Special Convention Fever Issue -- Chicago '68
by Peter Byrne
"Our Festival of Life, their Convention of Death."
Yippie program, 1967.
"It will take many years to disinfect Chicago from the sour smell of human failure. The city quivers with a kind of corporate bitterness. The place sings with a kind of hate."
James Cameron, 1968.
(Swans - June 2, 2008) Signs with Welcome to Mayor Daley's Chicago met visitors to the 1968 Democratic Convention. They told half the truth. The city truly belonged more to him than it ever had to anyone. But you were only welcome if you did as he told you. His support by Chicagoans and many outside the city would not be diminished by the mayhem he unleashed. This puzzle lies at the heart of any understanding of the events that were said to trouble the nation.
Richard J. Daley, a.k.a. the Big Dumpling, didn't invent machine politics. He merely brought them to perfection. They were a classic way to govern big cities and Chicago had always been innovative in their application. In brief, the citizen exchanged his vote and moral compass for an assurance that he would be looked after, which is to say, granted favors, by the party in power. In a city full of foreign-born like Chicago, the quid pro quo appealed to immigrants at sea in a new world. The moneyed classes didn't object so long as the politicians maintained social peace and the economy turned over.
At the bottom of the pyramid, the favors were slight, however important to the recipients. A family man might be got out of jail after a payday on the booze, or his ailing wife would be found a bed at the Cook County Hospital. The intermediaries were not public officials but precinct captains; there were three thousand four hundred of these party workers. Higher up the machine ladder, a job granted in city government would require hard work to be done for the party, perhaps ringing doorbells or organizing rallies. Absentee sewer inspectors or operators of automated elevators fell into this class. The whole system worked on patronage. City Hall handed out forty thousands jobs and a jobholder's first duty, whether a street sweeper or a lawyer out of Harvard, was to the party machine.
Daley was born in Bridgeport, a drab Irish neighborhood in the shadow of the Union Stock Yards, and he remained resident there until he died in 1976. The Irish took the reins of city politics at the beginning of the twentieth century. A certain clan-savvy came to Daley as a birthright to which he added a rigorous bookkeeper's mentality. He would avoid the recklessness of previous bosses, always insist on meticulous organization, embrace detail, and come up with disorientating and astute political moves. A scandal-proof family man and compulsive churchgoer, his mind wasn't on money, but power.
Elected mayor in 1955, Daley's reign was soon undisputed. It's probably too much to say, although some do, that he was responsible for John F. Kennedy's victory in 1960. But as far as presidential nominations went, Robert Kennedy was right to quip, "Daley means the ballgame." Because of the votes he could deliver, he was in 1968 the second most powerful politician in the country, and the first, Lyndon Johnson, would regularly defer to him. Daley's ability to funnel federal funds into Chicago was unparalleled. At the same time, while sovereign in his bailiwick, the mayor couldn't control the mood of the nation.
In 1967, when race riots irrupted in one hundred and twenty-eight US municipalities, and when great cities like Newark and Detroit went into irreversible decline, Chicago remained quiet. Daley had taken care to bring black politicos into the machine, subcontracting fiefdoms in segregated neighborhoods and gorging them with favors. This maneuver appeared in its true light when Martin Luther King, Jr. moved his Southern Christian Leadership movement north to Chicago in the mid-1960s. A sympathizer in the know told him he was naïve, "You're going to get wiped out." (Page 455, Bearing the Cross, Garrow.) But Dr. King said Chicago was "the Birmingham of the North" and he aimed to break the pattern of de facto segregation in the city's schools and housing. This had always been maintained by zoning ordinances, urban planning, and public housing policy. While the white middle class looked on from the prosperous outskirts, the blue-collar residents of the more central white ethnic neighborhoods enforced an unwritten law of segregation. Their hostility jolted King and actually put his life in danger.
Chicago hate was different from the South's, but equally merciless. It still haunts those who witnessed it. The novelist Sara Paretsky said in the London Guardian, March 22, 2008: "The violence in the parks that summer around the marchers was unspeakable. It was unbelievable: the signs urging people to fry black people like Hitler had done to the Jews; women coming along with baby buggies that had bricks, or even explosives, in them."
Daley palmed off Dr. King with promises and waved him out of town with a smile. The King camp immediately realized it had been beaten. They could forget their dream of a city where blacks were permitted to live and attend school wherever they liked. The idea not only enraged Daley's white working-class supporters, but also endangered his ambition for a more powerful and wealthier city. Black neighbors would drive whites out of Chicago and so keep investment from being made and businesses set up downtown. The tax base would fall. Daley wasn't against improving the lot of blacks if they voted the machine ticket and stayed where they were, neatly segregated.
