Chicago Then and Now

Notes on the 1968 and 1996 conventions

           I was trying to remember the last time I heard anyone utter the word "liberal" with the contempt that characterizes Rudy Boschwitz's ads. Then it came to me. We did, we said it loud and often during the '60s, and always with the bitterness reserved for discourse with finks and traitors.

           "Liberal" was a word much used by the street demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, myself among them. There's been a lot written about the epithets hurled there. "Pig" is one that comes to mind, but hardly anyone mentions what the word "liberal" connoted then.

           Here's what it meant to many who came to Chicago in 1968. It meant a preference for the slow mechanics of the political process over direct action at a moment in history when time could be measured in lives lost. It meant dutifully subscribing to the pretense that we lived in a democracy when our government was bought and paid for by war profiteers. It meant choosing the lesser of two evils, something we deplored.

           And liberalism was epitomized in the person of Hubert H. Humphrey, a man whom we firmly believed had sold his soul for the honor of being number two. Lyndon Johnson jerked Humphrey around and humiliated him in 1964 before finally choosing him as his running mate. Humphrey proceeded to spend his vice presidency capitulating to something unspeakable. He talked up the war. He called it our "great adventure."

           Eugene McCarthy was something else entirely. Many of us would have been glad to see him elected. The problem from our perspective was that he siphoned off the energy of our potential allies into a hopeless attempt to redeem the system. His supporters got haircuts and stopped dressing like freaks for the campaign. They said they were "clean for Gene."

           "Join us," we hollered at the McCarthy delegates in Chicago's Hilton Hotel, from our vantage point across Michigan Avenue in Grant Park. What we meant was, stop being liberals. Stop pretending your man might actually win just because the majority of Democratic voters prefer him. It's a rigged game, we told them. Don't play.

           Eventually they did join us, not because they bought our analysis, not even because McCarthy lost, but because we were irresistible. There was a sense of commitment and energy on the streets of Chicago in 1968, a feeling that we were seizing a moment of history and running with it. Our ranks were ultimately swelled to more than 15,000 by McCarthy supporters and gun-shy media people who'd learned to use us for cover after the police made special targets of them.

           That final night in Grant Park, when everybody including the cops ran amok, I witnessed a graphic example of the price of ambivalence. When we'd first gathered, word had gone out that if you were teargassed the worst thing you could do was wash your eyes out with water. Instead of rinsing the chemical away it exacerbated its effects. That was counter-intuitive, and the temptation to find water when you were gassed was strong, but the hardcore protesters knew better. Those who joined later did not.

           After a police charge sent about 30 people smashing through the plate glass of a sidewalk-level restaurant at the Hilton, and after innumerable small clashes in which many protesters and several cops got the shit beat out of them, there was a tear gas attack that sent hundreds of us running toward Lake Shore Drive in a dense chemical fog. By the time we reached Buckingham Fountain, a huge cascade of water surrounded by a sizeable moat, everybody was blind and choking.

           Those of us who'd come to Chicago with one purpose in mind, to make a shambles of the convention, sat down and waited for the symptoms to pass. The Clean-for-Gene crowd and the reporters headed for the fountain like lambs to slaughter. For a few moments their howls drowned out the noise of the hovering helicopters shining searchlights on us. A cry went up: Don't put water in your eyes! They were slow to catch on. They wanted to believe that what a little water wouldn't do, a lot of water might. It took a long time for all of them to leave that moat.

           1996. Blood on the Moon! screamed the hand-lettered sign hung high on the chainlink fence surrounding the officially sanctioned protest pit two blocks from the United Center, where the Democratic Party was holding its convention. Christ the King Over Chicago, explained another sign next to it, and in smaller letters beneath that, Planet Christ! That was it. No demands, no calls to action, nothing.

           Two young people stood in front of the signs, smiling. The girl, about 15, handed over a leaflet that repeated the three slogans or whatever they were, along with a phone number. But what was this protest about?

           When pressed on this seemingly crucial point the girl giggled self-consciously, and said the blood of the unborn is on our hands. How it got from there to the moon she didn't have a clue. Her dad made the signs, she explained, but he got called in for a job interview so he couldn't be here today. Come back tomorrow and ask him, she suggested. He knows all about that stuff.

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