Protest

Chicago 1968: Moderates, Militants Walk a Bloody Route Together

“Most members of the American left have become revolution­aries because they see no other alternative — they still want to save the country, not to destroy it”

by

Moderates, Militants Walk a Bloody Route Together
September 5, 1968

CHICAGO — Eighteenth Street and Michigan Avenue to the 15th floor of the Hilton Hotel — a lot of lives were changed along that bloody route on Thursday night.

The National Guard’s tear gas and Mace, the cops’ nightsticks, brought at least 2,000 convention delegates and Yippies, McCarthy supporters, and political radicals into a new community where, for a few hours, the word “brother” was a standard form of greet­ing, even between strangers. But the community dissolved quickly; it was based on love and hope, and those sentiments seemed like luxuries in Richard Daley’s Chi­cago. It was replaced by a shared sense that to survive in America a political dissenter, even a lib­eral, would have to be cool and courageous, willing to fight.

By Friday morning even some of the moderates who had joined the street demonstrations, men who have always been determined to work inside the American po­litical system, had begun to won­der whether the government that had been symbolized all week by tanks and barbed wire wasn’t really their temporary enemy.

***

At intervals throughout the week the streets of Chicago had resembled a new sort of chapel, the religion they contained a last, desperate hope for America. It was a sentiment that spanned po­litical groupings, as true of many of the Yippies whom politicians called “anarchists and terrorists” as it was of the McCarthy volun­teers who were praised as idealistic young people, credits to their country.

After all, a Yippie or a mem­ber of the Mobilization is a civil rights worker or a McCarthy vol­unteer who has recently reached the far side of despair. He has grown his hair long, fastened a Viet Cong pin to his lapel, quit reading the Saturday Evening Post, and begun to underline edi­torials in the Guardian or the Berkeley Barb, he shouts “pig” at a few policemen. Immediately Americans see him as the contemporary anti-Christ. But friends of Jerry Rubin’s say that the Yip­pie leader is still proud of the fact that he worked for Adlai Stevenson in 1956; Tom Hayden always sounds a little nostalgic when he recalls that he was pre­sent the night that John Kennedy announced his plans for the Peace Corps at the University of Michigan. Most members of the American left have become revolution­aries because they see no other alternative —  they still want to save the country, not to destroy it.

Even in the early part of con­vention week when the McCarthy volunteers were still running er­rands in the Hilton Hotel, con­vinced that their man might win, and the dissenting delegates were plotting to force an open conven­tion on the bosses of the Demo­cratic Party, the radicals’ demon­strations were sometimes illuminated by a passionate spirit that has to be called patriotic.

For example, on Tuesday night the Yippies held a rally — an un-birthday party for Lyndon Johnson they called it, perhaps recall­ing the scene in Walt Disney’s “Alice In Wonderland” they had enjoyed so much as children­ — which Phil Ochs temporarily transformed into a revival meet­ing. He urged the demonstrators not to call the policemen “pigs” (“behave with dignity on the streets,” he said), and received more applause than the adults who assume that everyone who went to Chicago was an inveter­ate troublemaker would have imagined possible.

Then Ochs began to sing “The War Is Over.” When he reached the line “Even treason might be worth a try” his audience began to applaud and cheer more loudly than it had all night. Then he went on to the next line, “This country is too young to die,” and the applause transformed into stomping, rhythmic cheering. Most of the people Ochs sang to had never worried much about politics until the war in Vietnam began to interfere with their lives; they were the children of Nixon supporters or of lifetime Democrats who had found John Kennedy glamorous but a little too radical, people who acquired their values from Playboy maga­zine; products of the anti-com­munist ’50s who were washed into junior colleges and state universities on the tidal wave of wealth that the Eisenhower years released. Some of them were beaten over the head by police, disowned by their families, when they began to protest the war peacefully. That was not the sort of thing that was supposed to happen in the America they had read about in their high school civics courses.

But still they believed they could redeem their country, so they were transported by the single line from Ochs’ song.

At once, thousands of people were brought to their feet, hold­ing their fingers high in the air in the “V” sign that was the week’s dominant symbol. Ochs quit singing, backed away from the microphone, and stood on the stage strumming his guitar a little abstractedly. One man burned his draft card, then an­other, then a third; it was an epidemic of passion, the sort of glorious disease that burns out men’s minds and cleanses their souls; it must have swept over New England during the years of the Great Awakening, or Russia after the Revolution. Soon more than 10 draft cards waved in the air, flags of freedom, and the people who had ignited them were hoisted onto the shoulders of their friends. They had been washed in the blood of the lamb, born again into a better world.

Ochs walked off the stage. There was nothing more that he could do. Many of the kids who had stampeded the Coliseum when Ochs sang, and fought the cops up and down Michigan Avenue throughout Wednesday night, were part of Thursday’s march that was stopped at 18th Street and Michi­gan Avenue. Only now they had been joined by delegates and Mc­Carthy’s supporters, people whom the public considered more respectable. And the presence of the moderates and the speech that McCarthy had given to his sup­porters in Grant Park that af­ternoon altered the behavior of the militants. People who had thrown rocks at police cars the night before now insisted that the line of march remain orderly and calm. Members of the Establish­ment had gone onto the streets to be with them; they would act with remembered courtesy to make their new allies feel at home.

