It was 50 years ago this week that the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago became a national spectacle, as a major political event turned into chaos that culminated with a police riot, much of it unfolding on live national television. Chicago met the protesters with 24,000 police officers, National Guardsmen and Army soldiers using tear gas and clubs. We feature newsreel clips from the week and go to Chicago to speak with former SDS and Weather Underground member Bill Ayers, who was arrested 50 years ago.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: It was 50 years ago this week that the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago became a national spectacle, as a major political event veered into chaos that culminated with a police riot, much of it unfolding on live national television. The 1968 DNC came in the middle of a year of mass protests against the Vietnam War. Protests had also erupted and civil disorders in April, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Then, on June 5th, Robert Kennedy was killed as he sought the Democratic Party nomination for president.
Democrats had to select a nominee after President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek another term amid fallout over Vietnam. His vice president, Hubert Humphrey, was ultimately nominated for president without competing in the primaries, after party bosses arranged for his support from most delegates. As protests raged outside the convention, inside, Aretha Franklin, whose funeral will be held Friday in Detroit, was invited to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
ARETHA FRANKLIN: [singing] And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Despite months of organizing that brought tens of thousands of people to the city during the Democratic National Convention, Chicago refused to issue permits for almost any of the demonstrators. Instead, they met protesters with an estimated 24,000 police officers, Illinois National Guardsmen and Army troops, who patrolled the streets with fixed bayonets. This is a clip from a documentary by Newsreel that captures the tension of the protests and how police escalated the situation on August 28th, after someone lowered an American flag in Grant Park. The police, under apparent orders from Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, responded by tear-gassing and clubbing their way through a crowd of about 10,000 people.
UNIDENTIFIED: This rally is extraordinary. It began for us when one of our brothers, quite rightly, lowered an American flag to half-mast. No one since then has mentioned the rightness of his act. It followed with an unprovoked charge of the pigs into our space.
TOM HAYDEN: They’re not going to let us out of this park in any organized way. So, for the purposes of survival, you should move out. You should float out in small groups and do whatever you’re going to do outside of the park around the city. Don’t get trapped in some kind of large organized march, which can be surrounded. I’ll see you in the street.
UNIDENTIFIED: How long would it mean leaving these people alone?
POLICE OFFICER: We are not aware of the conversation that you’ve been holding here with Captain Green.
DAVID DELLINGER: This is a nonviolent march, that so far we are only on the sidewalk. We are not even on the street yet, although it is certainly our intention to march to the amphitheater in the street, because we think that the street is necessary to accommodate this many people. We’re stubborn bastards. We may be nonviolent, but we’re stubborn. And so, we are appealing publicly, through the press, through Deputy Commander Riordan —
POLICE OFFICER: There will be no march today.
DAVID DELLINGER: We’ve made very clear that you have no [inaudible] —
POLICE OFFICER: The order is, sir, that there will be no march today.
UNIDENTIFIED: Be able to march on the sidewalk.
POLICE OFFICER: There will be no march today.
DAVID DELLINGER: Well, we’d like to have the reasons that [inaudible] known to the world.
POLICE OFFICER: We will let you know at the proper time. But right now there will be no march.
UNIDENTIFIED: This is a legal walk.
POLICE OFFICER: There will be no march today!
AMY GOODMAN: On August 28th, the day Hubert Humphrey got the nomination for president at the Democratic National Convention, police again brutally attacked protesters who marched to the convention headquarters at the Conrad Hilton Hotel.
PROTESTERS: [bleep] you, LBJ! [bleep] you, LBJ! [bleep] you, LBJ!
UNIDENTIFIED: I take one look at the troops in Vietnam, I know what American foreign policy is about. America now, that’s America of the Democratic Party. Most of us here didn’t come to support McCarthy. Troops are out!
UNIDENTIFIED: The troops are out.
UNIDENTIFIED: Hey, don’t panic! Keep talking!
UNIDENTIFIED: Cool it! Cool it!
UNIDENTIFIED: Keep talking! Keep talking!
AMY GOODMAN: After four days and nights, ending August 29, 1968, more than 650 people were arrested, more than 1,100 injured. Despite the police attacks, thousands headed back to their communities as re-energized and radicalized activists.
