Remembering 1968

Anti-war march on the eve of the Democratic National Convention. Chicago, 1968.

Sunday, August 25th, 1968, Lincoln Park, Chicago. The Yippies had set up an event called The Festival of Life as part of the protest activities directed at the Democratic National Convention. They’d sent out invitations to a lot of heavy hitters (Janis Joplin, etc.) but the only band that showed up was the MC5.

With their connections to the Black Panther Party (at least its Ann Arbor branch), the MC5 seemed to have just the sort of political cred needed to be on the point of the spear for the Yippies’ critical take on Lyndon Johnson’s Democratic party. But the scene in the park what not exactly what they bargained for. Whacked out on hash and rocking on the back of a flatbed truck, it quickly became evident to the boys in the band that things were getting ugly…fast.

Guitarist Wayne Kramer remembered that there were agents provocateurs in the audience, “guys in army fatigue jackets with short hair and sunglasses”, pushing people around and starting fights. From his perch behind the drum kit, Dennis Thompson could see increasing numbers of law enforcement personnel gathering around the edges of the crowd. “When I saw all those cops, the only thing I could think was, Jesus Christ, if this is the revolution, we lost.”

As Abbie Hoffman harangued the crowd about “the pigs” and “the siege of Chicago,” Kramer realized it was time to go. They began frantically packing up their gear, under no illusions about what was about to go down. “We had seen this happen a lot of times before,” Kramer later said, “we knew as soon as we stopped playing the crowd wouldn’t have anything to focus on anymore and the riot would start. And it did.”

Three days later, on Wednesday night, protesters and police clashed violently in the streets outside the International Amphitheater. The clash, which would come to be called The Battle of Michigan Avenue, was mostly a matter of the forces of order beating people into submission. It was a painful moment for the protestors, but an important one. Chicago in the era of the Daley political machine was the heartland of the Democratic Party, then in the process of coming apart at the seams in conflict with the brutal, imperialist war that its leadership had led the country into in Vietnam. The nightsticks in the streets illustrated the degree to which violence would be a day to day tool even for the leftward end of the mainstream American political spectrum.

Meanwhile, inside the auditorium, Connecticut Senator Abe Ribicoff was delivering one of the most iconic speeches in American political history. Ribicoff had mounted the rostrum in order to nominate George McGovern, the candidate of the party’s antiwar wing. McGovern’s nomination was a hopeless cause, having no chance of assembling the requisite delegate count to win. With images and reports of violence circulating through the hall, Ribicoff abandoned his planned text and spoke to the events of the moment.

With Chicago Mayor and Democratic party big man Richard J. Daley watching from the floor, Ribicoff spoke frankly about the unjustness of the war, but also of the crisis at home,

“George McGovern is not satisfied that 10 million Americans go to bed hungry every night. George McGovern is not satisfied that four and a half million Americans — families — live in rat-infested and roach encrusted houses. George McGovern is not satisfied that in this nation of ours — in this great nation of ours — our infant mortality is so high that we rank 21st in all the nations of the world.”

And then, warming to his task, Ribicoff launched a blistering indictment of the treatment being meted out to the protestors outside the hall: “And with George McGovern as President of the United States we wouldn’t have to have Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago!” This line dropped like a bomb, causing pandemonium among the assembled delegates and party bigwigs. “With George McGovern, we wouldn’t have a National Guard. You bet. You bet,” said Ribicoff, acknowledging the furore that his words had unleashed.

It was an intense moment, none the less so for Ribicoff’s having slightly flubbed the line. Ribicoff surveyed the chaotic scene before him. He had just effectively called out the Chicago Police Department and, by extension, the Daley administration, whose leader was one of the most powerful men in the party (and in his own hometown no less). If you watch the video you can see him lean on the lectern and look down to the place in the crowd where Daley and his associates were standing, shouting abuse at him at the top of their lungs. In a calm and avuncular tone, Ribicoff left Daley and his people know that he knew exactly the import of what he’d said. “How hard it is to accept the truth when we know the problems facing our nation.”

