A look back at the 1968 Democratic Convention

ONE OF the most enduring images of the year 1968 was the violent attack on antiwar demonstrators during the Democratic Party’s presidential nominating conven­tion held in Chicago in late August. Chicago had a long estab­lished repu­tation as a city wracked by political corruption, Mob control, and a racist and violent police force. The city acquired an even more frightening reputation after then-Mayor Richard J. Daley called on his police to “shoot to kill” rioters following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April. Daley mobilized the vast resources of the city to intimidate antiwar and antiracist activists who planned on demonstrating at the Democratic Convention.

In the end, Daley’s police engaged in violent attacks on supporters of liberal Democrat Senator Eugene McCarthy, the media, peaceful demonstrators, and bystanders. His actions were denounced as “Gestapo tactics” from the podium of the Democratic Convention. Many young people, who witnessed the violent suppression of liberal reform in Czechoslovakia by Russian tanks just a few weeks earlier, saw an eerie similarity in the political events in both countries.

Wayne Heimbach, a former ­Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organizer and a witness to the events in Chicago, and Bill Roberts, a member of the editorial board of the ISR, recall the issues and lessons from that important historical event.

Wayne Heimbach

CAN YOU tell us a little bit about yourself? What were doing in 1968? What was the feel of the city?

I CAME to Chicago in the fall of 1967. I had been working with a community organization initiated by the SDS in Minneapolis, Minneapolis Community Union Project (MCUP), but the pull of Chicago was too great. Everyone was talking about the Democratic Convention coming to Chicago. I originally came to national SDS at the print shop in the national office and my first introduction to the organization was to join some of the staff in a trip to Washington D.C., for a march on the Pentagon (October 1967). By February 1968 I changed jobs and became one of two SDS regional organizers (called regional travelers) working out of the national office. It was a good job—twelve-hour days, $5 a week, and a place to stay.

It was an interesting time to be at SDS. It was growing and trying to find its way through a range of competing ideologies—from what should the attitude be toward socialism, should we support abortion, was the Democratic Party relevant. We also had to deal with the reality of organizing in a very uptight city. We had very obvious police agents looking for work in the national office (we put them to work bundling SDS’s newsletter New Left Notes) and we had the fear of what the reaction of government forces would be. As we got closer to the Democratic Convention, you would see army troops at the top of ramps on the Kennedy Expressway near downtown Chicago.

HOW DID the Tet Offensive and Martin Luther King’s assassination effect the Vietnam antiwar movement?

THE MID- to late-sixties were like a continuum—a continuum of events and responses and escalation of how we were all dealing with the reality in front of us. Those of us who had some relationship to the civil rights movement and those who were affected by that movement felt a real sense of urgency and a sense of being part of real changes in society. The introduction of the military draft brought a whole new section of society into a more immediate concern about their personal relationship to what was happening. When I joined SDS at Johns Hopkins in 1964, fellow students were usually dismissive of antiwar work. The draft had many of them pulling leaflets from my hand to read rather than to throw away. It was quite a change.

That intensity grew as we entered 1968. As I mentioned, everyone knew something was going to happen in Chicago. The Tet Offensive and, later in the year, the May–June events in France, gave us the confidence that we were part of a real international movement of people for change. At the same time, the assassinations of Dr. King and Robert Kennedy showed the danger and uncertainty of our fight.

The upsurge that came after Dr. King was killed obviously traumatized the whole country. For us in the movement, we had to figure out how to relate to such an explosion in a political way. For us in Chicago, we had a demonstration from downtown to the then-Chicago Street armory—”troops out of Vietnam, troops out of the ghetto” was our slogan. The response was immediate. The army was using the armory for a staging point and they came out with fixed bayonets. After I was arrested, I saw a number of examples of how these very tired and frightened troops were not particularly shy in using those bayonets.

A less collective response was for us at SDS to produce leaflet entitled: “Wanted for incitement to murder, Richard J. Daley, Mayor of Chicago.” This came after Mayor Daley’s “shoot to kill” orders to his police department. We delivered this flyer all over Chicago’s West Side and it was an immediate success. There was even a TV report of a Chicago police officer trying to rip down one of the flyers we had put up. It turns out we knew the secret of glue and water in putting up flyers.

HOW DID the antiwar movement approach organizing activities with the Democratic Party planning on having its convention here?

THE ANTIWAR movement related to the Democratic Convention in different ways. The Yippies1 and Up Against the Wall2 folks invited people to the city for a celebration of protest. This idea of celebration became much more serious for them as we got closer to the convention date, however, as everyone saw that this was not going to be a picnic.

