The energy exchange: Fifty years on, the divisions so starkly demonstrated at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago look irreconcilable | The Monthly

Fifty years on, the divisions so starkly demonstrated at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago look irreconcilable


American Dispatches by Richard Cooke

American politics and society has rarely, if ever, been as tumultuous as it is today.

August 31, 2018

The energy exchange

By Richard Cooke
Fifty years on, the divisions so starkly demonstrated at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago look irreconcilable

John A. Logan Statue – Grant Park, Chicago

The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago was not held shoreside to Lake Michigan, or among the architectural gigantism of downtown, but right alongside the acre-big pig pens and abattoirs of the Union Stockyards. Its appointed place, the International Amphitheater, was set so close that attendees could smell blood coming from the packinghouses, and hear the screams of stuck livestock. This location was already an anomaly by the ’60s, but in the years prior the vast yards had been an attraction in their own right. Tours culminated in specially built galleries overlooking the killing floor, a theatre where the “butchery of the world” offered one of the most concentrated and intense spectacles of modernity.

The amphitheatre had hosted several political conventions before, though it seemed to be an unlucky venue: every ticket assembled under its roof, apart from one featuring Richard Nixon, had gone on to lose. The 1968 Democrats were not well positioned to break that curse. Lyndon Baines Johnson, his popularity destroyed by the Vietnam War, had withdrawn from recontesting the presidency (although he later fantasised about swooping into the convention by helicopter to secure the nomination). His anti-war heir, Robert F. Kennedy, had been assassinated only months before. No one held the position of presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party. It would be settled by a contest of pro- and anti-war forces, represented by the candidates Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy. Tens of thousands of protesters would sharpen the question, while Chicago’s Democratic mayor, Richard Daley, insisted on order. Attendees described the convention centre as a “fortress”. Before its siege, the demonstrators threatened to put LSD in the city’s water supply, a prank that in the already-paranoid circumstances registered as a threat.

Even by the high and feverish standards of the period, history in the first half of 1968 came in an almost apocalyptic succession. World-changing occurrences were sometimes so close-set that they overlapped: on August 28, just as the tensions of the Chicago convention finally broke from skirmishes into an all-out riot, Czech newspapers were closing for a Soviet-ordained “day of reflection”. It was the beginning of the end of the Prague Spring. Measured in memory against the Tet Offensive and the Paris uprising in May, Black Power shootouts and FBI assassinations, the DNC feels less exceptional, and Chicago’s own recollection might put more stock in the south- and west-side rioting after Martin Luther King’s assassination in April. There the chaos was so concentrated that almost 600 fire alarms were triggered in one 24-hour period.

The Black Panther Billy “Che” Brooks remembers the convention as the moment that police brutality was applied to Caucasians for a change. While the Panther leader Bobby Seale spoke to the assembly, it did not much register in the “neighbourhoods” (Seale was later charged for incitement, and at trial, the judge ordered him bound and gagged like a slave). The columnist and broadcaster Rick Kogan, now part of the fabric of Chicago, visited the demonstrations as a 16-year-old, wearing his father’s World War Two jacket. It was more to party than to protest, and only later, in more careful reflection, he realised that he had embroidered his memory from press reports. At the time it had not felt so important after all. “We were just part of a few really bad days and nights,” he wrote on the 50th anniversary.

The jubilee in 2018 was staid and reflective, and there were still detectable levels of shame, or some shame-adjacent emotion. A panel at the University of Chicago at Illinois, held 50 years to the day after the police rushed the crowds in Grant Park, took its title from the protesters’ cry: “The Whole World is Still Watching”. The Students for a Democratic Society organiser, Marilyn Katz, a high-schooler in ’68, outlined the mythology. “We were active, then burned out and drugged out,” she said, but maintained that organisers had found an enduring role changing society. That made the Battle of Michigan Avenue catalytic, at least. Don Rose, formerly of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, said the lesson was to “stay out of the way of billy clubs”, but in the question session afterwards, where the mics quickly became monopolised by boomerish autobiography, the former hippies were sure to mention that they, too, had been beaten. One man described regaining consciousness, cradled by his father. There was some nostalgia for the draft – it had compelled levels of activism that have not been repeated, and a political science major noted that few students were in attendance. Starbucks provided the coffee.

