Saturday, August 23, 2008

August '68

The sounds of August 1968 were on the radio this morning during a segment of NPR's Morning Edition on the demonstrations at the Democratic convention in Chicago that summer, and next week's convention in Denver. The segment includes some snippets of original broadcast coverage as well as an interview with protest leader and later California State Senator, Tom Hayden.

The emphasis of the story was on the violence that week in Chicago and its impact on protest movements, but the scarier memories it brought back were about the police. First, consider the scale. According to Hayden, the much publicized call for protesters to come to Chicago netted something fewer then 1,000 visitors. At various points they were swelled to 10,000 by Chicago's large progressive community (my parents, then in their late thirties, and my older brother, then 16, among them). Mayor Daley in contrast had amassed a force of nearly 24,000 men, 12,000 police, 6,000 National Guard reserve soldiers, and astoundingly, 6,000 US Army troops.

What I remember, and what comes across in the snippets of broadcast tape in the NPR story, was the incredible sense of malice behind this unprecedented and probably unconstitutional force of state power. There was an anger toward the demonstrators, and toward the left-wing of the Democratic Party that anticipated the more lethal violence to come in America (Attica, Kent State, and Georgia State) and internationally (Argentina's dirty war).

Listening this morning, I found the voice of a network correspondent describing the police moving in on demonstrators outside the Conrad Hilton Hotel (where many delegates and much of the press was staying) nothing short of terrifying as it was to me as a 9 year old boy. Like something out of Night of the Living Dead, the correspondent describes the Chicago Police wading into the crowd of unarmed and hapless young people and bashing them repeatedly with their heavy wooden batons, "he won't be getting up again," the audibly shocked reporter says.

At the time the actions of Mayor Daley and LBJ were denounced by many, including Senator Abraham Ribicoff who analogized the police to the Gestapo on the floor of the convention. A national commission ultimately laid much of the blame on the police. But as the NPR focus on the demonstrators suggests, the stigma ended up largely on the protesters not the "forces of order".

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