The official position of SDS was not to come to Chicago. It was obvious that people were going to come anyway, so the national office asked me to write a short statement for New Left Notes making it clear what could happen in the city. I stated the official SDS position and said if people were going to come, be prepared to deal with the convention politically by having discussions with the many McCarthy supporters who were going to be here. I also suggested they bring a copy of their blood type with them, just in case.

The McCarthy organization was asking people to come to Chicago to support their candidate. They were generally less experienced in the street actions that others had seen and they came to participate in what they thought would be a massive lobbying event. As the convention got underway, most of these different tendencies merged both in the streets and in how the city administration dealt with them. We all became comrades in the fight against the war.

WHAT WAS the response of the Daley machine to all of this?

MAYOR DALEY made it known that, if you came to Chicago for the convention, you would see trouble. His statements were very clear. His actions during the protests after Dr. King’s death did nothing to dispel that threat. Police agents were all over the place trying to find out what was happening. A good source of information on this police intelligence work was the contemporary accounts in the Chicago Tribune, which expressed their displeasure on seeing the various intelligence groups, army, navy, Chicago Red Squad, etc, all competing with each other and refusing to cooperate on intelligence gathering. The Tribune described a plan to send people into the movement, say they were from Baltimore, and incite violence during the convention. The very next day I chaired an SDS meeting where a guy raised his hand, said he was from Baltimore (where I am from), and he incited violence. He should have read the Tribune the day before.

THE VIOLENCE at the Democratic Convention has been historically referred to as a “police riot.” What do you think of this?

THE POLICE were a disciplined force in Chicago. If they were told to do something, they did it. If they were told not to, they didn’t. This is not to suggest that they weren’t excessive, it’s rather to suggest they were told to be very forceful in their work. They did what they had done previously in the city, they did what they said they would do, and they were very efficiently organized to accomplish their task. It was called a police riot by the press because the press was dealt with in the same way many others had been dealt with previously.

On a personal level many of the reporters were truly surprised by the actions of the police. On a national level there was a discussion by the rulers of this country on what the future of the war in Vietnam should be. For many of us in SDS we saw a clear attempt to make Chicago and the violence at the convention look bad enough to start to change some of the discussion about the future of the war.

IF IT wasn’t a “police riot,” what did the police do? What did you witness?

THE POLICE were quite efficient in moving in formation to force protesters from different sections of a neighborhood into smaller and more controllable areas. Riot implies they were somehow out of control. Generally that was not true. Even when they were particularly violent—like when they targeted protesters who had already been bandaged—you felt it was part of a larger plan. I only heard of one time when a couple of police officers drew their guns. That was when they cornered two protesters in a dead-end alley and looked behind them to find thirty other protesters. Realizing they were in the same dead-end alley as those they chased, they drew their guns to protect themselves. They were convinced to holster their weapons and allowed to leave the alley. It’s not especially useful to criticize the individual officers for their actions without having a clear understanding of what they were told to do and who was pulling the strings.

WHAT DO you think was the ultimate impact of the events at the Democratic Convention on the politics of the sixties generation and the antiwar movement?

I THINK SDS’s position on the Democratic Convention was correct. If you were going to be in Chicago, make discussion with McCarthy supporters your priority. The demonstrations weren’t going to end the war unless we were able to build the movement, not only in numbers but also politically. By this time SDS had said that neither the Democratic Party nor the Republican Party had the answers for reform. An independent movement needed to be built.

What this independent movement would be, however, wasn’t clear. There wasn’t a direction agreed upon by everyone. One wing of the movement turned more and more toward elite “vanguard” actions that eventually led to a split in SDS a year later and to the growth of the Weatherman mentality.3 Germs of this position were obvious in Chicago during the summer of 1968 and they continued to grow. This is even true with a huge upsurge of interest in SDS throughout the country when college opened in the fall. We would get calls from all over from schools large and small which said they had forty or fifty people at their first meeting, had no experience with SDS or organizing, and wanted to know what to do.

The problem for the SDS leadership was that they had no idea what to do either. The name of SDS was well known by this time, the SDS leadership was dedicated and often quite experienced in civil rights struggles, labor struggles, as well as the student movement. The problem was politics. A clear idea of building a mass movement was lacking as was the ability to have confidence in that movement to find its direction. The idea of a “vanguard” took precedence over the building of a relationship of that leadership to a larger movement. The idea of a vanguard has a long and useful tradition—either in discussion of a vanguard layer of workers at a job site or in the development of a vanguard party. However, that concept loses usefulness when it is developed in isolation from a clear understanding of this vanguard’s relationship to those it is supposed to lead.