At Grant Park itself, a dance company called Move Me Soul was “reassembling” a well-known photo of the thronged protestors clustered around an equestrian statue. The monument, to the Union Army general John Logan, sits at the apex of a rise, at the end of a neat grassy plot that looks very much like a battlefield. It was not hard to see how it had become such contested terrain, or why the sight of hippies mounting a brass horse got the police so enraged. The young dancers, dressed as Panthers, each carried placards displaying versions of individuals from the original photo. They were blurred and blown up into psychedelic colour, and carried up the hill while a trumpet and a saxophone played an improvised dirge. The meagre audience then joined in to fill out the “crowd”. It was mournful and inorganic, and these careful cut-outs, mounted on clean pinewood, seemed only to confirm how the energy of the original gathering had been dispersed. There was an anniversary protest elsewhere, but it barely registered.

The real memorials were produced contemporary to the event, in reports and films and photos. The televised version has since become almost a shorthand for the 1960s: grainy, sepia policemen swinging out of clouds of tear gas, bearded young men running, indistinct animal shapes – images that could just as easily have been taken in Alabama, or Watts, or Newark, or Detroit, apart from the white faces on the black-and-white film. The convention’s political significances might be debatable, but as a cultural happening, especially as a literary event, it was almost unparalleled, and likely unrepeatable. The press corps in attendance was huge – almost one reporter for every two attendees – and filled with luminaries.

Esquire magazine decided to treat it as theatre-in-the-street, and sent William S. Burroughs, Jean Genet and Terry Southern (Samuel Beckett was too ill to attend, and something went wrong with Eugène Ionesco). They were wrangled by a young John Berendt, and reinforced by the war correspondent John Sack in case the A-team got too high to write. Their photographer was Michael Cooper, who took the sleeve shot for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, though the pieces for the most part ran as uninterrupted text.

Norman Mailer was there reporting, so too Renata Adler, Studs Terkel and Jimmy Breslin. The New York Review of Books sent William Styron and Elizabeth Hardwick. Arthur Miller was inside at the convention; Allen Ginsberg and Ed Sanders were outside in the park. MC5 played for the protesters, Aretha Franklin sang for the conventioneers (her soul version of “The Star Spangled Banner” caused a racist micro-controversy). Cadging a joint, Hunter S. Thompson wrote what might be the first true piece of gonzo journalism, though unpublished at the time. On television, Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather reported live, while Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley added acidic analysis. Their debate about the violence produced that iconic moment where Vidal called Buckley a crypto-Nazi, and Buckley responded by calling him a queer and threatening to punch him. There is, in this moment of reactionary cool becoming heat and hatred, a synecdoche for the whole event.

The list of protester demands mentioned art more often than war (and fucking more often still). It was intended, said one of the organisers, the Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman, as “a blend of technologists and poets, of artists and community organisers, of anyone who has a vision”. The effort was to “develop a Community of Consciousness”. Anyone coming to Chicago, Hoffmann said, “should begin preparations for five days of energy-exchange … The possibility of violence will be greatly reduced. There is no guarantee that it will be entirely eliminated. This is the United States, 1968, remember. If you are afraid of violence you shouldn’t have crossed the border.”

The borders were so clear that they became straight dialectical clichés: right versus left, war versus peace (with the forces of peace pre-doomed), old versus young, hate versus love, policeman versus protester, establishment versus anti-establishment, nightsticks against rock music. Coincidences conspired to heavy-handed symbolism. At this bull-market moment in American masculine nonfiction, the writers were performers too, cast in the role of themselves, and the themes confronting them were similarly broad and irresistible. So the abattoirs provided a literal representation of the mechanised slaughter of Vietnam (as well as a porcine reference point for the police). William Styron watched protesters being beaten outside the window of the Conrad Hilton, as through a television screen, and as the glass shattered suddenly, he felt his pretence of objectivity go as well. When the police began attacking card-carrying reporters and camera operators, it was outrageous, but also confirmed their importance, and their self-importance. How could the press remain impartial while being physically attacked? The liberal media knew its purpose – to throw light on abuses of power. Here was the power. Here was its abuse.

The theatre had become a morality play, but its audience did not react as anticipated. When Hunter S. Thompson copped a baton in the solar plexus, he joked that it was the moment he decided to vote for Nixon. But those watching at home were not joking. An energy exchange had taken place, but not the kind intended. Instead, it was a counter-revolution. Letters poured into newspapers supporting Daley and the police, blaming the protesters and the press, going so far as accusing them of staging the event. The most influential piece of writing came not from the all-that literary contingent, but instead from a workaday columnist, Joseph Kraft, who set out to describe the voters who sided with the billy clubs, and came up with a new term: “middle America”.

