I am writing this during the presidential nomination of Barack Obama at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Because this is 40 years after 1968, there are references by mass media personalities and others to what happened in the streets of Chicago during that historic time. Much of what has been written is often inaccurate, superficial or misleading. I know this because I was one of the people who initiated the call for the demonstrations and planned them. But the story behind these events, the political issues that we dealt with and the state repression that we faced are as relevant today as they were 40 years ago. What then follows is my attempt to explain what happened and why. I hope these words will help clarify some historical reality and provide some helpful observations for those of us who continue to organize against U.S. injustice today.
On the 35th anniversary of the sentencing in the Chicago Conspiracy Trial (February of 2005) I was interviewed by a public television reporter for a retrospective piece on the Chicago 8. As he and his cameraman entered my house, he quipped, “I just interviewed Richard Schultz (Assistant Prosecuting Attorney). He insists that you came to Chicago to overthrow the American government. He knows it sounds silly but that’s what he believes to this day.” Without missing a beat, I retorted, “It doesn’t sound silly at all. That was in fact what we wanted to do. And in hindsight, it appears even more compelling today then it did at the time. Who wouldn’t want to overthrow a government that was in the process of murdering 2 to 3 million Vietnamese and 60,000 US troops? Who wouldn’t want to overthrow a government that had launched a joint FBI/police force campaign to destroy the Black Liberation Movement which resulted in scores of dead black revolutionaries and many others imprisoned for life?”
To understand those events and what motivated us, you have to know something about the extraordinary times preceding them. Our small circle of friends, the Yippies, had come together around the October 1967 anti-war demonstration where we first successfully levitated the Pentagon. That is, we encircled the building and with drums, incense and incantations we caused it to rise, allowing the evil spirits to flee. My friend Abbie Hoffman, one of the original Yippies, would later complain that we only managed to get it ten feet off the ground. The levitation was followed by about 1000 arrests of people trying to shut it down altogether. It was the first time I had been arrested but far from the last.
We came together to shut down the Pentagon in particular but more generally in response to everything that was going on around us. We had by now been marching and demonstrating and participating in teach-ins for several years and felt our efforts fell on deaf ears.
In 1967 the U.S. pounded the Vietnamese people from the air in what was called Operation Rolling Thunder. In response the Vietnamese people continued to down American planes with anti-aircraft artillery. In fact it was during Operation Rolling Thunder that John McCain was shot down over North Vietnam. Perhaps it was by the group of young women I later met in 1970 who were operating anti-aircraft artillery out in a field in order to defend their small village in Thanh Hoa province.
But on January 30, 1968, at the time of the lunar new year, the Vietnamese launched an enormous and completely undetected popular uprising in South Vietnam known as the Tet offensive. The whole world was amazed by their ability to mobilize their entire nation right under the noses of the American military. A small country challenging Goliath, the most powerful military force in the world.
Anita Hoffman and NANCY KURSHAN, Chicago 1968.
In February hundreds of people protesting a segregated bowling alley in Orangeburg near South Carolina State University were fired upon by the police. Three young men were killed and 27 people wounded. There was little of the publicity that later surrounded the Kent State shootings because most, if not all, of the people involved were Black. This was known as the Orangeburg Massacre.
On March 21st we experienced a small taste of that violence directly. The Yippies went on WBAI New York radio and called for a Yip-In at Grand Central Station. It was to be a peaceful gathering complete with costumes, music and incense. 10,000 hippies and yippies showed up. The police over-reacted and it turned into a police riot. Abbie Hoffman was shoved through a glass door after I threw myself on top of him in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the police.
On April 4th the King of Peace, Martin Luther King, was assassinated in Memphis and urban centers around the U.S. went up in flames. There had already been major rebellions in Detroit, Newark, LA and Cleveland. It was at that time that the “Rap Brown bill” became law. Rap Brown was the fiery leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, an extremely popular organization that was becoming more militant in response to the times. The U.S. passed this law stating that it was now a “crime to cross state lines with the intent to riot.” It would carry a five-year prison sentence with conviction.