UNIDENTIFIED: What we are battling for is not simply for an end to the war in Vietnam or to move these racist dogs out of the black community. We are beginning to fight for our own survival. We came here. We fought. We did not run from the tear gas. We did not run from the bayonets. We stayed in the streets. And we did survive. And if we can survive here, we can survive in any local community in this country.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, today, we revisit the historic events that unfolded 50 years ago at the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention with some of those who were arrested for their actions there, including one who went on to face an infamous trial. Yes, we’ll go to Oakland, California, to speak with Bobby Seale, the original 1966 founding chairman and national organizer of the Black Panther Party, who spoke early on at the demonstrations in Chicago, later faced trial for intent to cause a riot. During the trial, the judge ordered Bobby Seale gagged and bound to his chair. He was then severed from the trial. He faced four years in jail. We’ll also go to Chicago to speak with former Weather Underground members Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn. Bill was arrested 50 years ago this week. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the conversation. We’ll look back 50 years and talk about what it means for today, in this era of Donald Trump. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Chicago” by Graham Nash. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Today we’re spending the hour looking back 50 years to the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which turned into a national spectacle as a major political event veered into chaos that culminated with a police riot, much of it unfolding on live national television. Joining us in Chicago is Bill Ayers, who was arrested by Chicago police the night of August 27th. He was a member of the militant antiwar group the SDS and, later, of the Weather Underground. He’s now a retired education professor and author of many books, including Teaching Toward Freedom: Moral Commitment and Ethical Action in the Classroom and Fugitive Days: A Memoir. His latest book is titled Demand the Impossible! A Radical Manifesto. Also with us in Chicago is Bernardine Dohrn, a fellow former member of SDS and of the Weather Underground and a longtime activist for peace, racial justice and children’s rights and a former law professor at Northwestern Law School.
AMY GOODMAN: And in Chicago, we’re joined by Bobby Seale — in Oakland, California, the original 1966 founding chairman and national organizer of the Black Panther Party. He came to Chicago to address the demonstrations, became one of the Chicago 8. The other defendants — Dave Dellinger, Rennie Davis, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Lee Weiner and John Froines — they were charged with conspiracy to cross state lines with intent to cause a riot during the protests. Judge Julius Hoffman ordered Seale be gagged, bound to his chair during the trial, after he said Seale disrupted the trial; later ordered him to be tried separately. Seale was sentenced to 48 months in prison for 16 acts of contempt of court, but all the charges were later dismissed. Charges were also dismissed in what became the Chicago 7 case.
We welcome you all to Democracy Now! We’re going to begin with Bill Ayers, who was arrested 50 years ago last night. Bill, can you describe what was happening during these four days and what led to your arrest, not to mention the arrests of well over 600 others?
BILL AYERS: Well, we came to Chicago to oppose a genocidal war, to oppose imperialism. And many of us, myself included — I wasn’t a leader of the demonstrations, but I was an activist from Michigan. I had first been arrested in 1965. And I had been organizing for this convention action for many, many months. And we came to Chicago with the intent of both showing a massive opposition to war and racism, but also to showing the world what the establishment was really like. We wanted to show that it was a violent, oppressive, dangerous establishment. And we felt that we had to do that on the largest stage we could imagine, and that was Chicago ’68.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Bill, I wanted to ask you, because I was actually a member of Columbia SDS at the time. I was recruited directly by Tom Hayden, because I had — was skeptical about the protests in Chicago, but Tom convinced me that it would be a turning point in terms of the antiwar movement. And could you talk about the situation that Mayor Daley set up in the city, the almost fascist nature of how the mayor dealt with the protests?
BILL AYERS: Absolutely. It’s so interesting, Juan, that you were recruited by Tom to come to Chicago. So was I. He was traveling the country and giving talks in which he tried to engage, you know, thousands, hundreds of thousands of students. But he also met separately with many of us and said, “Look, we have a responsibility to end the madness, to bring the monster down.” And you can interpret that many ways. But what Mayor Daley did — and you have to remember the context is a year before was the riots, you know, all over Chicago and uprisings all over the country. And Mayor Daley had famously said, “We’re going to shoot to kill all arsonists and shoot to maim anyone who’s looting.” That kind of violence was in the air. And what Daley did to suppress the numbers was he went on a national public relations campaign to say, “Don’t come to Chicago. You’ll be slaughtered.” And we came anyway. Probably the numbers were suppressed by his campaign, but we came anyway. And it wasn’t — it wasn’t an exaggeration. The police had a sustained, planned riot, attacking us and really hoping to put an end to the antiwar resistance.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to David Dellinger first, a clip of another Chicago 7 member, Dave Dellinger, who is speaking during a DNC demonstration.
DAVID DELLINGER: When the ruling party, a party administrating militarism and racism, when it invites a convention — or, it is invited into the city for a convention, it is inevitable that people who believe in decent human values and in human life and liberty will come with the convention in order to protest.
AMY GOODMAN: So that was Dave Dellinger, who later became one of the Chicago 7. I now want to turn to a clip featuring Tom Hayden, yep, another member of the Chicago 7 and 8, produced by The Nation and features Hayden both speaking during the ’68 DNC protests, also decades later.
TOM HAYDEN: There is no such thing as a violent demonstration. I would object to a violent police attack on demonstrators.
There was no evidence that we would be all right in 10 years.
I’ve never been told that taunting is illegal. What we’re accused of by many people in the government is precisely this business of taunting, like somehow we’d get a fair trial if we dressed up.
That we just thought that this alternative culture of social movements met our demands for seriousness, for challenge — something worth giving your life to.
Last year we wouldn’t have been attacked by police if we had called them “mister.” If we had shaved and had short hair last year, it would have been a peaceful scene.