Special Convention Fever Issue -- Chicago '68
by Michael Doliner
(Swans - June 2, 2008) I was in Chicago in 1968. It was, of course, a wild time. I will only speak here of experiences of my own. The general outline of that year is better remembered by others. Three incidents stick out for me.
Mayor Daley, the first Mayor Daley, had a slate of delegates pledged to Hubert Humphrey. In the Hyde Park area two delegates opposed to Humphrey and the war were trying to get seated. I forget now just what the mechanism for seating them was. But in any case, there was a fundraiser in a house in Kenwood, an area that had once been wealthy and still had many grand houses left. This fundraiser must have been sometime in April, a couple of weeks before a demonstration downtown. It was the usual kind of upper middle class political affair. Most of the people were slowly drifting through the downstairs rooms of this large house while the important personages occasionally withdrew to some upstairs conclave to negotiate or strategize. One of the two alternate delegates was Abner Mikva, a sometime judge and later member of Congress. He was there looking important. There were hors d'oeuvres, wine and cheese I think, maybe even tiny hot dogs in tiny buns. Everything seemed very exciting and effective.
After drifting around for a while I and the two guys I was with had had enough, and we left. The party had spilled out on the sidewalk and there were people talking outside. There was no music. Everything was exceedingly civilized. We had begun to walk back to campus when suddenly the street was filled with police cars and paddy wagons all with the lights flashing. Naturally, we decided to go back to the house. All up and down the block the sidewalk was filled with police. Strangely, they didn't seem to be doing anything. We were able to walk back up the block to the house. When I got there I saw a guy on the porch who had been inside before. He was now obviously one of the cops. A guy I took to be the owner of the house was talking to a guy I took to be the chief of police. The police didn't smash anything or, as far as I could see, even haul anybody away, but the party was over. I counted over thirty police vehicles lined up along that block and the next. Someone said someone was smoking marijuana.
I was also at the April 27 peace march. We now know how the city of Chicago had tried to thwart the plans of the organizers, but when people arrived in Grant Park nobody knew there was any problem. It was soon announced that a parade permit had not been granted, and that everyone was to move from Grant Park to the Civic Center along the sidewalks. No provision had been made for anyone to walk anywhere, and people had to just walk down the sidewalk as other pedestrians went about their business. The whole march ended up being stretched out interminably. Sometimes people were walking in single file. I remember it taking more than an hour to get to the Civic Center Plaza. I also remember seeing some flimsy stanchions with a single strand of rope running through a ring at the top. But the rope was down, lying on the ground, and nothing hindered anyone from just walking into the Plaza. Nor were there any police or other government functionaries to keep people out. Many people were drifting around in the Civic Center, and others, just arriving, and having been told that this was the destination, stepped over it without another thought.
Suddenly, cop cars were lined up on Clark Street, and many cops with blue helmets, dark visors, and clubs poured into the Civic Center and began swinging at people. The whole tone had changed so quickly that everyone was stunned. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw a guy go down. The cops quickly pushed everybody out of the Plaza and across Dearborn Street. The cops had surrounded a large number of people and had pushed them against the wall of a building on the other side of Dearborn Street. In this wall was a large window made up of several small panes. It was shaking horribly and I expected it to shatter. The mass of people was like a pseudopod, surging here and there only to be beaten back by the swinging clubs. People who had the misfortune to be on the edge of this pseudopod were clubbed down and dragged into paddy wagons. It seemed as if everybody would eventually succumb. The pseudopod inched along the wall until suddenly, an alley, a common feature in Chicago, opened up behind us. Given this outlet the pseudopod quickly drained away towards State Street. Everybody ran as fast as he could towards State. When I got there I could see the turmoil, in diluted form, had spread that far, but there were many downtown shoppers and business people who had the air of observers. The police could only tell who was who if you ran. I and the girl I was with somehow immediately understood this, and we managed to stroll away.
My final memory is of the guerrilla theater production at the University of Chicago. Many people were involved in this besides me, but I am not sure any of them would want their participation known, even now. We had done a couple of little vignettes, which had done nothing. So we decided to arrest two students in Hutchinson Commons, a great big eating hall at the University of Chicago. The students to be arrested were part of the theater group. They knew what was coming. One of our members had found two plausible FBI-agents-playing actors. The play took two days. On the first day these two guys just walked around taking pictures at various points in the room. They stayed just for a few minutes and then disappeared. By the end of that the whole place was boiling. On the second day the FBI guys walked in, looked around, and arrested the two students who had sat at locations in the room so that we could get them swiftly out. The place went nuts. But when they found out it was just a play their rage turned on me. How dare you fool us about something so serious, they said. Although people were being arrested for draft evasion no one was being arrested in universities. So, they said, we were also presenting a false picture. My problem was that I didn't understand what theater was. The audience was supposed to know it was seeing a show.
There were a number of faculty members who had known about what we were going to do, and who had, in fact, advised us. However, they all denied any knowledge of anything. Oops, so much for loyalty to truth.
In the face of this, the Guerrilla Theater decided it could do only one thing, form a group in opposition to itself. The group was called "Committee to Eat Lunch in Peace." We drafted a letter to The Maroon, the student newspaper, complaining about the recent disturbances during the lunch hour and about how the University should be the kind of place where people are protected from that kind of disruption. The war, as bad as it is, should not be used as a pretext to disturb peoples' lunch. We had hoped by sarcasm to restore some sense of perspective. On the contrary, we got support for our position. At that point we all knew we were insane and the group disbanded and went, for the most part, to California.
The real kicker is that one night that same week Hubert Humphrey had a secret date to push his candidacy in that very Hutchinson Commons. His appearance had been kept secret so I guess only bigwigs attended what must have been a fundraising dinner. But preceding Humphrey's arrival Secret Service agents who looked a lot like our FBI actors had to check out Hutchinson Commons. Students spotted a couple of them on the stairs up into the building. Within a very short time a large number of students were outside that hall. Since Humphrey was considered to be Johnson's surrogate, and there were lots of antiwar people there, it quickly turned into an antiwar demonstration noisy enough to disrupt the fundraising dinner. But what really had gotten all those students down there was that rumor that there was some kind of showdown between the Guerrilla Theater and the "Lunch in Peace" crowd.
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