Forty years ago this week, radical activists descended on Chicago to protest the Democratic National Convention. In the ensuing chaos, hospitals treated 192 policemen, more than 650 people were arrested, and one demonstrator was killed. This week, a group calling itself “Recreate 68” has converged on Denver to protest the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Its name to the contrary, Recreate 68’s organizers insist that they aren’t paying homage to the ’68 protestors. Not that they believe that the protestors did anything wrong: echoing the words of the federal government’s Walker Report, Recreate 68 contends that “what happened in Chicago in 1968 was not a violent protest, but rather a ‘police riot.’”
Numerous histories from participant-memoirists unsurprisingly second the “police riot” verdict. Cathy Wilkerson, whose cadre unleashed stink bombs and phoned bomb threats to local hotels, notes in her recent memoir that the “rampant brutality” of Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley “was exposed for all the world to see.” For Tom Hayden, the coordinator of the Chicago protests who was arrested for deflating a police car’s tire, “rioting police” exhibited “brutal behavior” and “mindless sadism.” Bill Ayers, who brags of pelting Chicago cops with marbles fired from a slingshot, decries the “violent police assaults” and police “rioting.” But far from political innocents clubbed into reality by sadistic policemen, the activists who squared off with cops were generally movement veterans who went to Chicago looking for a fight. As Jeff Jones and Mike Spiegel of New Left Notes wrote six months before the convention, “to envision non-violent demonstrations at the Convention is to indulge in pleasant fantasying.” By 1968, the movement had moved from mere protest to open confrontation. Leaving for Chicago, Terry Robbins—who, 18 months later, would blow himself up while constructing a bomb intended for a soldiers’ dance—told comrades: “Let’s go kick some ass.”
The figure most closely associated with the Chicago protests is Tom Hayden, now point man for Progressives for Obama. Students for a Democratic Society activist Gerry Long recalled to David Horowitz that Hayden noted the benefits of firebombing Chicago police cruisers. “I heard Tom Hayden speak, in chillingly cavalier tones, about street actions which would run the risk of getting people killed,” Todd Gitlin remembered in The Sixties. In a conversation with me, Mike Klonsky, SDS’s national secretary during the convention riots, described how Hayden plotted to scatter nails over a nearby highway. And Bill Ayers writes in his memoir, Fugitive Days, of Hayden’s altered persona when addressing closed audiences of radicals:
His voice took on an edge, somewhere between fanatical and giddy, as he described bold plans and playful pranks. But you folks—veterans of the movement and the streets—have a pivotal role to play in all of this, he continued, the color of his face deepening, his eyes once again blazing. He looked intently from person to person. He was the same articulate and thoughtful speaker as before, but these were words for only a few. This demonstration has the potential like nothing we’ve done before to expose the face of the enemy, to strip him naked, to force him to reveal himself as violent, brutal, totalitarian, and evil. It will be difficult—and dangerous—taunting the monster, stabbing him in his most exposed and vulnerable places, but it’s got to be done. And he paused. And you’re the ones to do it.
The behind-closed-doors Hayden occasionally ventured into public view. In Chicago, he called on activists to “avenge” the injuries of co-organizer Rennie Davis, who had suffered a concussion battling the police. Hayden exhorted the throngs: “Make sure that if blood is going to flow, it will flow all over this city.” Hayden wasn’t alone among future Chicago Eight defendants in his violent rhetoric. “If a pig comes up to us and starts swinging a billy club,” Black Panther Bobby Seale counseled, “and you check around and you got your piece, you got to down that pig in defense of yourself! We’re going to barbecue us some pork!” Abbie Hoffman called for “a huge orgasm of destruction,” and (along with sidekick Jerry Rubin) daydreamed of poisoning Chicago’s water supply with LSD. Hearing the reckless pronouncements of the riot’s ringleaders, Americans—already weary from several years of deadly urban rioting across the country—supported the Chicago police by greater than 2–1 margins. “The whole world is watching!” the protestors chanted, but polls showed that not everyone saw events their way.
Radicals’ vision of reality is as distorted now as it was then. Since 1968, Recreate 68 contends,
a right-wing backlash has attempted to roll back the gains of those years, to ‘recreate’ an America in which a ruling elite of wealthy, privileged white males and large corporations made a mockery of the promise of democracy. For the past 40 years, we have seen increasing economic inequality, a fierce attack on affirmative action and other programs aimed at aiding oppressed communities, an assault on civil liberties and, most recently, an attempt to equate political dissent with criminality or ‘terrorism.’ Under the Bush administration, the right has come dangerously close to achieving their goal.
That the events in Chicago might have catalyzed the nation’s rightward turn never seems to occur to such nostalgists. Instead, they blindly celebrate an event that helped cause the political developments they lament. Apart from the immediate effect—Democratic voters’ withholding votes from a party that seemed unable to govern its own convention, let alone the nation—the events of 40 years ago led to a long-term transformation of the Democratic Party. Democratic delegate Ben Wattenberg observed of the party’s 1972 convention: “There won’t be any riots in Miami because the people who rioted in Chicago are on the platform committee.” Consider the treatment of Mayor Daley, who had opened the 1968 Democratic Convention, at the 1972 gathering. The party’s credentials committee, steeped in George McGovern–inspired reformist impulses, refused to seat Daley’s slate of delegates elected by Cook County voters. Instead, the committee replaced the slate with an unelected one led by Jesse Jackson that more closely resembled the diversity that the party’s new quota system demanded.
This rule-or-ruin mentality ruined Hubert Humphrey’s chances of ruling, and it continues to this day. Instead of FDR’s party of the working man, the post-’68 Democrats have been easy to caricature as the Abortion Party, the Blame-America-First Party, and the Soft-on-Crime Party. In the ten presidential elections since the bloody ’68 convention riots, Democrats have won just three to the Republicans’ seven. This Republican dominance exactly mirrors Democratic successes in the 40 years prior to 1968.
Yet the ’68 party crashers are on the convention guest list in 2008, if not in charge of it. In the nomination of Barack Obama, a Windy City politician whose swift climb was aided by many who made homes in Chicago after the 1968 unrest, one sees in microcosm the story of Democratic Party presidential politics over the last four decades. While satisfying the vocal activist wing, the party’s presidential nominees—George McGovern, Michael Dukakis, John Kerry—have ultimately alienated the broader electorate. One can understand why a cynical Republican might want to recreate 1968, a time when a fever of political cannibalism infected the Left and resulted in a political realignment in favor of the GOP. But why would left-wing activists want to replay the beginnings of their movement’s downward spiral?