Also in April students at Columbia University in New York occupied several buildings in opposition to war and racism. I joined them and when the cops cleared the buildings, that was my second arrest.
In May French students triggered a national strike of students and workers. In Mexico City a huge protest ended with the murder by police of probably hundreds of unarmed students. The world was in turmoil and it seemed like people were resisting everywhere.
In June Robert Kennedy was assassinated. But honestly, that month preoccupied us in more personal ways since the New York Police Department broke into our tiny apartment and ransacked it. Upon finding 3 ounces of marijuana, they arrested my partner, Jerry Rubin, for “felonious possession with intent to sell.” Additionally, the cops had thrown him around and he fractured his coccyx. I was tricked into coming down to the station and detained in an unsuccessful attempt to get me to testify against him, and then later released when I refused to comply.
Those were just some of the influences that were fueling our anger and commitment.
Small Circle of Friends
First let me tell you a bit about the Yippie cast of characters:
Stew Albert, from Brooklyn, New York, had quit the Progressive Labor Party, a Maoist organization. Stew was an important part of the political movement in Berkeley, a full time activist and campus non-student “outside agitator” when he and Jerry Rubin became good friends.
Judy Clavir aka Gumbo, Canadian born, left academia to be a fulltime organizer, and became the girlfriend and later wife of Stew Albert. She and Stew moved to New York to join the Yippie activities and lived in an underground cellar below Abbie’s Liberty House. Together they later published The Sixties Papers, a political anthology of the period.
Abbie Hoffman had been active in the civil rights movement in the south and went on to establish Liberty House, on outlet for poor people in the south to sell their crafts. Abbie was incredibly comical, charming and intelligent with connections to a world of artists, poets, and musicians in New York.
Anita Hoffman had a Masters in Psychology. She became politically involved when she met Abbie and they were married in Central Park in a hippie wedding. She later published several books, including a fictional account of their early days together.
Paul Krassner was a standup comedian in the spirit of Lenny Bruce. He was an irreverent and raunchy satirist and the founder and editor of “The Realist” magazine. A little known fact is that early on he had also been involved in attempts to set up networks that would assist women in getting safe, illegal abortions.
NANCY KURSHAN had been involved with anti-nuclear, Northern civil rights organizations, and Students for a Democratic Society. She was a graduate student in psychology at Berkeley when she met Jerry Rubin and they moved in together. They moved to New York to help organize the Pentagon demonstration.
Phil Ochs was one of the best-known folksingers of the era. He was a media junkie and many of his songs reflected actual events. His songs had a wide emotional range and included searing anti-war songs like “I Ain’t Marching Any More” and songs about the civil rights struggle such as “Too Many Martyrs.” They were full of anger, love and exquisite lyrics. At every political protest, there was Phil with his guitar.
Jerry Rubin, son of a teamster, became a journalist, traveled to Cuba after the ’59 revolution and returned to the US to become a full-time political agitator. He was the leader of the Vietnam Day Committee in Berkeley, California which tried to physically obstruct troop trains, held enormous teach-ins and organized thousands of people to march several times on the Oakland Army Terminal.
There were many others in our New York circle as well—Ed Saunders of the Fugs music group; Kate Coleman who worked for Newsweek; Robin Morgan before the male chauvinism drove her to quit; the pacifist Keith Lampe also known as Ponderosa Pine; Sharon Krebs who butt naked delivered an actual pig’s head on a plate to a meeting of U.S. senators; Wali and Sam Leff who became Yippie archivists and life-long friends of Abbie and Anita. Most of us had come together around the levitation and siege of the Pentagon, and on New Years Eve 1967 while sitting around stoned, some of us decided to form the Youth International Party (known familiarly as Yippie!!) and plan for protests at the Democratic Convention that coming August.