But Dr. King's assassination on April 4th brought retribution of sorts that left Daley distraught. Rough hands were being laid on his personal possession, his city. While he hypocritically flaunted his love for the murdered man, all hell broke loose in the West Side ghetto. Miles of the city (mainly black homes) went up in flame. Snipers fired from rooftops and looters roamed the streets. The mayor, in what seemed like a confusional state, gave his infamous "shoot to kill" order. (Iraqis would hear it again from L. Paul Bremer on his first day in Baghdad.) This panic reaction, decried by US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, furnished the key to the violence that was to come later in April and at the end of August. Daley blamed the police for not being forceful enough.
Superintendent of Police Conlisk, who like every municipal appointee was under Daley's thumb, took the hint. After endless bureaucratic obstruction, six thousand antiwar protestors had obtained permission to walk on April 27th from Grant Park to the Civic Center (today, significantly, named the Daley Center). The marchers accepted absurd restrictions in good humor. They had to walk two by two along the sidewalk and wait for three changes of red to green at some traffic lights. The five hundred police in riot gear that accompanied them eventually managed to provoke an incident. In the presence of an impassive Conlisk, they launched an attack with nightsticks on an essentially well-behaved middle-class (white) crowd. When marchers escaped into restaurants they were dragged out and clubbed. Years afterward one of the policemen recalled: "Each one of us was told that we had to make an arrest. I couldn't believe it. There was nobody bad there." (Page 458, American Pharaoh, Cohen & Taylor.) The press largely ignored this vicious display that in retrospect seems like a run-through for the police furor that would convulse the Convention. The Chicago summer could be summed up in a question Nelson Algren once overheard from a policeman: "If the bastard ain't guilty, why is he bleedin'?"
Late in 1967, against considerable competition, Chicago was chosen as Convention site. The city had escaped rioting in the nation's beleaguered summer and Daley was seen as a law-and-order magician. What's more, President Johnson respected the fact that the mayor had an iron grip on over a hundred delegates. But everything had changed by spring. The near insurrection in Chicago caused by Dr. King's assassination all but snapped Daley's nerve. At the beginning of June, Robert Kennedy was gunned down in Los Angeles. President Johnson, intimidated by antiwar sentiment, announced he wouldn't run again. The MOBE (Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam) planned to come to the Convention in great numbers. The hippies were going to gather the clans. There were outlandish rumors that the Yippies (Youth International Party) were concocting lethal pranks.
Democratic bigwigs were now having second thoughts about meeting in Chicago. Some wanted to shift the Convention to Miami Beach where the Republicans were convening. Daley had been cheered when he urged that the Convention be held in a great neighborhood -- his -- of a throbbing industrial metropolis. But if the longhairs were going to drop LSD in the water supply, maybe there was something to be said for the "resort city" he belittled. Daley retorted, "By God you gave it to us and by God we're going to keep it!"
The cautious bookkeeper's reaction would be to overreact. He stamped out all doubts about his ability to keep order. His recipe would be overwhelming force. In fact he wasn't worried about the antiwar groups whom he considered mere word-spinners. He stonewalled Ramsey Clark, who advised him to sit down with them to plan their itinerary. His real fear was of a black uprising of the sort that had wracked the West Side. For weeks he had the police put so much pressure on black militants and youth gangs that by convention time they had mainly left town. They knew that at the first sign of trouble they would be slammed in jail. Ordinary blacks were indifferent to antiwar protest and completely ignored Convention week.
Len O'Connor in Clout, Mayor Daley and His City, estimated that only 2,000 protestors ever actively confronted the forces of order. The rest of the five thousand just gawked and milled about. Mike Royco enumerates the might the Mayor aligned against them:
By the time the convention began, the most massive security arrangements in the history of American politics had been completed: Chicago's twelve thousand policemen had been put on twelve-hour shifts; five thousand Illinois national guardsmen had been mobilized and had been standing by near the downtown area; six thousand specially trained army troops were flown in and were in combat readiness at the Glenview Naval Air Station, just north of the city; several hundred state and county lawmen were on call; and the largest number of secret service agents ever used at a political convention were in Chicago. Including the private security workers hired for the Amphitheatre, a defense force of at least twenty-five thousand was in Chicago. Daley had an army that was bigger than that commanded by George Washington. Never before had so many feared so much from so few. (Page 182, Boss, Richard J. Daley of Chicago.)
The August events would occur in three places. The Convention was held five miles from Lake Michigan in the Amphitheatre of the fabled Union Stock Yards, which were winding down, preparing to close in 1971. Daley had provided the road there with boarding that hid the wasteland behind. Wags called it the city's "redwood forest." The three-thousand-room Hilton hotel housed out-of-town conventioneers. It faced Grant Park, the city's lakeside agora. Lincoln Park also fronted the lake, two and a half miles north, out of the limelight.