These were the scenes 50 years ago when the fragmentation of the postwar American political order began in earnest. The proximate cause was the brutal quagmire in Vietnam, the draft for which increasingly impinged on the lives of the sons of the white middle class. Although the protest moment against the war was not nearly as widespread as later hagiographies have made it, it did synergise with the civil rights movement and other modes of political radicalism, made more intense by the beginnings of the collapse of the postwar economic boom.

The response of the forces of order to the growing radical movements was to expand police control but also violence. There was a sea change in the public face of order between the assassination of Fred Hampton in December 1969 and the shootings at Kent State in May 1970. The former formed part of a long-existing narrative of extreme violence in the policing of black bodies. But the shootings at Kent State, in which four white students were killed outright and another nine wounded, showed that the violence previously reserved for the racial other could now be employed of those from the dominant racial group.

Of course, violence of the former sort continued apace, as the shooting at Jackson State a week and a half later clearly showed. Neil Young’s “Ohio,” the most powerful (and arguably the last) of the great protest songs of the 1960s and 70s, eloquently memorialised the victims of Kent State.

“Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming

We’re finally on our own

This summer I hear the drumming

Four dead in Ohio”

But there were no pop songs to memorialise the victims of the Jackson State. Just more brutality. The Soledad brothers and myriad moments of local violence continued mostly below the radar of white America.

The recognition of the white protest movement that, “we’re finally on our own” i.e. subject to the kind of violence previously reserved for those less proximate to the centre of the social power, was a jarring one. Jerry Casale, a founding member of Devo who was present on the day, argued that it effectively broke the back of the peace movement. “I think a lot of kids felt resigned. It was like, ‘OK, Dad, I’ll work at the hardware store.’” For others, such as Casale and future Pretenders founder Chrissie Hynde Kent State was an indication of the gross decay of American society. Casale and his friends started a band devoted to highlighting the concept of devolution. Hynde left the country, moving to London and hanging around in the founding circles of the 1977 punk scene.

The period from the summer of 1968 to the summer of 1970 was the end of a moment in American radicalism, one that has not returned even in the face of the current president’s profound challenge to the institutions of the republic. In the face of the application of the state’s capacity for legitimate violence, as well as the degradation of the economic position of the middle class in persistent cycles of recession and pseudo-recovery beginning in the 1970s, the dangers attendant upon seeming to challenge the established order served to keep in line those who could safely stay there.

What replaced the radicalism in the streets, on the very most optimistic assessment, was a version of Rudi Dutschke’s long march through the institutions. Former SDS leader Tom Hayden or Michael Harrington, turned to Democratic politics, while others (most prominently Mark Rudd) simply adjusted their radicalism to the requirements of everyday life in Reagan’s America. In the long run, the disciplining of the white middle class was turned over to the impersonal forces of neoliberal capitalism. For nonwhites, of course, the explicit threat of violence has never been off the table.

It is only now, in the face of the current president’s overtly authoritarian approach, that the forces of the left have truly begun the work of colonising the Democratic Party. Ironically, this is the sort of thing that Republicans have for years claimed already to have happened. But perhaps the assertion that Barack Obama, whose politics (if not his rhetoric) were slightly to the right of Ronald Reagan, was some kind of socialist was finally a step too far. The recent elections have thrown up a crop of actual progressives in the ranks of the Democratic Party, of whom Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is only the most prominent. It is as if, after three decades of dormancy, the radical and humane instincts of the left have finally crept out of the corner into which they were chased at the end of the 1960s.

All of this is not by any means a declaration of victory. The concessions required of working within the system of (decreasingly) liberal democracy remain. The institutions of the state exist to thwart serious changes to the existing order. But there are still tangible gains that can be achieved within the bounds of the system and forcing that system to show its true colours can often act as a spur to those on the fence. The challenges facing the left, and humanity in general, are more profound than ever, and the idea that the Democratic Party can effectively address them is no less a fantasy than it has ever been. But the green shoots of a renewed radicalism can now be seen half a century on from its demise, and perhaps that is enough to be going on with.

Photograph courtesy of David Wilson. Published under a Creative Commons license.