So what was our original intent for the 68 Democratic Convention? I know what my hopes were and also those of Jerry because during those years we beat with the same heart, politically at least. On New Years Day of 1968 we planned to organize an extravagant Festival of Life in the parks of Chicago as an alternative to what we saw as their Festival of Death. There would be an extravaganza of musicians, poets, guerrilla theater, a union of hippies and political activism. This kind of grand production was not completely new. It evolved out of all we’d experienced in the last two years. The Vietnam Day Committee teach-ins while very educational were also extremely theatrical, as was Black Power Day in the Berkeley Greek Theatre where many leaders of the Black liberation movement spoke, to the dismay of the Governor of California who tried to stop it. The Be-In in Golden Gate Park involved every major rock group of the day. And then there was Jerry’s response to a subpoena from the House Un-American Activities Committee. Ronnie Davis of the San Francisco Mime Troupe suggested that he go dressed as an American revolutionary war figure, tri-cornered hat and all, which Jerry enthusiastically did. HUAC refused to let him testify. Jerry was not known as the PT Barnum of the left for nothing.
Yes, a Festival of Life would be good. But if that were not possible, then a confrontation on a scale that would capture the attention of the whole world would also be great. If it could not be a Festival of Life, so be it. But let it be. If the confrontation became physical that too was okay. Any traces of pacifist thinking were disappearing. After all, they were raining terror and violence down on the whole Vietnamese nation, and then the whole of Indochina. There was intense repression on the Black Liberation Movement. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King had been assassinated. Others had been arrested, beaten, killed. We were just drawing out the violence that was right under the surface and for the first time it would be directed at white U.S. citizens. We knew that in its most overt form such violence was usually reserved for people of color both here and abroad. Only if it were directed at white people would there be enough cognitive dissonance to get Americans thinking.
Jerry later described himself as an “armchair guerrilla:” “I never shot a gun or planted a bomb, but I supported the Vietcong and selective violence here at home. Though I am a white middle class American who enjoys a good meal and the luxury of comfort, I nevertheless share the feelings of extremist revolutionaries. My country had brutalized the red race and the black race and now we were dropping bombs on brown and yellow people. I felt my position was morally right. Anything any of us could do to stop genocide was O.K. As a child of America I had been taught that the Good Germans who did nothing to stop Hitler were also morally responsible for his crimes. I felt anger at the gap between our ideals and the cold reality of our power system.” Those were my sentiments exactly. Still are.
Before the Nightstick: Shoot to Kill, Maim or Cripple
In response to the Black rebellion in Chicago that followed King’s assassination, Mayor Daley had earlier that year issued his infamous “shoot to kill, maim or cripple” order and those words were reiterated over and over again in the months leading up to the Convention. Then it was announced that 6000 National Guardsmen and 7500 members of the US Army would be there as well. The Commander of the Guard warned that his men would “shoot to kill… if there is not another way of preventing the commission of a forcible felony. The troops will be carrying . . . 30 caliber ball ammunition. This kind of ammunition is made to kill.” Those of us who were not planning on committing felonies did not feel comforted by those words.
We had been negotiating for months for a permit to sleep in the park. We knew that young people would arrive from all over the country without money or resources and would need a place to stay. The city stalled and stalled. The Chicago Yippies, on the flower power end of the continuum, encouraged us to keep negotiating and assured us we’d get the permits in the end. They were wrong. Mayor Richard Daley refused to issue any permits to sleep in Lincoln Park and he waited until the last minute to let us know with certainty.
Many movement people began to say it was crazy to go to Chicago. Eugene McCarthy, the peace candidate, warned people not to come. Even our fragile Yippie cabal was fracturing. The folks from the Chicago Seed, an alternative newspaper, were our Yippie allies in Chicago, but they became fearful of the consequences. They said, reasonably enough, that they would have to live with the aftermath of repression that Daley would rain down on the locals after the rest of us left for home. Up until the end, we were divided about whether we’d be allowed to sleep in the park. With or without permits, we thought that if enough of us arrived in Chicago, the city would relent, preferring us to sleep in the park, rather than be pushed into the streets and cause a major confrontation. At least each of us thought that some of the time. At other times we thought we might die in Chicago.