A different direction existed in SDS, and more generally within the movement, from the early 1960s. Partly reflected in the Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP) which, with some union support, had set up community organizing projects throughout the country, partly reflected in civil rights and labor support work done throughout the decade, and partly reflected politically within SDS by those of us advocating a socialist approach to labor. This different direction was isolated within SDS and eventually kicked out of the organization in 1969 (the so-called split convention).

The question, however, was still a question of politics. A number of ERAP project leaders became leaders in the Weatherman formation. A number of SDS leaders with years of labor experience became strong advocates of the “vanguardist” tendency.

One aspect of 1968 that many people forget is that there was a wildcat strike of Chicago bus drivers during the convention time. In the year following the Democratic Convention, we saw wildcat strikes at Chicago UPS when the striking workers came to the University of Illinois campus to get support from the students they saw in the streets a year earlier. Nationally, we saw the beginnings of rank-and-file organizing in auto, teachers, trucking, telecommunications, steel, mines, and numerous other industries.

As the country generally got tired of the war in Vietnam and as the economy presented more challenges, the lesson of building a mass movement spread throughout society. The 1960s taught us about building a mass movement and, as the movement started to decline in strength, it taught us the difficulties of sustaining such a movement. Most important, it taught us that such a movement can be built.

  1. The Yippies, or Youth International Party, were a countercultural group that used guerrilla ­theater-type actions such as running a pig as a candidate for president in 1968.
  2. Up Against the Wall, also known as Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers, was an anarchist “street gang with analysis” based in the Lower East Side of New York City.
  3. The Weather Underground, one of the organizations formed after the split in SDS in 1969. A radical terrorist group, the Weathermen saw themselves as outlaws in a society ripe for revolution but where no social force existed to carry it out. The organization made its name in October 1969 during its “Days of Rage” in Chicago, where 800 people showed up in combat boots and goggles armed with sticks to do battle with the police and “to tear the motherfucker apart.”


Bill Roberts

WHAT WAS the political atmosphere like in Chicago from the time of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination to the eve of the Democratic Convention?

FOR FIVE months, Chicago’s political atmosphere followed a rollercoaster prompted by the series of events from local to international. The city administration under Mayor Daley, at every turn, tried to head off any activity that might ignite something they couldn’t control. Even before King was killed, Daley’s police had attacked an antiwar demonstration of less than a thousand with a force nearly as large. Daley’s “shoot to kill” order after Dr. King was assassinated added to the repressive atmosphere. It was clear that intimidation was Daley’s strategy leading up to the August convention.

One April 4, I was in the Old Colony building on South Dearborn in the Loop, where my union—the Independent Union of Public Aid Employees (IUPAE)—had an office. Within a couple of hours of Dr. King’s assassination smoke began to rise from the slums on West Madison. The radio was crackling with warnings about which areas of the city to avoid. There was a siege atmosphere in the city.

My immediate concern was getting back to our small apartment in Hyde Park where my wife Deborah was waiting and seven months pregnant. The ride home that night on the Illinois Central was a sober, tension-filled journey. People were sad and scared. I was angry as well as sad. The world seemed to be coming apart. Deborah and I were especially sad at Dr. King’s death because we had marched with him two summers earlier in the Chicago open housing marches.

Between Dr. King’s assassination and the August convention came the uprising of students and workers in France, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, and the crushing of the hopeful political opening in Prague. One week you were up and the next down. It was an exhilarating time, but also a bit schizophrenic, especially without a coherent analysis.

WHAT TYPE of political activity were you involved in while you were living in Chicago? 

I WAS a caseworker for public aid, but in ’68 I worked full-time for the union as its publicity vice president. Our union had broken from the Service Employees, which meant we were not welcomed by the labor establishment. Nevertheless, we were very active. IUPAE linked up with the UAW after the riots ended to distribute clothes and food on Chicago’s West Side. We also lent our support to the Chicago Transit Authority workers as they prepared to confront the city that summer.

IUPAE was filled with radicals of various experiences—Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), civil rights workers, antiwar activists—so the atmosphere was very political. We took a contingent to Gary, Indiana, to help register voters in preparation for electing the first Black mayor—Gary Hatcher. I was in several informal political discussion groups formed by union activists. We discussed everything from left Democratic Party strategies to Marxism.

The organization of a protest at the Democratic Party Convention (DNC) faced several challenges that year. First, large sections of the antiwar movement were immersed in the campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy—the “get clean for Gene” idea captured a lot of activists. I know in my union several members joined one or the other of the campaigns. Second, ultra-leftism was beginning to divide the movement. A third challenge was the emergence of Black Power. Pulling together a united approach to the DNC in Chicago was very problematical.

I wasn’t directly connected to the planners of the August demonstrations, but I monitored the various plans that were being floated. Although not active in SDS in Chicago, I still had a few connections from my earlier SDS activity. I knew SDS was not particularly keen on people coming to Chicago, but also knew that it was where many activists would want to be in August.

