Democratic Convention: Chicago '68 Redux?
In the weeks before the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, then-mayor Richard J. Daley panicked over plans by Vietnam War protesters to disrupt the event. In particular, Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman, organizing the nationÃ•s youth through media stunts, got under Daley's skin. Hoffman, among other things, pledged to spike the entire city's water supply with LSD. It was a technically impossible feat, but Daley nonetheless surrounded the city reservoir with armed guards. The generational conflict that defined that era was played out between the two men in the Chicago press, and by the time the August convention rolled around, the national media couldn't resist the spectacle. Daley, the boss of Chicago's legendary Democratic political machine, overreacted when the protesters arrived, and the Democrats' convention was marred by televised images of Chicago cops slamming billy clubs down upon the bloody heads of protesters -- all to a real-life soundtrack of young rebels chanting, "The whole world is watching." The nation looked on in horror as the violence and tear gas of an unpopular war were brought home. It was a year in which a Democratic president -- Lyndon B. Johnson -- was escalating the violence in Southeast Asia, and things weren't much more peaceful at home. In April, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. In June, Bobby Kennedy was killed. Riots and strikes plagued Chicago and most other cities. The whole mess was served up by network television to a nervous American public. And as a result of the turmoil outside the '68 convention, Hoffman and other anti-war leaders were subsequently prosecuted in the Chicago Seven trial for conspiracy to riot, a trial that itself became a media circus. This August, the Democrats are returning to Chicago to nominate President Bill Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore for re-election. It will be the party's first trip back to the Windy City since '68. And the compelling video images of the tumult 28 years ago are likely to be replayed over and over by a media with precious little news to report from inside the convention hall. But among the 15,000 journalists flooding into Chicago to cover this year's festivities will be many who were not yet born in '68. "ItÃ•s almost impossible to explain to a 21-year-old student today what it was like to be in Chicago in the summer of 1968," says UMass journalism professor Ralph Whitehead, a native Chicagoan who, as a cub reporter, covered the police riot outside the convention hall. "The 1968 convention was, literally and symbolically, the division and near-death of the Democratic coalition." The Democrats nominated then-vice-president Hubert Humphrey to bear the standard for a party divided by the war. He went on to lose to Richard Nixon by a margin of one percent. And to this day many Democrats and liberals blame the unrest outside the '68 convention for their defeat. Democrats hope the contrast between '68 and '96 will show them to be in control, leading a nation whose wounds have healed. "Here we are, 28 years later, and the word is unity," says Chicagoan David Wilhelm, who chaired the Democratic National Committee in the early '90s. "We have a unified party and a much more unified city. The contrast is positive, and I think thatÃ•s the conclusion people will draw." Indeed, all would appear to be quiet. Chicago's current mayor, Richard M. Daley, son of the late machine boss, wants this year's convention to run so smoothly that it exorcises the negative legacy of his father. And the Chicago Police Department, now a multi-racial force with a progressive community-policing program, also feels it has the opportunity to rehabilitate its own bad image from '68. So explains Julie Thompson, press secretary for Chicago '96, the city-backed business organization that will be running the show outside the convention hall from August 26 to 29. "The story is going to be the Chicago Police Department," she says. "They see this as a great opportunity to tell the real story of Chicago and community policing." Many of the anti-war protesters from that summer will be inside the hall this year, supporting Clinton -- whose antiÃVietnam War sentiments and draft evasion became widely known during his 1992 campaign. Chicago Seven defendant Tom Hayden, now a California state senator, will be a Clinton delegate to the convention. Some Chicago radicals from '68 are now members of Daley Jr.Ã•s political organization.Fly in the ointment But Andrew Hoffman -- son of the late Yippie leader -- could prove the fly in the Democrats' ointment if the Clinton and Daley administrations don't figure out how to deal with him. Hoffman, 35, is organizing a "Festival of Life" -- the same words he heard at the age of seven when his dad was plotting the convention protest. The festival will be an attempt to pull the Democrats leftward and catalyze a new youth movement around issues of the economy, the environment, drug policy, and military spending."We'll come together as Woodstock Nation to bring the issues of our people to the Democratic Party," says the younger Hoffman. "We have all of the historical and political strength of what has been -- the Festival of Life, the civil-rights and anti-war movements. We still have a real fight to keep the money from going to weapons instead of resources needed for the ecology and social fabric of our society to be sewn back together." And although Hoffman says his festival will be "pro-Clinton and pro-Democrat," party leaders aren't thrilled with the prospect of reminiscing too much about the bad old days. "Nineteen sixty-eight is gone," insists Clinton strategist James Carville. "Most of the people attending and covering this yearÃ•s convention didnÃ•t even vote in '68. YouÃ•ll get a bunch of older guys waxing on about it, but it's irrelevant to 98 percent of people's lives in America. It's an interesting historical thing, but, by and large, I donÃ•t think the American people really give a damn." And so the party and the city have hardly embraced young Hoffman's plans. "WeÃ•re going to have a designated protest area," says Julie Thompson. But Hoffman insists his group is going to use Grant Park -- the site of some of the police riots in '68 -- for a five-day series of rock concerts and rallies. "ThatÃ•s certainly a possibility," Thompson says of groups demonstrating on their own terms. "We have a security-planning committee. They're well aware of the tactics used by demonstrating groups. If laws are broken, there will be consequences." "Chicago is full of parks and full of free-speech areas," retorts Hoffman. "If they think they can stop this, they would be best advised to