I am sure that thousands of yippies and other antiwar people were frightened away. Of the scheduled Festival of Life performers, in the end only Phil Ochs and the MC5, a band out of the Ann Arbor/Detroit area associated with the White Panthers, actually made it to Chicago. It was rumored that Country Joe and the Fish showed up but that Joe had been threatened by some beefy Chicago police in an elevator, and headed out of town ASAP. Musicians were especially reluctant to bring all their expensive equipment to such an iffy scene.
But our small circle of friends knew we all had to go no matter what. Otherwise we would be acquiescing in the implementation of a police state. It would have been a done deal and we were not ready to concede that kind of defeat.
A Fractured Bunch
On the opening days of the Convention, a few thousand stalwarts arrived at Lincoln Park. The personal experience left a lot to be desired. I am not talking here of the police presence. Not yet. Although all us hardcore Yippies were there, we weren’t speaking to each other. Jerry and Abbie had been feuding for a while, and although I can remember most political arguments for years afterwards, I can’t for the life of me reconstruct what they were fighting over. Through the years of their collaboration, they were often fiercely competitive with each other. Jerry always felt inferior to Abbie. He wasn’t as funny. He wasn’t as clever. He wasn’t as good a writer or as good a speaker. He wasn’t as charming. And he always felt neglected by Abbie. He obsessed over his approval. Abbie, for his part, was extremely individualistic, almost in essence. He would inadvertently slight or exclude Jerry. So there were constant estrangements and reunions. This period was one of estrangement.
When Jerry and Abbie were estranged, so were Anita and I. We “stood by our men” in those days. Women’s liberation was just beginning to invade my consciousness. It would be over a year before Robin Morgan would unleash her “Goodbye to All That,” declaring her break with the male-dominated left, including of course the Yippies. In it she would shout, “Free Anita Hoffman! Free NANCY KURSHAN! Free Gumbo!” And although it didn’t take the sting out of it, she in all fairness included herself–“Free Robin Morgan!” But that was later and in this August of 1968 we lined up with our men.
Other Yippies were pulled into the fight as well. No matter how hard people tried to remain neutral, it was generally Stew, Judy and Phil that were Jerry’s pals with Krassner at Abbie’s side. Had it been different, the whole personal experience would have been a lot better. But we were a fractured bunch.
In addition, there were police everywhere. Not just in uniform but also undercover. Everywhere we went we were followed by tails, cops whose job was to stick with us like glue. They made little attempt to camouflage their task. They followed us as we walked down the street. They followed us into restaurants. One time we went into a restaurant in Lincoln Park and three cops sat down at the counter. We waited for them to order, and when their meals arrived, we got up and walked out. They also got up and walked out, leaving all their food behind, uneaten. We got some satisfaction out of ruining their lunch.
A tall, burly, dark-haired biker presented himself to us shortly after we arrived. He said he knew that Jerry would be a target and he was offering his services as a bodyguard. Why not, we thought. We were actually quite an open bunch since we didn’t feel we had anything to hide. We said pretty much what we believed and what we wanted to do. Anyway it never occurred to us that he was a cop. What sense would that make? We already had cops that followed us everywhere we went. We would later find out differently but we were still naïve in too many ways.
By Light of Day
From August 25th through 27th, Lincoln Park had one character in the light of day and another at night. During the day, the weather was hot and humid, typical Chicago summer. I wore a short sundress and two long pigtails to stay cool. The park was filled with a few thousand people doing their own things. Some were practicing a group activity that Japanese youth had been using when faced with belligerent lines of police. It involved rows of people, several deep, with arms linked, moving forward together and shouting “Washoi.” Our friend Wolf Lowenthal was teaching people tai chi. Jeff Shero, later known as Jeff Nightbyrd, the editor of the Rat, NYC’s underground newspaper, was there publishing a daily rag. Ramparts magazine was producing wall posters, newspapers that gave information about what was going on and were pasted up onto walls around the city.
Scores of activists from Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) were there as well. They had criticized us (the Yippies) for various reasons—too frivolous, not really organizing on a local level, etc.—but were now full participants, even leaders, since the situation had changed. They were disenchanted with the standard civil disobedience of the peace movement and had formed small groups to engage in the newly popular “mobile tactics” that were springing up around the country. We were glad to see them there. They seemed more prepared than we were for the actual situation.
