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Chicago '68: The 50-Year Lessons America Still Hasn't Learned

The internecine war for the soul of American democracy continues in our own time, as the rage and fear tapped almost 50 years apart by Richard Nixon and Donald Trump have continued to mesmerize successive generations of Americans

Jeers greet Chicago law enforcement and security officers as they attempt to disperse demonstrators outside the Conrad Hilton, location of Democratic Convention headquarters on Wednesday, August 29, 1968. (Photo: AP/RHS)

Fifty years ago, anti-war protesters swarmed the streets of Chicago during the Democratic National Convention to reject the Vietnam War, state violence, and injustice. In the process they turned the city into a veritable battleground over the fate of American democracy.

"The whole world is watching!" protesters chanted in response to police violence in August 1968. That one phrase encapsulated much of the radical social justice insurgency of not only that year but also the entire decade of the 1960s. As the nation mourned the April assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and June killing of New York senator and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, thousands of radical activists came to Chicago to try and shame the Democratic Party into publicly adopting a peace plank that some hoped would lead to an end to war.
 
The college students, hippies, anti-war activists, and ordinary Americans who traveled to Chicago in the summer of 1968 were, however imperfect, patriots who spoke truth to power and paid the price in blood, arrests, and controversy. While journalists and historians at times point to Chicago as the site of the Democratic Party's defeat and Richard Nixon's subsequent victory in the November presidential election, something more important happened that the nation has yet to recover from.
 
In Chicago the American Dream collided with brutal truths about war, violence, and corruption. How could the same nation that regarded itself as the freest nation on earth bomb one of the poorest in the name of democracy? Who were the elected officials who rationalized war as the only road toward peace? What role did citizens have in shaping a democracy that seemed to have lost its moral compass?
 
These remain some of the most enduring questions for our own age, where perpetual war, police brutality, and political malfeasance at the highest levels of government have evolved from the spectacular to the mundane. In 1968 Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's deployment of tens of thousands of law enforcement officials to maintain security and order in the city was derided as "Gestapo tactics" inside the Democratic Convention -- even as a majority of Americans voiced approval of violence as a substitute for justice. By 2014, the sight of police officers in military fatigues and tanks patrolling the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, became the cost of maintaining a hard peace in the absence of justice.
 
Yet the imperfect idealism that animated protesters in Chicago endures. Forty years after police routed demonstrators advocating a more just society, thousands gathered in Grant Park to peacefully celebrate the election of the first black president in American history. President Barack Obama's two terms in the White House symbolized a measure of hope and progress for the generation who marched in 1968 and those who now stand on their shoulders. Their actions 50 years ago reflect the virtue and value of what Obama characterized as the most important title in our nation: citizen.
 
Black Lives Matter protests have linked the entire criminal justice system to a system of structural racism and inequality that activists in 1968 confronted on the streets of Chicago. Police brutality and political corruption targeted by demonstrators 50 years ago continue to shape the very face of American democracy. The Justice Department under the Trump administration has steadily eroded criminal justice reforms enacted by Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch that were designed to reduce mass incarceration, eliminate sentencing inequality, and promote effective community policing across the nation -- in an effort to ratchet down racial tensions after urban rebellions in Ferguson and Baltimore.
 
The violent and illegal tactics the police used to crush dissent in Chicago have, in the ensuing half-century, been largely erased in favor of a narrative claiming that radical political extremism had taken over the Democratic Party's left wing. In fact, the protesters outside the halls of power in Chicago represented the mainstream of American political values in their ambition to end war, racism, poverty and violence both domestically and internationally.
 
Their demands turned into a generational conflict, pitting the Democratic Party establishment represented by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and Vice President Hubert Humphrey against an insurgent coalition of youthful activists determined to transform the nation even at any cost.
 
Daley, a longtime ally of President Lyndon Johnson, deployed an army of police officers to maintain law and order in the city. Tom Hayden, the main author of the influential Port Huron Statement and a civil rights activist who had been beaten in Mississippi while working for civil rights, was perhaps the most well-known political radical in Chicago. Youth International Party (Yippies) leaders Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin attracted further publicity by practicing politics as performance art, including nominating a pig for president in an effort to remark on the absurdity of the American political system.
 
Authorities were not amused. On Sunday, August 25, the day before the convention opened, Chicago police attacked demonstrators in Lincoln Park, setting the stage for a week of violent clashes. Daley forces targeted journalists covering events inside the convention and on the streets for violent retribution, including correspondents Dan Rather and Mike Wallace, who were assaulted by security guards inside the convention.
 
In contrast to the unified display showcased at the Republican National Convention in Miami earlier in the month, the Democrats were in chaos. The party's dreams of a Great Society faltered over an increasingly rancorous debate about the Vietnam War. Vietnam raised larger issues about the future of American democracy, especially around the themes of militarism, racism, and materialism that Dr. King had decried before his death and that Bobby Kennedy wrestled with during his short presidential campaign.
 
Ironically, these issues all converged on Wednesday, August 28, the fifth anniversary of the 1963 March On Washington. That evening over 10,000 demonstrators gathered in Grant Park (later the site of Barack Obama's victory speech in November 2008) clashed with police officers who brutalized men, women and innocents as well as those engaged in violent acts. In response, protesters descended upon the Hilton Hotel, where DNC delegates were staying and television cameras and journalists were headquartered. Vice President Hubert Humphrey watched in despair as police assaulted protesters in clashes that spilled out onto the streets and drew innocent bystanders into a web of violence.
 
Chicago reminds us of the deep historical roots behind contemporary political divisions. The partisan rancor that marks contemporary American political culture remains rooted in the violently brutal conflicts on display there a half century ago. The internecine war for the soul of American democracy continues in our own time, as the rage and fear tapped almost 50 years apart by Richard Nixon and Donald Trump have continued to mesmerize successive generations of Americans. Social justice movements, from 1968 to our own time, remind us that the whole world is watching.

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Peniel Joseph

Peniel Joseph

Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. His most recent book is Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter: @penieljoseph

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