not play their fathers' roles out so thoroughly and get with the program. We plan to fall back to Lincoln Park if harassed out of Grant Park. We do plan on renting the bandshell and paying insurance. But the city has stalled us." Hoffman's is hardly the only group planning to gather outside the convention hall. Former Chicago Seven defendant Dave Dellinger, now living in Vermont, is organizing nonviolent civil-disobedience actions with the aim of freeing American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier from federal prison. The news event of Chicago '96 will likely draw hundreds of other groups as well. "IÃ•m going to be there," says Paul Krassner, co-founder of the Yippies, editor of The Realist, and defense witness at the Chicago conspiracy trial in '69, "because the media will be there." "Regardless of what the city says, itÃ•s a go-ahead," says Hoffman. "David Dellinger is not gonna say, 'LetÃ•s go home.' He's been doing this much longer than we have, and we're not gonna disappear either. If they don't deal with us, theyÃ•ll end up with a bunch of young people in the streets and maybe with a bunch of cops beating up those young people. That would be very tragic and unfortunate, and we donÃ•t want that to happen at all."'We kicked your fathers' asses' Hoffman, though armed with his late father's Rolodex and contacts in the rock-and-roll and entertainment communities, is operating largely on vapors; he doesnÃ•t have what politicians view as an organized constituency. He has been traveling to Chicago for years, arrested for distributing clean needles to fight AIDS, recently busted for possession of marijuana at OÃ•Hare Airport, and popping up regularly in the Chicago press to promote his festival. But he has no national political base, and neither the Democrats nor the Daley Administration views him as much of a threat, given that itÃ•s just four months before the convention. What they've perhaps forgotten, though, is that the Yippies of '68 were likewise without an army, and got off to a very late start in organizing their festival. In fact, the first call to action Abbie Hoffman wrote for the convention that year was in the July 7, 1968, issue of KrassnerÃ•s Realist: "We will burn Chicago to the ground! We will fuck on the beaches! We demand the politics of ecstasy! Acid for all!" The junior Hoffman is well aware that thereÃ•s a great press angle in his taunting the junior Daley -- two sons carrying on the blood feud of their fathers. He's already engaged that myth. Last month, Newsweek published a photo of Andrew Hoffman holding a T-shirt he says was printed by modern-day Chicago cops: "We kicked your fathersÃ• asses in 1968 -- Wait Ã•til you see what we do to you in Ã•96! Chicago Police Department." "The only place I've seen that T-shirt is in the press," insists Paul Jenkins, spokesman for the Chicago Police Department. "It was made by a retired suburban police officer. I know of no current police officer that owns one. I donÃ•t own one myself. But every two weeks we have a story in one of the local dailies talking about it." Despite the younger Hoffman's media savvy, even some who sympathize with his efforts say it's going to be much tougher for him to spark a mass protest than it was for his father. First, they say, the nation simply is not as divided as it was in '68. Second, the public isnÃ•t paying attention. "In '68, the whole world was watching," says social humorist Barry Crimmins. "In '96, the whole world is watching cable, videotapes, computers, monitors. It's a much more distracted world now. I was just in Chicago, doing political humor, and no one even mentioned the upcoming convention to me. There is zero buzz in Chicago among activists." Crimmins lists another factor that mitigates against a major street action: todayÃ•s left is reluctant to embarrass Clinton during the convention. "Everyone understands," he says, "that Clinton is the absolute high-water mark that we can hope for as we float on the last hunks of flotsam and jetsam into the new millennium."Cops and free speech If it will be difficult to provoke Daley Jr. into overreacting the way his father did, that's even truer of the city police, who feel they have something to prove at this convention. "Any comparison between the Chicago police in 1968 and in 1996 makes us look great," boasts spokesman Paul Jenkins. He notes that Chicago's 13,000 police officers are more representative of the population than was the overwhelmingly white force that battered protesters in '68. Jenkins rattles off the stats: 61 percent white, 27 percent black, 11 percent Hispanic, one percent Asian. Some officers, he says, are even countercultural sympathizers. "When the Grateful Dead came to town last year," he brags, "just days after their fans stormed the gates in Indiana, we had officers requesting time off to attend the concert -- not to work it, but to enjoy it. And we had no problems." Chicago's Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS), says Jenkins, is a national model for community policing, known for offering its troops "sensitivity training" and for its bias-free city bumper stickers on police cruisers. He says the Secret Service will run security for this year's convention, and he casts his department as the defender of the free-speech rights of demonstrators. "We at the Chicago Police Department are actually the advocates for the groups that want to demonstrate," Jenkins says. "We're now fighting for close and ready access for demonstrators near the convention site." But Hoffman isn't content with having his festival lumped in what one Chicago activist called the "crazy bin" of a designated protest area, no matter how close to the United Center on the city's West Side, where the convention will be held. He has his eye on Grant Park -- to follow literally in his fatherÃ•s footsteps, and to reclaim the history of the countercultural left. "As soon as the Democrats recognize what a huge force weÃ•re talking about," says Hoffman, "they'll realize that we're their only hope in making this a peaceful and organized event." Historian Howard Zinn, professor emeritus at Boston University, says it's understandable why the Clinton and Daley administrations might wish that events this coming summer not echo 1968 too closely. "The best way to deal with a subject that embarrasses you," he says, "is to simply ignore it. If you deal with it, you arouse suspicion or curiosity." But with so little news happening inside the convention hall, and plenty of compelling video images from 1968 for the national media to fall back on, Zinn says, August could bring some surprises. "ItÃ•ll be interesting to see what the media does with it," he says. "I'm skeptical of the media, but I wouldn't dare predict."