Somebody has just released a movie about the “Chicago Conspiracy” and the 1968 Democratic Convention and its accompanying festivities. I’m a little spooked to realize that the convention happened nearly 40 years ago, and I was there. At the time, I realized it was an Agincourt Moment. You know,
“This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’ …
“And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”
Having been raised on Shakespeare and English history, I saw most of the earthshaking events I was actually somehow connected with in that light. I have gotten to do the St. Crispin’s day routine only once or twice so far, but maybe it’s time to do it again.
At the time—August 28, 1968—I was 26 years old, married, working on a graduate degree at the University of Chicago, and teaching college English at Roosevelt University, a small liberal arts college distinguished at the time mainly by being located across Michigan Avenue from Grant Park.Like most people I knew, I was distressed about the Vietnam War, and the murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. I had been to a couple of small, uneventful anti-war demonstrations. I believed in nonviolence.
And I had been reading the stories in the Chicago papers about the mayor’s anticipation of mayhem and murder in the streets and LSD in the water supply. Since Chicago’s water supply comes directly from Lake Michigan, and it doesn’t take much water to dilute LSD to utter insignificance, I wasn’t much worried about that part of the predictions. But the mayhem etc. in the streets had already been happening for nearly a week. The previous Saturday night, I had been to a Country Joe McDonald concert, and the next morning in the Sunday paper, I saw that Country Joe had been beaten up by unidentified assailants shortly afterward. Reporters had been dragged off the street by police (nothing unidentified about them) and beaten up.
So that Wednesday, the 28th, I went to the rally in what is now the Old Bandshell (actually it’s the Old Old Bandshell, as opposed to the Petrillo Bandshell which succeeded it and which has now in turn been succeeded by yet another bandshell in Millenium Park), with a friend of mine who was a reporter for the Chicago Daily News. I think I just figured he would know where all the interesting stuff would be happening.
It started out as a fairly ordinary anti-war rally, if “ordinary” is ever the appropriate term for such an event. At the beginning, we even believed there was a permit for it. Like most of the people there, I wouldn’t have been there if I thought it didn’t have a permit. Later on, somebody announced that the permit had been revoked. Nobody was about to disband at that point.
Lots of speeches, by Allan Ginsburg, Norman Mailer, David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, and, I think, a student of mine who had just burned his draft card, along with lots of other people whose names I no longer remember and may not even have known at the time. Ginsburg did his usual mantra, to calm the energies of the situation, he said. It sort of worked for a while. Then Rennie Davis talked about the increasing levels of casualties in Vietnam, and went to pull down the American flag that flew in front of the bandshell. Several of the people in attendance began chanting “half-staff, half-staff”, which we thought made more sense than pulling it down altogether. A melee ensured at the flagpole. I couldn’t see much of it, but at the end of it, the flag was down, and Davis emerged with his head bleeding.
Somebody with a radio announced to us, at one point, that the Convention had voted down a proposed anti-war platform plank. On the roof of the Field Museum behind us, the National Guardsmen were posted, their rifles at the ready and pointed toward us. I realized for the first time that we were The Enemy. I rehearsed in my mind the motions necessary to dive under a bench if shooting started. It didn’t.
When the rally ended, we all decided to march to the Amphitheater (where the Convention was being held.) We formed up in lines, with Dellinger calling out, “Helmets on the outside, women on the inside, protect your brothers and sisters, anyone who tries to incite you to violence is a provocateur…”
And then we realized we were surrounded on all sides by the National Guard. We were, clearly, not going anyplace anytime soon. People sat down on the grass in the sunshine, broke out lunches and radios, sharing both with anybody in the vicinity. For an hour or so, it was a vast picnic.
As I sat listening to the Convention proceedings on some stranger’s radio, I realized someone was calling my name. I had to look around a couple of times to ascertain that it was one of the National Guardsmen. I got up to see who he was (it’s hard to distinguish faces under the helmets) and discovered it was one of my students from the previous semester, who had taken an Incomplete and still owed me a paper. We talked a while about when he was going to get me his paper, and what was the College’s drop-dead date for Incompletes. When I went back to the people I had been sitting with, they were all amazed to hear that a National Guardsman could be a student, with grades and papers and Incompletes just like anybody else.
After a while, people got tired of sitting and angrier at what they heard happening at the Convention, so we got up again to try to march to the Amphitheater. The National Guardsman moved around enough that we couldn’t tell whether we would be permitted to march.
After a while it became obvious that we not only wouldn’t be allowed to march, we weren’t even being allowed to leave the park. Lots of miscellaneous individuals, including me, tried to make end runs around the obstacles. By that time, all I wanted to do was get to the train (the entrance was just outside the park) and go home. I had not the slightest intention of going to the Amphitheater or doing anything else illegal. I worked my way toward the train entrance, when people began calling out, “the soldiers have their masks on.” Which meant gas masks, I realized a bit too late, which meant that they were preparing to use tear gas. The back of my throat started to itch. Then my eyes stung. And teared. Amazingly, I got out to the sidewalk outside the park, and at the water fountain there, I washed my eyes until they stopped hurting. Dripping and red-faced, I headed for the train entrance. Surrealistically, I passed a middle-aged Black man walking a poodle. He said something to me that sounded like, of all things, a pass. I couldn’t believe it, so I ignored it and zipped down the stairs to the train.
The train schedules were messed up, of course. By the time I finally got home, it was well after dark. My husband and our British neighbor from across the hall were sitting on the end of the bed watching what later became known as the Battle of the Conrad Hilton. The Conrad Hilton was directly across the street from Grant Park, and was as far as those who had stuck to their plan to march to the Amphitheater actually got before being attacked by the police.
The most personal consequence of the ’68 Convention for me (and my husband) was that our aforementioned British neighbor and his wife were so disgusted at what they saw that night that they moved to Vancouver six months later. Their apartment had two bedrooms; ours had one. We took over their apartment, bought it when the building went condo 12 years later, and are still living there today. I still sometimes feel mildly grateful to the First Mayor Daley for having a second bedroom.
A note about media statistics: when we first got to the rally, my reporter friend, who was after all responsible for getting the facts straight, asked one of the police on the scene how many people he estimated were there. The cop said, “Well, the capacity of this place is ten thousand. All the seats are filled and there’s people standing all over the place, so figure twelve thousand.” When I got home that night, the news was giving the crowd count at the bandshell as seven thousand. The ten o’clock news said five thousand. When I woke up the next morning, the radio news said two thousand. I stopped listening at that point, afraid that if I didn’t, we might all just disappear.
Back then I had not yet become Red Emma. I was definitely Jane Grey, so I will sign this in her name.