The 50-year lessons America still hasn't learned

Fifty years ago, anti-war protesters swarmed the streets of Chicago during the Democratic National Conventio...

Posted: Aug 29, 2018 1:04 AM
Updated: Aug 29, 2018 1:04 AM

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.

Activism

Chicago

Continents and regions

Crime, law enforcement and corrections

Democracy

Forms of government

Government and public administration

Illinois

Law enforcement

Midwestern United States

North America

Policing and police forces

Political organizations

Politics

Protests and demonstrations

Society

The Americas

United States

US Democratic Party

US political parties

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.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 31715

Reported Deaths: 1984
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion9189533
Lake3299167
Cass15826
Allen127766
St. Joseph117034
Hendricks112367
Hamilton109992
Johnson1082104
Elkhart100827
Madison58258
Porter48721
Bartholomew48033
Clark45838
LaPorte40821
Tippecanoe3733
Jackson3611
Howard35618
Delaware35434
Hancock31927
Shelby31421
Floyd31338
Boone28235
Morgan26124
Vanderburgh2482
Montgomery22717
White2268
Decatur22431
Clinton2151
Noble18520
Grant18520
Harrison18521
Dubois1822
Greene16723
Warrick16426
Dearborn16221
Monroe16010
Henry1597
Vigo1477
Lawrence14322
Miami1391
Putnam1337
Jennings1274
Orange12422
Scott1183
Ripley1126
Franklin1068
Carroll922
Kosciusko861
Daviess8216
Steuben792
Newton7410
Wabash722
Wayne695
Fayette654
Marshall641
LaGrange602
Jasper561
Washington521
Fulton471
Rush452
Jay430
Jefferson411
Randolph403
Pulaski390
Clay391
Whitley392
Brown331
Sullivan321
Starke313
Owen311
DeKalb291
Perry270
Huntington262
Benton250
Knox240
Crawford230
Wells230
Tipton221
Blackford201
Switzerland190
Fountain182
Parke170
Posey170
Spencer161
Gibson142
Ohio130
Adams121
Warren121
Vermillion90
Martin90
Union80
Pike60
Unassigned0152
West Lafayette
Broken Clouds
85° wxIcon
Hi: 87° Lo: 69°
Feels Like: 88°
Kokomo
Few Clouds
86° wxIcon
Hi: 87° Lo: 67°
Feels Like: 89°
Rensselaer
Scattered Clouds
86° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 66°
Feels Like: 88°
Fowler
Scattered Clouds
86° wxIcon
Hi: 84° Lo: 67°
Feels Like: 88°
Williamsport
Scattered Clouds
83° wxIcon
Hi: 86° Lo: 68°
Feels Like: 87°
Crawfordsville
Broken Clouds
83° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 68°
Feels Like: 84°
Frankfort
Scattered Clouds
85° wxIcon
Hi: 86° Lo: 67°
Feels Like: 88°
Delphi
Broken Clouds
83° wxIcon
Hi: 86° Lo: 68°
Feels Like: 85°
Monticello
Broken Clouds
83° wxIcon
Hi: 89° Lo: 67°
Feels Like: 85°
Logansport
Broken Clouds
86° wxIcon
Hi: 86° Lo: 66°
Feels Like: 88°
Hot and Humid Weather Continues with Some Late-Day Storms Possible.
WLFI Radar
WLFI Temps
WLFI Planner

COVID-19 Important links and resources

As the spread of COVID-19, or as it's more commonly known as the coronavirus continues, this page will serve as your one-stop for the resources you need to stay informed and to keep you and your family safe. CLICK HERE

Closings related to the prevention of the COVID-19 can be found on our Closings page.

Community Events