Many in my union wanted to support a demonstration and to go as a contingent. But the IUPAE split over endorsing for three reasons: First, there was a core of Democratic Party loyalists who didn’t want to defy Daley. Second, the plans being floated were not very clear. And third, the various police agencies seemed to be competing for how much disinformation they could spread. What often passed for “plans” were the musings of self-appointed movement stars, like Abbie Hoffman, leader of the Yippies. The rumor that Chicago’s water would be laced with LSD was only one of their provocations.

While the clowns drew the press and stoked the paranoia, others were seriously planning for a mass demonstration at the convention site. But Daley wasn’t about to give a permit for any kind of demonstration that would put the DNC in a bad light. That it was Daley himself on the floor of the convention—cursing the chair—and his patronage goon squad—roughing up reporters and McCarthy supporters, not to mention what happened in the streets—that shined a bad light on Chicago. It was one of the great ironies of that week.

WHAT DID you do during the days of protests at the Democratic Convention?

BECAUSE I wasn’t directly connected to SDS, or Mobe (Mobilization Against the War), I followed events through the daily two-page broadside put out by Ramparts, the left-wing monthly magazine that had sprung to life in tandem with the growth of the antiwar movement. I distributed the Ramparts Wallpolster to public aid workers in the course of my union rounds. When I could break away from my union duties as well as the duties of a new father, I would head for the various action sites. Mobe had targeted a number of symbolic locations, like the Armory, to rally at, but mostly these were tiny actions. Tom Hayden was quoted as saying, “My God, no one is here,” after one of the actions fizzled.

It was clear the weekend before the convention that the mass mobilization talked about in the spring was not going to happen. I checked out Lincoln Park on the Saturday before the convention and only a handful of Yippies were there sitting around a guitar player. The intimidation tactics of the city, the assassinations, and the electoral activity had all undercut a broad mobilization. But McCarthy activists did come in large numbers. They truly believed their candidate might prevail in some way. In three days they learned the lessons of hardball politics and many left Chicago with revolutionary conclusions.

After the police attacked the Yippies in Lincoln Park on Sunday, the word went out that the police were ready to rumble. From the number of press people attacked there too, it was clear the city was drawing a line in the sand.

The largest mobilizations were never more than 5,000. Every day there were battles between police and demonstrators. I missed Tuesday’s skirmish, but was there for the Wednesday war on Michigan Avenue in front of the Hilton. I walked up to Grant Park on Congress from my union office. Already there were whiffs of tear gas floating from the south end of the park. Crowds of protesters were streaming out of the park as I walked south on Columbus Drive trying to get around the machine-gun manned jeeps on the Congress overpass. One teary-eyed demonstrator told me the police had broken into the assembled demonstrators before they had even decided on the direction of their march. I moved down Columbus Drive toward Balbo. Most of the crowd was scattered in this part of the park and it was eerily quiet except for police radios and idling police wagons.

I followed a group heading toward Michigan Avenue and the Hilton. At the bridge over the Illinois Central tracks I stopped to survey the gathering confrontation. The demonstrators were in front of the Hilton shouting, “Dump the Hump,” [Senator Hubert Humphrey was given the nomination instead of McCarthy] and “Peace now.” These were mostly McCarthy supporters, who were now joining the demonstration, clearly furious at the treatment of their candidate and the failure to get a peace plank.

Further north, the Poor People’s mule train with Rev. Ralph Abernathy was waiting to head down the avenue. The police separated the three mule wagons from the rest of the demonstration and escorted them out of the area. Then all hell broke loose. From my elevated position on the bridge, I could see phalanxes of blue-helmeted cops move methodically from several directions and wade into the demonstrators in front of the Hilton. The crack of clubs and the smell of gas were all around. People were stumbling out of the melee dazed and bloody. I decided I could contribute by getting people out of the area. I somehow managed to get to my VW bus and drove north and circled back down Columbus Drive until I found groups of wounded demonstrators behind the Art Museum. I loaded as many as could cram in and then drove them out of the area to find water. I repeated this a couple of more times.

HOW DID the events in Chicago impact your political lives?

THE EVENTS of Chicago that year, combined with the events in France and Prague, accelerated our political development. Deborah followed the week on television while nursing our daughter, but every night when I returned, she wanted the first-hand reports. Then we would try to digest what it all meant. We gathered our political friends together for discussions. We were beginning to grope toward finding a political group that could help us in this process. It would take a couple of years before we found the International Socialists (IS), but, like many who participated in the events that year, we were propelled toward revolutionary conclusions by the actions of those who unleashed the blue helmets against the peace seekers.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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