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