Log Cabin Chronicles


Remembering Chicago 1968
& why I've never returned

"The policeman isn't there to create disorder.
The policeman is there to preserve disorder."

The real world in August, 1968,
according to the late Richard J. Daley,
Democrat power broker and Mayor of Chicago

By John Mahoney

It's been 40 years since I returned from the last Democratic convention in Chicago but I still remember the heat and the hate.

When I stepped from the air-conditioned cab onto the Second City's mean streets in August, 1968, I walked into a wall of humidity. The air was hot and thick. It had substance, volume, presence. It took my breath away.

The hate came later.

In Chicago, August, 1968

Next, it was tear gas that took my breath away. Tear gas used on American citizens by American policemen intent on causing injury. It was an American police riot, and the whole world was watching.

I was 32, a political reporter with Vermont Press Bureau on assignment at the 1968 Democratic Convention. The previous week I had been in Washington, D.C., reporting on the party's platform convention. The ruins in the black neighborhoods had stopped smoking by August, following the riots that broke out across the country when Martin Luther King had been gunned down in the spring.

It was a shameful time in the land of the free and the home of the brave:

Medgar Evers, the civil rights leader, had been murdered.
President John F. Kennedy had been murdered.
Doctor King had been murdered.
Robert Kennedy had been murdered.
Thirty thousand young Americans -- including my cousin -- had been killed in the Viet Nam adventure.
Richard Nixon, Spiro T. Agnew, and thirty thousand more American war deaths were yet to come.

On the home front, a cultural war was underway. First, there was the massive civil rights campaign in the South. Have you forgotten the beatings and lynchings, the attacks by police dogs, the murders of civil rights workers?

As President Lyndon Johnson escalated the war and more young Americans died -- by the hundreds, then by the thousands -- the middle class became angered. There were war-related deaths in their neighborhoods, now. The war was coming home to America on each evening's newscasts and LBJ was driven from office by the continued protests in the streets.

Vice President Hubert Horatio Humphrey, that happy warrior of "the politics of joy," was to pick up the soiled banner discarded by his leader and do battle with Richard Nixon who, as things turned out, would also be driven from office.

Those in power and those who supported them had come to hate the massive thumbing of the counter-culture's collective noses. They hated what they perceived as "pot smoking, acid dropping, nigger loving, free sex commie traitors." They didn't like the music they played or the clothes they wore. Sergeant Pepper wasn't your proper American military man.

They were the enemy and they were in Chicago's streets and parks, rudely demanding that the Democrats, assembled to anoint HHH as their standard bearer, stop the killing. End the war. Bring the troops home. Now.

The Chicago police -- big, tough, mean, and quick to club and mace -- had removed their badges, their name tags, their unit insignias. They were a viscious, sanctioned mob, safely anonymous wielders of authority, and they beat and punched and pounded and kicked to their hearts' content.

And this was just the press, especially photojournalists.

They gleefully and thoroughly worked over the demonstrators. Some were shoved through plate glass windows. The young men and women working for anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy, a U.S. senator and poet, were pounded and kicked unmercifully. Every blow was meant to punish, sweet revenge against commie trash.

I'll never forget the bandaged heads and the blood, the vomit, the other body fluids that stained the floors and carpets of the hotel in which the kids were quartered before the police hammered them.

Not all the thugs were on the streets wearing blue uniforms. There were private security personnel inside the convention hall and some of them punched and pummeled delegates and reporters in the emotional heat of the convention.

I was only shoved, not struck, but my late friend Benjamin Collins -- Vermont's Secretary of Civil and Military Affairs and senior aide to Governor Phillip H. Hoff -- was roughed up. Remember how Dan Rather, famous even in his pre-anchor incarnation, was punched out on the convention floor? Yes, there were plenty of hoodlums inside.

The real story was in the streets, with the anti-war demonstrators. That's where I went, much to the irritation of my bureau chief (Steve Terry, now a vice president of Vermont's Green Mountain Power Corporation who revelled in the minutiae of insider wheelings and dealings).

There was one point during the long night of the "second convention" -- held in the park across the street from the Conrad Hilton Hotel -- when I wondered if I would live to see my wife and four children again. A group of us Vermonters (Collins, Tax Commissioner Jerry Witherspoon and his wife, Margie, and Alice Soule of the governor's staff) huddled coughing and choking in the tear gas-soaked grass, eyes tearing as we tried to breathe through wetted handkerchiefs.

We had marched togther in the candlelight demonstration from the convention hall. Collins and I had tried to convince author Norman Mailer to join us, but he declined. "I'm on assignment," he said.

Me too, Mailer, but I had abandoned the pretense of objectivity and arms-length professional voyerism, for this was war. For me, it was to be participatory journalism from there on out.

As we all sang to keep up our courage that long, dark night in the park, the armed National Guardsmen moved in closer. They had unsheathed their bayonets, as I remember. Their jeeps were fronted by tangles of barbed wire that would tear a line of demonstrators -- or onlookers -- to shreds.

Their combat boots echoed on the streets of Chicago like fascist jackboots, and their eyes were hard, and they were ready to do their duty.

Peter, Paul, and Mary sang to help keep the crowd -- now both scared and angry -- from erupting, and also to act as a shield against the grim, gun-toting soldiers surrounding us.

And then, striding majestically along the sidewalk, appeared a figure in flowing ecclesiastical robes, complete with staff and mitre. It was, as I remember, for the image is dreamlike and my stinging eyes were watery, the Anglican bishop of South Africa. And he really cooled the troops out.

Free of Chicago but not of the war, we Vermonters drank our way home across the American sky. Once back in the free Green Mountains, the traditionally conservative Democrats of the state delegation, their divided party in ruins, leaned hard on one of the editors and he accepted a counterpiece to my eyewitness reports of police violence and official treachery. The National Democrats, they reported, had been wonderful to them, providing great food and drink, nice accomodations, free rides around town. Things had been really swell and the media hadn't told the real story.

Within four months I left the working press to teach journalism and photography. Within four years I moved to Canada. I've never returned to Chicago. I'm not watching the convention.

[Archive photographs courtesy LIFE, NY Times, Washington Post]

[Editor's Note: I grew up in an American military family, had a great red-white-and-blue Yankee Doodle childhood, patriotically enlisted at 17 in the U.S. Army in 1953, served for three years, and was honorably discharged as a corporal when I was 20, too young to legally drink, too young to vote.]


Copyright © John Mahoney 1996 /Log Cabin Chronicles/8.96