It was impossible to believe that the march to Dick Gregory’s house, led by delegates and digni­taries who wanted to prove that dissenters could walk freely on Chicago’s streets, would be dis­persed by force. It bore a much greater resemblance to the res­pectable civil rights demonstra­tions of the early ’60s than it did to the angry rebellions that had taken place earlier in the week. Indeed, the groups which Mayor Daley had characterized as “an­archist” and “terrorist” played no role at all in organizing the protest. Paul Krassner had al­ready declared the Yippies dead, and Rennie Davis had disbanded the Mobilization. The walk to Gregory’s house was led by the sorts of people whom militants regard as sell-outs when they are not seeking their protection; con­vention delegates like Murray Kempton and Peter Weiss of New York, Tommy Frasner of Okla­homa; dignitaries like Harris Woffard, former aide to Presi­dent Kennedy, and the Reverend Richard Neuhaus. One felt cer­tain that Mayor Daley would sup­port the march for the same rea­son Lyndon Johnson had sup­ported the last big demonstration in Selma. The protestors would gain nothing tangible — except, perhaps, a free soda pop at Gre­gory’s house — and the Democratic Party would be able to use the march as proof that Chicago was, after all, an open city.

But conventional wisdom was wrong. Daley decided to mar­shal all the force necessary to stop the march at 18th Street and Michigan Avenue, the rim of the ghetto, even if his actions of­fended a few liberals. Perhaps he felt that with Bobby Kennedy dead and Eugene McCarthy de­feated the opinions of the liberals mattered about as little as the opinions of the Yippies.

But if the National Guard massed its forces to stop the marchers, it also refused to arrest them quickly. The first demonstrators, starting with Gregory, were taken one by one, at min­ute-long intervals. At that rate it would take at least two days for everyone to get to jail.

It was like being at the end of a long grocery line late on a Fri­day afternoon: even more frust­rating than dull. Of course that was the Guard’s plan — either to bore people so thoroughly that they dispersed or to annoy them so intensely that they provoked an incident. And the military understood the movement’s psy­chology perfectly. Soon a black militant leader began to urge people to cross the streets now, hurrying their arrests. He was expressing the exact emotions of most marshals. He was also giv­ing the Guard a chance to attack the demonstrators as fiercely as the police had the night before.

As the first group of people crossed the street there were about 15 seconds of shoving; then some loud explosions as canister after canister of tear gas hit the ground. Suddenly one’s eyes be­gan to burn. It was impossible to move forward any longer. What had resembled the joyously suc­cessful Selma March just half an hour earlier now, suddenly, re­minded one of those herds of refugees one has seen so often in World War II movies: crying, moaning as they ran to escape an insane military force. And everyone who inhaled a lungful of tear gas, or whose skin got drenched with burning Mace, must have felt for a few minutes that he would die even before the jeeps with the barbed wire sweepers that were rumbling down the dark streets could reach him and crush him. After you swallow some of the new, more sophisti­cated gas the army uses you feel certain you will never again be able to breathe. You gag, you pray to God you can vomit: you are breathing in and out so rapidly that a cross country runner’s pant seems a long, luxurious sigh. Instead of escaping the army you want to crumple up in some alley and wait for the seizure to end. But that is terrifying, too, for now you are desperately worried about being run over.

But most people recovered from the Mace and the gas very quickly. By the time the Guards released their second barrage the demonstrators had become quite cool. Few of the recognized lead­ers of the Mobilization or the Yippies were on the street — Tom Hayden was in disguise over by Grant Park, Jerry Rubin was in jail, Rennie Davis was recover­ing from a beating by the police­ — so the demonstrators developed their own decision-making ap­paratus on the spot. All sorts of people took command — veterans of violent demonstrations in Oak­land and San Francisco; kids who had been working for McCarthy all year, rank-and-file Yippies, returned Peace Corps volunteers, members of the press. They might debate their ideological differ­ences in left-wing magazines, or even on the speaker’s stand in front of Grant Park, but now, on the street, with the barbed wire constantly approaching, they formed a coalition of necessity.

The new leaders developed a strategy which everyone seemed glad to accept. “Make them chase us all the way down to the Hilton”; the proposal was relay­ed to all the demonstrators. “Make them throw their tear gas where the delegates can see them.” Then, as the third barrage of tear gas swept over them, the street army relied on the primitive form of communication that had kept it together all week, the chant. “The whole world is watching, the whole world is watching.” They sustained the steady chorus as the jeeps mov­ed closer and closer to them.

Despite their wounds and their tears the demonstrators were no longer desperate refugees, but calm soldiers of a non-violent army. Shepherding the jeeps down Michigan Avenue toward the Hilton, one remembered the news clips of the Russian troops entering Prague. If the walk to Dick Gregory’s house had not been as successful as the Selma March it had not been a rout either. It had been a new sort of demonstration, a revelation of America’s present condition: a form of muckraking by deed that was relayed by the communica­tions media into the homes of 50 million people.

