1968 and my experience of the Chicago Convention

It is not an experience that I talk about. The other day I had cause to think about August 1968 for the first time in a long time.  A reporter for the Canadian Press in Washington DC called me to ask about any parallels between the current us political scene, the unruly political convention season and my experience at the Chicago Democratic National Convention.

It all came rushing back very quickly.  The broken-heartedness. The oppression. The tear gas.  Being with my mother, who was a delegate for Eugene McCarthy, and not being allowed to use the tickets to be with my mother.

My mother, Stephanie May, was a volunteer campaigner to end the war in Vietnam.  Sometime in 1967 it occurred to her and to others that the best way to end the war was to oust President Lyndon Johnson.  Peace campaigners searched for a champion; someone brave enough to challenge a sitting president for the Democratic Party nomination.  Many had begged Bobby Kennedy to step up. But we heard great news before boarding the train from Hartford to Chicago for a gathering of Dissenting and Concerned Democrats in December 1967.   Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota was ready to launch the quixotic quest.  He was already my hero – but that’s another story.  I was 13 years old and heading with my mother to an historic event.

Eight months later, my mom and I took that train once again.  It already felt like a different country.  Even though I was only 14, I felt I had aged more than the eight months that had sped by.  I had watched as my mother organized to force primaries in town by town petition campaigns. She and my dad had taken a second mortgage on our home to print literature, and for a while the only way through our living room was through a narrow pathway between boxes from the print shop.  I rode “shot gun” as she travelled the state to raise money and set up local groups.  Gradually our living room cleared.  We were forcing primaries and my mom became an elected delegate. We began to feel hopeful. But in May, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was killed. In June, Bobby Kennedy, who had rethought his initial hesitancy and was running for the nomination as well, was assassinated on the night of the California Primary.  Watts was in flames.   Cities were plunged into inter-racial violence. My father had been worried about the risk of race riots in Chicago. Maybe his daughter should not go to the convention. I know my mother argued I had earned the treat of going to Chicago.  Hadn’t I gone with her every weekend to canvass for McCarthy in New Hampshire?  Wasn’t it a good idea to let me experience democracy in action?

She bought tickets made available to delegates in order to bring family members to the convention visitor galleries.   And on the first night of the convention, I went with my mom to the opening.  After that, Chicago’s mayor, Richard Daley, confiscated all tickets in order to stack the hall with municipal workers raising placards reading “We love Mayor Daley.”  The old party boss system would not be easily broken.

The convention attracted protesters.  Yippies, Students for a Democratic Society and Black Panthers organized protests.  Hundreds slept in Grant Park.  The Convention site was far outside the city and the protests were on the outskirts of Chicago.  The McCarthy delegates from Connecticut were at a hotel on Lincoln Park, along the shores of Lake Michigan.   On Wednesday, August 28, we had all been watching the television and convention proceedings.  At around 6 pm, we were crushed when the vote to add a peace plank to the party platform was defeated.  I was with several other children around my age, a few wives and mothers and we decided to go out into the lovely summer day to get a breath of air.

I remember watching sail boats on the lake and a Blue Cross softball game in progress.  There was no protest – not in Lincoln Park.  And suddenly it all became very surreal.  The National Guard rolled in. Large jeeps and trucks with barbed wire strung across metal frames on the front of camouflaged vehicles; young men in matching camouflage gear and helmets held rifles in the back of the trucks. In another direction, a sea of baby blue plastic.  Police in helmets with billy-clubs held hand to hand formed another wall.  The space between flanks of Nation Guard troops and police began to force the people in the park into ever smaller space.  Then we were tear gassed and all hell broke loose.

Late that night my mother and the other delegates made it back to us at the hotel. They had walked from the convention site in a candle-light protest against what Senator Abe Ribicoff would later call “Gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago.” We were weepy and tired and also hungry.  One delegate, children’s author Oliver Butterworth, had heard of an all-night restaurant in walking distance and we all headed there.  Once we had eaten, my mom and I wanted to go back to the hotel.  My mother and I taking the sons of friend and delegate Rev Joseph Duffy.  As we walked back through the steamy hot summer deserted streets at 2 AM we would see African-Americans sitting on the stoops of tenement buildings.  Recognizing in us the defeated supporters of McCarthy, they would raise a hand in the peace sign.  My mother squeezed my hand and said “Don’t worry kids. We’ll be fine as long as we don’t see a policeman.”

I did get a lesson in democracy in action.  I learned that democracy is fragile.  I learned police can riot.  I learned those with power can abuse their power.  I learned that the only thing that ensures that we live in a healthy democracy is constant vigilance.