August 28, 1968, may not have been exactly “the night America decided to vote for Nixon”, but something firmed and hardened then, and in its wash-up, the media began a self-examination, almost a self-flagellation, that hasn’t stopped since. The person who best understands this change, historian Rick Perlstein, lives in Chicago, one of the best vantage points to look back at America’s turn to the right, which he has described in Before the Storm, Nixonland and The Invisible Bridge. Sitting in the offices of the magazine In These Times, he says the real importance of the convention came from the beating of the press. “It was the galvanising event for this kind of guilt-soaked reckoning that the media didn’t understand middle America. That they sided with the police.”

“The press craves this crystalline moral theatre of violence being visited on innocents,” Perlstein says. “But then the public’s sympathies are with the police, provoked by the kids.” There is a direct line between that trauma, and the press today “interviewing every last Trump supporter in every last diner in every red state in America. That joke comes from somewhere: the idea that the true America is conservative, that it abhors protest, and that somehow people who protest against wars are alien to heartland values.” When Nixon won, he was positioning himself as a tribune of quiet against the party of clamour, and the quiet was reified in his most famous formulation, the Silent Majority.

The media also felt they had underestimated middle America’s puritanism, but this wasn’t quite right. The resentment towards protesters was class-based (college students could defer the draft to Vietnam, whereas someone like, say, the brother of a police officer, could not), but it was also a complex response to expressed sexuality, what Perlstein calls “fugitive rage” about the “fucking in the streets”. “These psychological pas de deux – one of the reasons Old Hollywood and the people around Reagan despised the hippies so much was because they had this kind of monopoly on hedonism. And the hippies were democratising hedonism.”

This was an especially acute threat in Chicago, a convention city where the hypocrisy around adultery-for-hire and business propriety was vital. (When John Steinbeck visits Chicago in Travels With Charley, he writes about a brief stay in a room that hasn’t been cleaned yet at the Ambassador East, where a female companion “used a heavy perfume but did not stay the night”). Norman Mailer, someone too well acquainted with the confusions between desire and anger, understood the political component of this perfectly. The Yippies, he wrote:

did not necessarily understand how much their simple presence hurt many good citizens in the secret velvet of the heart – the Hippies and probably the Yippies did not quite recognize the depth of that schizophrenia on which society is built. We call it hypocrisy, but it is schizophrenia, a modest ranch-house life with Draconian military adventures; a land of equal opportunity where a white culture sits upon Black … a land of family, a land of illicit heat; a politics of principle, a politics of property … What the Yippies did not recognize is that their demands for all-accelerated entrance into a twentieth-century Utopia … was nonetheless equal to straight madness for the Average Good American, since his liberated expression might not be an outpouring of love, but the burning of his neighbor’s barn. Or, since we are in Chicago, smashing good neighbor’s skull with a brick from his own back yard.

The protests, he wrote, represented the “destruction of every saving hypocrisy”.

Driving with Perlstein, we saw a Grateful Dead numberplate while considering a question: where did the energy behind the protests go? “There’s one of your answers,” he said. The hippies scattered, and those who stayed together did so at concerts, not protests. But did part of “liberated expression” wind up in the Southernisation of the Midwest? The radicalism and liberalism of what was once called “Prairie Power” are disappearing, in favour of out-of-state country music and Confederate flags. “The Southernisation of America,” says Perlstein. “My life’s work.”

In the Esquire dispatches from the DNC there is a persistent and malign zoological theme – not just the pigs, but apes and dogs and goats as well. Jean Genet began his piece by saying “Chicago makes me think of an animal which, oddly, is trying to climb up onto itself”, whatever that means, and William S. Burroughs finished his own idiosyncratic report by describing a scene in which a “purple-assed mandrill” is elected president. The savage animal is then shot dead by a policeman, and “thumps to the ground and bloody grass, he ejaculates, shits and dies”. “I say to you that Grant Park will be a shrine to all future Americans,” Burroughs wrote, though after 50 years the shrine looks more like a monument to defeat. One that has been desecrated in the interim.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys US correspondent and contributing editor. 


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