There were small groups of medics with white armbands, carrying first aid supplies, on the ready. They were associated with the Medical Committee for Human Rights. There were legal observers with their armbands, attorneys and law students from the National Lawyers Guild. Some people were learning how to monitor police radios. Others were riding around on bicycles bringing news from one place to the next. People were reading, sharing food, hanging out. Both the days and the nights were free form in nature. If you couldn’t “go with the flow,” it would be rough.
I ran around with Jerry most of the time, not quite sure what to do with myself, moving at different moments from exhilaration to fear to occasional boredom. I can’t remember why I decided to drop THC, but I did do that one of those days. It was bad enough to imbibe any “controlled substances” in such a chaotic scene but the stuff turned out to be really awful and I got quite sick for a half a day or so.
Although no permit for sleeping was granted, we thought we had a permit for a concert. That turned out to be irrelevant. As the Motor City 5 started playing, a conflict with the police ensued over the flatbed stage, and the performance ended in confusion as the cops
cut the power.
Well-known cultural figures who understood the importance of this historical moment were present. Celebrities like Norman Mailer, Jean Genet, Terry Southern, and William Burroughs could be spotted walking around, mingling with the crowd and sharing in the anxious anticipation.
On Tuesday, the 27th, Bobby Seale, a national leader of the Black Panther Party, addressed the crowd in Lincoln Park. He had not been an organizer of the events but was an invited speaker. Despite all the potential violence and the actual repression the Panthers had been experiencing, Bobby showed up, prepared to speak. For bravely exercising his right to free speech for less than an hour, he was later indicted on federal conspiracy charges along with 7 others. His appearance in the 1969/70 Chicago 7 trial would electrify the world, as he did battle with the racist judge and prosecutors in the courtroom who bound and gagged him in an attempt to silence him. Even the prosecutor Richard Schultz later admitted that the way Bobby was treated made him appear like a “slave in an American court room.”
Also during the day there were various political forays out of the park. At the beginning of that week the Russian Army had marched into Prague. In a theater of solidarity, we marched on the Russian embassy with signs that proclaimed the commonality between Czechoslovakia and Czechago. Also in the prelude to the week, 17-year-old Dean Johnson, a Native American youth, was killed while shoplifting in a food store. He had come from out of town but he had drifted in to join us, and we felt an affinity with him. So we marched for Dean Johnson as well. We also marched to a bus depot over on Clark and Division in support of the striking Black Chicago Transit Authority workers. We were in Chicago because of the war, but we were clearly not a single-issue movement. We were concerned about everything, locally and globally, and wanted a total transformation.
“Children, and youths, and middle-aged men were being pounded and gassed and beaten, hunted and driven by teams of policemen who had exploded out of their restraints like the bursting of a boil . . . It was as if war had finally begun, as if the gods of history had come together before the television cameras of the world and the eyes of the campaign workers and the delegates’ wives and half the principals at the convention . . .”
Norman Mailer in Miami and the Siege of Chicago
Let me be perfectly clear. Yes our intentions were to confront and disrupt. Yes our intentions were to overthrow. But what took place in the streets and parks of Chicago was a police riot and the responsibility for the violence was clearly theirs, not ours.
It was at night that the real contest took place, from Sunday night August 25th through Tuesday night, the 27th. As evening began to fall, people started to build barricades with anything we could find—picnic tables, garbage cans, etc. Other people made bonfires and sat around them playing on drums and other instruments.
There were only a few thousand of us in Lincoln Park and we felt small and weak. Some people wanted to take a stand and resist the police if they tried to force us to leave the park. Most of us Yippies didn’t really want to fight over sleeping in the park, but we wouldn’t leave the park until the situation was resolved one way or another. We felt responsible for all the people who had come and would remain with them if possible.
Once the 11 pm curfew came, the police forayed into the crowd and started clubbing people from behind. One night I suddenly heard Stew cry out and turned around to see blood dripping down his face. They had cracked open his head. He and Judy took off for an emergency room. Six stitches and a couple hours later they returned. The first night it was as if the cops thought they could just come in and club a few of us and end this pathetic gathering. A good head-banging and it would all be over. If so, they seriously underestimated our determination.