***

“Part-time fascism,” one demonstrator called it. An hour earlier he had walked into some tear gas with his eyes partly open, and had actually lost his vision for several minutes. Now, back in Grant Park, he was describing the vacation he planned to take on Martha’s Vineyard. The annual bass fishing tournament is about to begin there. The air is a bit crisp, but the swimming is still splendid: this is a wonderful time to visit the island. As he was talking, the troops, with no visible provocation, released a fourth barrage of tear gas. “Those fucking monsters,” he cried out. “How can they keep doing that to us?”

But he didn’t flee — almost no one did. People remained in the­ back of the park for several min­utes. They began to edge for­ward when a speaker’s stand was erected and Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers of Peter, Paul, and Mary began to sing. Soon thou­sands of people were sitting on the park grass which sprayed tear gas whenever anyone stepped on it too heavily, enjoying the free concert. It might have been a be-in at Central Park or the Newport Folk Festival, except for the rifles, jeeps, and barbed wire fences that separated the park from the street. Even after the master of ceremonies announced rumor that the troops had been ordered to load their guns — per­haps with blanks, perhaps with bullets — almost no one seemed to be afraid. Despite the repeated tear-gassings it seemed almost impossible for that group of Americans to believe there was a genuinely vicious spirit behind the military symbols. There might have been a little violence at 18th and Michigan, a little trouble the night before, but it couldn’t hap­pen again in Grant Park, so close to the protection of the Hilton Hotel, the delegates’ rooms, the candidates’ headquarters. “We are all together now,” Peter Yarrow said. “The soldiers will not dare pass our line of song.”

Peter and Mary were the per­fect symbols of the group that had retreated from 18th Street to Grant Park. There were more McCarthy volunteers, young pro­fessionals, delegates, and digni­taries than there were Yippies or political militants. And many of the radicals were still displaying their company manners in defer­ence to the members of the Es­tablishment who had joined them. There were not nearly as many taunts at the police and the sold­iers as one had heard the day before, and relatively few radical speeches.

The dominant mood of the group was almost prayerfully gentle, intensely conciliatory. Every time a light flashed from the Hilton Hotel, expressing a delegate’s solidarity with the demonstrators, the response was a prolonged burst of applause. Whenever a car passed by honk­ing its horn to show sympathy the crowd seemed almost as excited as it would have been if Eugene McCarthy had won the nomina­tion. The people gathered in Grant Park wanted desperately to remain a part of America, not to oppose it actively. Their slo­gan all night was “join us,” and the plea was issued to everyone; relinquish your place in the world that Lyndon Johnson, Richard Daley, and Hubert Humphrey re­present and join our community of love. Please. Together we can build a better, more generous America.

The feeling was even more reli­gious than it had been in the Coliseum. The demonstrators kept singing “God Bless America,” “This Land Is My Land,” “The Star Spangled Banner,” waving the “V” symbols above their heads, asking the soldiers to join in. They never did, but if you walked down the line of troops you noticed that not a single man could look you in the eye. They seemed moved and confused.

When Phil Ochs got onto the speaker’s stand he almost trans­formed the rally in Grant Park into the same sort of prayer ses­sion he had inspired in the Coliseum. Facing the soldiers, not the protestors, he begged “one man among you to lay down your arms and come over to our side. The army is making you into Germans, into men who only obey orders. It is not treason I’m urg­ing, but real patriotism. I know you’ll have to go to the stockade for what you do but at least you’ll be a free man, free from the war machine. In the name of Robert Kennedy I ask: Isn’t there one soldier who is a real American, one man who is willing to come over to our side?”

When Ochs began to sing “I Ain’t Marchin’ Any More” the demonstrators chanted “join us” softly, as if it was a litany. “Call it peace or call it reason, call it love or call it treason, but I ain’t marchin’ any more,” Ochs sang. It was a prayer that a single soldier might be as inspired to make a decision of peace, to lay down his rifle as kids had burned their draft cards earlier in the week and join in song, and that way cause the entire military machine to begin its decay.

The hope was a chimera. Not a single soldier crossed over.

***

Five hours after Ochs sang, a squadron of policemen took an elevator up to the 15th floor of the Hilton Hotel, raided a party that some McCarthy workers had organized, and beat the kids who had kept clean for Gene just as viciously as they had beaten the Yippies and radicals the night be­fore.

Their claim that beer cans and defecation had been dropped to the street below was clearly a pretext for violence: they dragged sleeping kids from rooms that were not even facing Michigan Avenue, and used their night sticks on them, too. The invasion seems to have been premeditated. Half an hour earlier all telephones to the 15th floor were disconnected, ac­cording to McCarthy workers, and now there was no way for the volunteers to call for aid.

Perhaps the raid was a symbol, perhaps it was a signal. With the last moderate candidate gone the police could close in even on the liberals who had maintained their belief in America’s’ poltical system.

The invasion of McCarthy’s headquarters seemed, in effect, a declaration of war directed at the people who had been begging the soldiers, the police, the dele­gates, and every other American who could hear them or see them to “join us” in an effort to change this country peacefully.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 1, 2020

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