered the American flag. As police approached to arrest him, activists threw rocks; in response, cops tear-gassed and beat them. Officers also dragged employees of Eugene McCarthy’s campaign out of their hotel rooms in the middle of the night: “A policeman threw me to the floor and said, ‘I’ll teach you by bashing your head in!’” one witness told Northcott. Today, as America continues to grapple with civil liberties and police brutality, her dispatch is worth rereading.
CHICAGO—A veteran of the Battle of Chicago doesn’t remember the nominee or the platform but rather the bloodied students, the sting of tear gas and the utter despair of living in an occupied American city.
One thinks of sitting before a television set in a garrisoned hotel as Walter Cronkite, with a sad countenance, tells millions of viewers, “There is no other way to say it. Chicago this week is a police state.”
And of watching the first convoy of national guardsmen drive down Michigan Avenue, shoulder their rifles and form a human wall to separate peace demonstrators from convention delegates.
How did it come about? Some persons, including the majority of the Texas delegation, would have you believe that the police and national guard courageously were protecting delegates from communist-inspired rioters and assassins. Certainly there were revolutionaries determined to stage violent confrontations in Chicago, but there were at least an equal number of cops looking for an excuse to bash in a few heads. And the worst part is that the police reacted to provocation with indiscriminate violence. One columnist described the confrontation in Chicago as a “police riot.” My sympathy was with the kids in Grant Park rather than with Mayor Richard Daley and the other political power brokers who attempted to manipulate the convention and crush dissent for their personal aggrandizement.
It may be unfair to single out Daley as the symbol of the repressive elements at the convention, but he asked for it. Driving into Chicago, one saw his name on billboards, welcoming delegates to his city. His name was on the baby blue garbage trucks that gathered up convention debris. His picture, believe it or not, was on a welcoming message attached to the cradles of telephones in the rooms of the Conrad Hilton. Mayor Daley made it clear that it was his convention.
It was Mayor Daley who set the hard line against the young people who descended on Chicago to demonstrate against the war and the absurdities of the American political system. Daley refused to let the Yippies sleep in the parks although he lets the Boy Scouts do so every year. (In fact, the national guard supplies the Scouts with free pup tents.) It was Daley who refused the demonstrators parade permits.
Daley (and possibly President Johnson) insisted on holding the convention in a riot-prone, strike-weakened city where the amphitheatre wasn’t big enough to hold the people legitimately entitled to attend the convention; Daley who filled the press gallery with his personal calque while reporters had to resort to watching the convention on television.
There was a concerted effort on the part of convention planners to limit communications in Chicago. Television crews were ordered to stay off the streets because they might block traffic. The periodical press (Time, Look, The Nation, Esquire, the Cedar Choppers Almanac, not to mention the Texas Observer, the whole lot) was given only five convention passes to share on a rotating basis.
The Democrats blamed some of their communications woes on the telephone strike. The strike limited the number of new lines that could be installed and made it impossible for the networks to provide live coverage of anything but the convention itself. By a strange coincidence, the strike was settled one hour after the Vietnam plank was adopted.
I’ll not bemoan the beatings of newsmen any more than the beatings of others in Chicago. The press, on the whole, showed excessive concern for their own. But the police’s treatment of reporters was no more appalling than that of the vast majority of demonstrators and bystanders.
The police raid on the McCarthy campaign headquarters at the Conrad Hilton is by no means the worst horror story of the convention, but it is fairly well documented. About 6 a.m. Friday morning, hours after the convention ended, police ascended to the 15th floor of the hotel, charging that articles had been thrown out one of the windows on that floor. A hotel employee opened doors with a pass key and police started dragging and pushing young McCarthy staffers out into the lobby.
Steve Cohen, a McCarthy worker, said he was in room 1506 when police and a hotel official entered charged that objects had been thrown from the room. “There were four of us in the room, and we hadn’t seen anything,” Cohen said. “The police said we would have to be evicted from the room and we left quietly. As we were walking toward the elevators police began to club us. A policeman threw me to the floor and said, ‘I’ll teach you by bashing your head in!’”
George Yumich, another staff member, who was on the 15th floor at the time of the raid, said he demanded that the police allow him to go up to the 23rd floor and tell Senator McCarthy what was going on. “I was hit across the neck with a billy club and then hit by three policemen at once,” Yumich said. “One policeman threw a glass of whiskey on my suit and then smiled and said, ‘sorry.’”
Sixteen-year-old Philip Shear was asleep in room 1502, a room that does not have a window, when police pulled him to his feet and pushed him into the lobby. He was struck on the back of the neck and had to be taken to the hospital. So did others.
When I left Chicago Friday afternoon, no charges had been made against anyone dragged out of rooms by the police. As far as I could discern, no one had come forward with eyewitness testimony that anything had been thrown from windows. One can only conclude that the McCarthy staff members were the victims of a brutal form of political harrassment. Thursday Eugene McCarthy spoke to demonstrators in Grant Park and many of his youthful supporters had participated in the demonstrations.
Hubert Humphrey’s vacillating statements on the incidents of violence in Chicago are disturbing. He decried “storm trooper” tactics on both sides, congratulated Mayor Daley for protecting him and other candidates from assassination attempts, and then called for a blue ribbon committee (that phony panacea) to look into the incidents in Chicago. The vice president’s reactions to events in Chicago indicate that as president he might be even less tolerant of dissent than Lyndon Johnson.
Equally disturbing is the fact that the majority of the American public, after seeing instances of police brutality on television, still insist that the police were justified in their handling of the “hippies.” There seems to be an assumption on the part of the police and the public that young people with long hair, or beards or in unconventional clothing are less equal other citizens. It’s all right for them to be beaten up. Such an attitude is unworthy of a free society.