The whole time we were in Chicago it was like those hours in front of the Pentagon. There were exhilarating moments. I’ll never forget the image of Alan Ginsberg with a circle of people around him, in the midst of tear gas and police clubbing, sitting cross-legged for hours at a time “omming” in deep sonorous tones, attempting to drive away the evil spirits.
And there were moments of just waiting around, being bored. And then there were so many moments when you just had to “go with the flow” because you had no control over the situation. There were just too many factors that could not be known.
And yet we each felt we had to be there. In the back of our minds were images of the Pentagon clubbings and arrests, the Oakland 7 action and trial, the assassination of JFK, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. The urban rebellions and police retaliations. Vietnam. Prague. Mexico. France. We were very aware of the violent nature of the opposition, but we felt part of a worldwide movement for change and we were willing to risk our lives for that change.
The well-known Washington Post reporter Nicholas von Hoffman did a good job of capturing the nighttime scene:
“The attack began with a police car smashing the barricade. The kids threw whatever they had had the foresight to arm themselves with, rocks and bottles mostly. Then there was a period of police action before the full charge.
Shrieks and screams all over the wooded encampment area while the experienced militants kept calling out ‘Walk! Walk! For Chrissakes don’t run.’ There is an adage among veteran kids that ‘panicky people incite cops to riot.’
Rivulets of running people came out of the woods across the lawn area, the parking lots toward Clark Street. Next, the cops burst out of the woods in selective pursuit of news photographers. Pictures are unanswerable evidence in court. They’d taken off their badges, their names plates, even the unit patches on their shoulders to become a mob of identical, unidentifiable club swingers.
. . . There is the scene at Henrotin Hospital with editors coming in to claim their wounded. Roy Fischer of the Chicago Daily News, Hal Bruno of Newsweek. Television guys who took a special clobbering waiting in the anteroom describing what happened and looking angry-eyed at the cops hanging around with the air of guys putting in a routine night.”
The nights were characterized by crowds of young people trying to figure out what to do, with continuous sporadic violence and tear gas. We streamed out of the park, along with the tear gas, and pursued by police cars and cops on foot. Who could have imagined that tear gas could be delivered in so many different ways—from sanitation trucks, from flame-throwing devices, from the usual canisters. We tried vaseline and wet handkerchiefs to deal with the gas. Groups of young people roamed through the streets, as a consequence blocking traffic. The whole area was in turmoil. There were helicopters flying close overhead and on the ground there were cops with gas masks using their rifle butts as clubs. Dragging. Chasing. Slamming.
We were out on the streets until late every night, one night making it all the way downtown to the Hilton, which was the center of the Democratic Party. The tear gas followed us and reportedly wafted into the hotel, spreading its ugly fumes to the delegates lodged inside. Each night when things died down in the early morning hours, and we were bone-tired, we wound our way back to a Lincoln Park apartment and fell into bed to catch a few hours of deep, exhausted sleep.
The Whole World Is Watching
Wednesday, August 28th held the promise of something different. After all, it was easy to marginalize the Yippies. Just a bunch of scruffy longhairs who needed showers. But this day was organized by the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, better known as The Mobe, and the Mobe was a respectable peace organization.
In reality, those distinctions were blurred all the way around, on our side and on the side of the police. The dynamics that had been set in motion in Lincoln Park with the cops and the yippies set the tone for the entire week. There had been an interplay the last several days between the yippies and the Mobe, between Lincoln Park and Grant Park.
The Mobe was the sponsor of the rally that day at the Grant Park band shell but by now we were all in this boat together. Every yippie who had come to Chicago was now part of the Mobe. Daley had given us a permit to rally but not to march. I’ve read accounts of the rally but I don’t remember a single speech. It was hard to concentrate and I felt totally on edge, steeling myself to deal with whatever would happen next. Fully armed police were arriving in flying wedges, shoving and pushing and clubbing people from behind. It felt like we were sitting ducks. This time they got Rennie Davis and blood was dripping down his face. Somehow the rally continued despite the attacks, and then we tried to move into a line of march, to head towards the amphitheater where the Convention was taking place.
