Throwback Thursday: Four Days of Protest in Chicago in August, 1968

Taking it to the Streets

We were midnight fighters. Stuck in the middle of a melee. And what a melee it was. If you looked at the scene from above you might see and smell acrid tear gas battling back and forth with the sweet smelling smoke of pot. On the ground, though, the rising heat roared in our hearts, melding 10 thousand minds and pressing us together as one. The National Guard and Mayor Daley’s Chicago Police were coming for us. We were the crowd, we were the people, we were the tidal wave crashing upon their shore. We pushed and we pushed, wave after wave, then we were pushed back by the gas-masked forces intent on capturing, maiming and incarcerating us. We were a logjam of clamor clamoring to be heard. Because we dared speak up against the legislated hate of the war. Because old white men in suits were drafting us against our will, drafting us into a useless war predicated on falsehoods, a war no one wanted to prosecute, except those in power. The protest, which began gently, turned into a full-blown riot when the police marched on us. We were together as one. Organizing. We would overcome.

In contrast, the Republican Convention, which was held at the Miami Convention Center from Aug 5 to 8 roughly a month earlier, presented a modicum of civility and calm. There, Richard Tricky-Dick Nixon accepted the party’s nomination, ultimately becoming the next President of the United States, proclaiming the night before the election on November 3 three months later: “And so tonight — to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans — I ask for your support.” Yes, that Silent Majority, the same one we’re still dealing with today, except it’s a minority that now rules the country, winning an election with three million fewer votes. Go figure.

We never made it back to our motel that first night. The night went on and on and well into daybreak. The smoke cleared and the sun came up over the buildings and highways, shining a reddish glowering upon us. I was tired and dragging my feet. My voice was hoarse, my eyes red and itchy. Needed sleep, but wasn’t up to driving all the way back to the motel. Haggis sat down and fell asleep in a doorway. Sven lit up a joint and passed it to me. The protesters were dispersing, living to fight another day and night. We holed up with new friends at their pad we met on the streets. Their apartment was filled with other protestors crashing on the floor, everywhere. We three found a space in the hallway and fell asleep, people walking and tripping over us on their way to the head. At first I felt the footsteps, then I crashed heavily into a black hole in the carpet, not feeling a thing afterwards.

I awoke groggy and red-eyed, a headache wracking the sides of my head. I staggered upright and made it into the kitchen, where I must have consumed a gallon of tap water. The kitchen was filled with people drinking beer and smoking, planning for the upcoming day and night. I looked out the window. The sun was setting. Time to go. I was revved. Yes, time to go. Had a quick toke from a pipe that was being passed around, then we set off, the bed of my truck filled with protesters as we made our way to the convention center.

The streets were packed with people come to challenge authority. The police presence seemed to fill the air with a collected dread that felt as thick as smog. I parked the truck in an alleyway near a small park where protesters were climbing on a statue of a rider and a horse situated at the apex of a hill. I didn’t know what the statue was called then and don’t now. At first, I couldn’t tell if what it was, because the statue was covered with protesters. Looked like a wobbling pyramid about ready to fall over. Then some got off the statue, and that’s when I realized it was a horse, probably a Civil War monument of a general. The noise was deafening, the smell of pot everywhere. We made our way toward the crowd that resembled bees crawling over a giant beehive. A hippie or a yippie, I didn’t know which — we all looked alike — walked by with a small pig on a leash. He stopped, and we pet the pig. Of course, we all knew what the pig represented.

Several months earlier, the peaceful political demonstrations had been planned for the week of the convention. Mayor Richard Daley doubled down and put more forces on alert. The riots were not planned. Daley and his police force overreacted to the size of the outcry. The protests were designed to be peaceful and organized, but when the police charged and took it upon themselves to break us up, all hell broke loose.

William Kunstler, the Chicago Eight’s lawyer, later argued this point in the famous trial that convened in September. The Chicago Eight was comprised of David Dellinger, head of the National Mobilization against the War, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, leaders of the Youth International Party, Bobby Seale, a co-founder of the Black Panthers, John Froines and Lee Weiner, local organizers from Chicago, along with Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis, leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society, of which we were members of. Only Seale did time, four months for contempt of court. All the others got off.

At one time or another during the course of the next few days, we heard them all speak to us, often in front of huge crowds, megaphones in hand, urging us onward against the authorities. We marched through the streets, chanting various slogans like “Hell, No, We Won’t Go,” with joints hanging in our mouths, until the police and National Guard came for us en masse, tear gas erupting. We were voicing our right to protest. Daley thought otherwise. Felt like we were living in a Soviet State, sentenced to live out the rest of our lives in the Gulag. When we heard that Dan Rather, a CBS correspondent at the time, was attacked and punched in the stomach inside the convention hall by security, we were outraged and scared.

Reminds me today of the political climate concerning the press and the Fake News Trump’s supporters always sprout, like weeds growing rampant in their mouths. Trump’s attacks against the press urges his supporters to violence much like Daley did, urging his police to attack the demonstrators. Things don’t change much. You’d think over time we’d learn, but we don’t. We go forward, we go backward, we go forward, on and on, ad infinitum. The human race is on a circular treadmill, unable to get off. When the climate tips into one final fireball it’ll be too late, even though we’ve had ample warning. The death wish of humanity. Seems most of us are led around by our collective noses by those who profess to know what’s good for us, but know nothing, except the art of lining their own pockets. That’s what we were protesting those four days in Chicago. A war run by those who don’t care for anything but their own profits. Similar to circumstances today. Except what protests we are able to mount, are muted, at best.

The days and nights curled into one long stretch of time exploding as time went on, the blood of protesters seeping into the gray canvas of the concrete jungle that was Chicago. We stayed in a packed Catholic church on the third day. I lit a candle on the way in, lit up a joint in front of the alter and crashed on a pew. We awoke that evening and headed out. Again we clashed with the state, the National Guard and Mayor Daley’s cops chasing us, tear gassing us, beating us. Legislated hate. The streets were awash with turmoil. Counter-protesters called us outside agitators. We clashed, the violence escalating. We three were never caught by the cops, although we were tear-gassed — and that doesn’t feel good. You can’t breathe, your throat burns, eyes sting, and you think whatever breath you take will be your last.

Battered and bruised, we left town in the truck on the fourth night. Still, we were feeling good, good enough to have a laugh as we ruminated on our experience, harrowing though it was. Haggis mixed a batch of martinis, Sven lit up a blimp. We were on our way back to Denver on I-80.

We had changed things in a groundbreaking way that would spread and grow over the next seven years. We, too, had changed. This experience would give rise to more protests, because the war wouldn’t end until 1975. There would be more awareness of the war, because of our time in Chicago. The movement got coverage. That was important to bring it home to the old whiteLemmings, who sat hunched in front of their TVs every night. The war would ultimately end earlier, because we had gotten together as a group and organized. We were one. We were the people. We took chances and climbed out of our comfort shells. We rose up and we struck. We had power in numbers. That’s what they feared. It’s what they fear today. We will do it again, in a different time, in a different place. We will organize.


Related Articles