Remembering an out-of-control political convention in 1968

In the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, America saw what can happen when a despotic leader is out of control.
A tight-lipped Chicago Mayor Richard Daley (center) doesn't like what he was hearing from the podium at the Democratic National Convention in 1968.

My first national political convention to cover as a newspaperman was the 1968 Democratic confab in Chicago, one still taught in political science and media classes as an example of how to do everything wrong.

It was an angry, hate-filled week of a rabid mayor Richard J. Daley, antiwar protestors in the streets and a rabid Chicago police force and out-of-control National Guard troops that Daley ordered to “maim” anyone who protested anything into submission.

Inside the convention hall, we saw an attempt to control news reporting as Daley controlled events with an iron hand and when the television cameras caught him in a tight-lipped face contorted in anger, CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite told viewers that they were witnessing a police riot and called them “Daley’s thugs.”

Former Democrat senior Senator, former governor and Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare for President John F. Kennedy, Abraham Ribicoff, spoke from the podium and called what was happening “Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago. ” Daley, from the floor, shouted “f–k you, you Je-w son of a bitch, you lousy motherf–kers, go home.” It went out live, on the air.

As a reporter and photographer with full credentials for access to the convention hall, I was manhandled by security personnel and escorted off the floor after I shot photos of one of Daley’s angry moments.

On the streets, police nightsticks destroyed one of my Nikon camera bodies and two lenses. A gash in my forehead required several stitches.

John Evans, NBC newsman, interviewed a bloodied man after he, Evans, said he was struck by a policeman in Chicago’s Lincoln Park on August 27, 1968. (AP)

I would cover other presidential nominating conventions after that, but none like Chicago in 1968. We saw violence on the streets and in the convention hall. We saw a despotic Chicago mayor who ran the city like his personal fiefdom.

Yet locals in Chicago protesting the news reports and supported Daley and his violent tactics.

Chicago’s locals support their mayor and protest CBS.

As a newspaperman, I saw terror on the streets and in the convention, not from the protestors but from the police, National Guard, security personnel and elected officials who did not see any need for restraint, civility or law.

I came to view political conventions as a week of too-often-scripted political mayhem with lots of cheering and yelling, too many stupid hats and banners and more attention to hoopla than issues.

This year’s “virtual” Democratic convention gives us a chance to hear the speakers, see what others are feeling and saying and focus on the needs of America rather than making public spectacles of people out for a “good time.”

Still, more than half-a-century later, we see protests on the streets but most came as reactions to police brutality and killings of Black individuals. We saw law enforcement firing tear gas and weapons to clear peaceful protestors from the area around Lafayette Park in Washington, DC, so the president of the United States can wave a Bible that wasn’t his and doesn’t read for a “photo op” that bombed.

In another incident, heavily-armed officers from the Department of Homeland Security were ordered to Portland, Oregon, to serve a political agenda, not any request from the mayor, who said dispatching DHS into his city made things worse, not better.

“The president has tried to turn DHS, the nation’s largest law enforcement agency, into a tool used for his political benefit,” reports Miles Taylor, former chief of staff of DHS under current president Donald Trump. “Trump has also damaged the country in countless ways that don’t directly involve national security but, by stoking hatred and division, make Americans profoundly less safe.”

National Guard and protestors at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.
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