But Daley had no intention of letting us march and blocked us so that there was no way to move. The crowd was forced to disperse and spilled out of the park and over to Michigan Avenue and the Hilton Hotel where all the delegates were wining and dining. The Hilton was surrounded by a huge phalanx of cops and military. But people pressed forward and cops clubbed us back and lobbed tear gas into the crowd. As night began to fall, the crowd thickened. The police continued to beat and club people, demonstrators and reporters and “innocent” Chicagoans alike. The Battle of Michigan Avenue was on. But the crowd seemed to actually grow, or at least people held strong, chanting over and over “The Whole World Is Watching.” At that point, we knew we were back on the world stage and it was exhilarating. So this was the Festival of Life after all. What had been happening for days in Lincoln Park was now being repeated in front of the Hilton; only this time it involved a broader swath of citizenry and THE WHOLE WORLD WAS WATCHING!
After a while, Jerry and I, along with Stew, Judy and others, left the Hilton Hotel and began running around the Loop, Chicago’s downtown area, blocking traffic and setting fires in garbage cans. That was the most militant action I’d ever engaged in. As we were turning the corner under the Elevator train, Jerry was surrounded by cops who dragged him off and arrested him. It was not a random arrest. It was a targeted arrest of Jerry. He later told me that they brought him into the station where he was confronted by Bob Pierson, the biker bodyguard. Pierson revealed himself to be an undercover cop, or a “pig,” as we were fond of calling cops, always reminding ourselves that we were maligning the real pigs in the process. That was not the last we would see of Bob Pierson. He would later appear as a key witness in the Chicago Conspiracy Trial.
The journalist John Schultz reports that there were 668 arrests recorded that week. 52.6% of the people were from the Windy City. The rest came from 36 states and five countries. 550 had never been arrested before. 75% were 25 years of age or younger.
Later we would learn that inside the Convention Center, Senator Abraham Ribicoff, Senator from Connecticut, had condemned the “gestapo-like tactics” out on the street. And Mayor Daley had been caught on mike responding, “You motherfucker Jew bastard, get your ass out of Chicago.”
The Chicago Corporation Counsel’s Walker Report concluded that there had indeed been a police riot in Chicago that week, suggesting cops had gone amok. But calling it a “police riot” is a whitewashing of the situation and underestimated the cold-blooded calculations of the establishment in this country. It is hard to imagine that Richard Daley, the shoot-to-maim-and-kill czar of Chicago, would have allowed such spontaneity from his officers. No, the Battle for Chicago was orchestrated from on high. The clubbings, beatings, and gas were all conscious decisions from at least as high as the Daley administration. In fact, we later learned that there were about one thousand federal agents sent to work in Chicago that week, including FBI and military intelligence. One can only wonder what exactly was the role of the federal government in the events that ensued.
The problem for them was that they underestimated they underestimated us. We were frightened but despite our fears we persisted. They may have thought their threats before the Convention would deter us. They were wrong. They may have thought the first round of tear gas would deter us. They were wrong. They may have thought the first cracked head would stop us. They were wrong. We would not be turned back.
It was an amazing few days and a yippie’s delight in the sense that we were always out to capture the media’s attention and in this case we did. The media reported the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, because they found themselves at the end of the same billy clubs and tear gas as we. Even reporters as respectable as Dan Rather were attacked by the cops. They were not embedded journalists. For that moment in time there seemed to actually be a free press! One reporter is quoted as saying, “This whole thing has moved me so far left, I can see the back of my head.”
The long-term impact of Chicago 68 has been much debated. There are many layers to such an analysis and that is not the subject of this piece. But there is no doubt that Chicago 68 became an iconic moment in American history.
As I write this there are people outside both Democratic and Republican conventions chanting, “Let’s recreate 68.” Of course history cannot be recreated. These are very different times. But let’s hope the determination to be part of a worldwide process for peace and justice persists.
NANCY KURSHAN can be reached at: Nkurshan@aol.com