Friday, August 29, 2014

The Whole World Was Watching - Dispatches from Maine

It was the summer of 1968, one of the most turbulent years of the twentieth century which had its fair share of turbulent years.  The Tet Offensive, the Battle of Hué and the siege at Khe Sanh by the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong were quickly turning the tide of America’s involvement in Southeast Asia.  Martin Luther King had been murdered that April and one American city after another was lighting up with racial tension and rioting, including my hometown of Chicago where Mayor Richard Daley had issued a “shoot to kill order to the city police.  This tumultuous year was barely half over when Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York was gunned down in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen in June after claiming victory in the California primary to become the presumptive Democratic nominee for president. 

Early that summer I spent some weeks in Europe where French students and workers were threatening to bring down Charles DeGaulle’s Fifth Republic.  The Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies had invaded Czechoslovakia putting to an end that country’s reform movement during the Prague Spring.  The newspapers there were full of stories about genocide in Nigeria’s breakaway Republic of Biafra. 

I worked much of that late summer in Milwaukee before returning to Park Ridge, in suburban Chicago, for my senior year of high school.  Before classes began there were a few carefree days in the city with my friends.  Chicago is my hometown and that summer it was buzzing with nervous energy as delegates poured into the city for the Democratic National Convention to be held at the old International Amphitheater near what was left of the Union Stockyard on the South Side.  It had been the site of four previous conventions (two Democratic and two Republican) since 1952, and I had seen The Who perform there the previous August.  My visit downtown would be nothing like what I intended or expected.

It was going to be a wide-open convention for a Democratic party that was fractured and without clear direction after President Lyndon Johnson announced that spring that he would not seek reelection.  Originally the race had been between the incumbent Johnson and Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota who was calling for an end to the war and for the withdrawal of US combat troops from Southeast Asia.  Bobby Kennedy entered the race and began to syphon support from both Johnson and McCarthy, especially on the issue of the war.  Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, along with Kennedy and McCarthy, was also a vocal opponent of the war, further dividing the anti-war faction within the party.  Johnson threw his support to Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota, his vice president, and the fuse was lit for what might be an explosive convention in a city already on tenter hooks.  There was talk of moving the convention to Miami where the Republicans were holding their convention, but Mayor Daley called in markers to keep it in Chicago and even threatened not to endorse of Humphrey if the convention was moved.

With Bobby Kennedy out of the race and the anti-war faction split, Humphrey came to Chicago to be anointed yet there was no real unity within the Democratic party.  He was Johnson’s proxy at a time when there was little support for the Administration’s war strategy.  In fact, Johnson never came to Chicago.  Humphrey stood by Johnson’s pro-war position as the anti-war faction imploded.  Its platform plank was debated and defeated as protestors in downtown Chicago engaged the authorities in what came to be known as the “Battle of Michigan Avenue.”

As the politicos and delegates in the International Amphitheater negotiated the nomination of Humphrey with Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine as his vice presidential nominee, the city swelled with over 10,000 protesters who had been planning for weeks to disrupt the convention while calling for an end to the war.  Mayor Daley, who had promised that there would be no organized demonstration, denied permits for gatherings and marches.  He also put almost 12,000  Chicago police on alert backed up by 15,000 US Army troops and Illinois National Guardsmen and several hundred Secret Service personnel to put down any disruptions swiftly and decisively.  What was intended as a peaceful protest soon erupted into violence when the police fired tear gas into the crowds and began attacking individual protestors with truncheons while kicking and beating others.   Members of the Fourth Estate covering the protests were also accosted by the police, many of whom removed their badges and name tags so that they could not be identified later.

The confrontations along Michigan Avenue, in Grant and Lincoln Park and elsewhere throughout downtown Chicago, occurred the day I planned my carefree excursion into the city . . . . and I never expected what I encountered that day.   Although I was certainly not in the thick of things, I nevertheless got a taste of the anarchy of the crowd and the lawlessness of the police as the remnants of the indiscriminate use of tear gas along the lakefront drifted through the downtown and loop.  People were wandering around coughing and rubbing their eyes, myself included.   Thankfully I did not end up in the wrong place and the wrong time.

That evening, safely returned to my home in the suburbs, I watched the news and the film coverage of the Chicago police riot and wondered how such a thing could occur in America.  I quickly learned that the whole world was watching and questioning what had become of America.  1968 certainly marked the end of innocence in this country.

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