The war in Vietnam hung over Chicago like a sagging tent. The Tet offensive had begun at the end of January. Conflict at the Amphitheatre opposed the pro and antiwar factions of the Democratic Party. For Daley the Vietnam War wasn't what mattered. His first thought went to the party -- the mystical body of which he was the head. What mattered was to win in November, crucially in Illinois but also nationally. Neither Eugene McCarthy nor George McGovern could bring that off. Daley calculated that Johnson might win, but that Humphrey, though also pro-war, was a loser. When Johnson refused to run again, Daley was flummoxed, and settled on Robert Kennedy who in fact was anti-war. When Robert was fatally shot, Daley turned to Edward Kennedy, also considered anti-war. But despite Daley's urging, the thirty-six-year-old Kennedy, a freshman senator and still in mourning, said no. Daley's instincts were in fact with the protestors on the lakefront whom he was having beaten and gassed. They chanted, "Dump the Hump." But the mayor, ever putting party interests first, finally with reluctance delivered 112 of Illinois' 118 votes to Johnson's vice president, Hubert Humphrey.
The days of histrionics at the Amphitheatre made for great comedy, slapstick for the most part. Daley's structure of control functioned pretty well. With a flick of his wrist he could have a speaker's microphone cut or produce a chorus of precinct captains shouting the unruly crowd down with a song whose refrain was "I love Daley." (David Halberstam called the Mayor's crowd "ruly.") The war protestors in the gallery thundered and the non-Chicagoans stood their ground. When Senator Ribicoff of Connecticut decried Daley's "Gestapo tactics," four City Hall loyalists rose threatening him. The Mayor himself, a former altar boy who still went to mass every morning, shouted, "Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch, you lousy mother fucker, go home."
Such purple-faced antics made for compelling network television, especially when punctuated with shots of police brutality on the lakefront. As a hypocritical peace came to the Amphitheatre and Daley was all smiles on the nation's screens, viewers could also see heads being broken in front of the Hilton. The Mayor seemed like a perverse puppet master busily gloating. Johnson called from the White House on his private line: "What in the Goddamn hell is going on out there!"
The long police rampage started in Lincoln Park. On Sunday the Festival of Life opened there. But at eleven p.m. the police set to driving out protestors camped for the night. The men in blue arrived like a panzer division, wildly clubbing and eventually using tear gas. The Convention opened Monday and the police struck again that night in Lincoln Park, still with badges and nameplates removed. The fact that Lincoln Park was far from the public eye hid what were veritable onslaughts with policemen shouting, "Kill, kill, kill" as they proceeded in phalanx across the lawn that Chicagoans favored for family picnics. But Daley's fury at the press undid him. The police had been told to single out reporters for beatings. (They wore white armbands.) Twenty ended up in hospital. Editors and publishers who had granted the mayor endless slack were forced by their staffs to speak out. Daley then went into "victim of the media" mode.
Studs Terkel, who had brought the British journalist James Cameron to the park, fled with him after a skirmish to the nearby Lincoln Hotel. (Cameron had seen the organized sadism of the police in the Paris student revolt in May and commented, "Here, it was mindless and thus more shocking.") Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Terry Southern, and Jean Genet were already sheltering in the hotel, looking for the bar. Terkel afterwards wrote:
Was it at this moment that the Weathermen were born? Hardly more than one year later come Days of Rage. Hardly more than one mile to the south of this [traffic] island cars are overturned. And "trashing" is added to our vocabulary. Officially, 1969 was the year of their birth. But weren't they conceived in 1968? And was Richard J. Daley their unnatural father? (Page 200, Talking to Myself.)
The situation was different at the Hilton, which was headquarters for out-of-town delegates. With a witness in every window of the twenty-five stories and TV cameras set up on the sidewalk, the protestors were right to chant, "The whole world is watching." There had been sporadic trouble in Grant Park since Sunday. It came to a climax on Wednesday afternoon. The police intervened to stop a rally from turning into a march. Daley called in the National Guard, which proceeded to fire tear gas directly into the faces of demonstrators. In the evening action shifted to the front of the Hilton. Again the National Guard was involved. Police clubbed anyone in sight and pushed bystanders through store windows. It would afterwards be called "The Battle of Michigan Avenue."
Violence was less dramatic on Thursday when two marches were turned back and only eighty people were arrested in contrast to hundreds previously. But at 4:00 a.m. Friday morning, on the pretext that objects had been thrown from the windows, the police entered the Hilton and went up to Eugene McCarthy's quarters on the 15th floor. They roused his staffers, beat them with nightsticks, and then attacked the occupants of rooms that didn't even face Michigan Avenue.
When the Convention ended the national press generally found fault with Daley. But the Chicago papers, including the staunchly Republican Tribune, defended him. So in the main did Chicagoans. Studs Terkel regretted that there had not been a word of blame from the University of Chicago with its cluster of Nobel Prize winners. For Mike Royco, "In attacking the young, the liberal and the black, Daley was in the mainstream of America's mass prejudices." (Page 194, op.cit.)
To no one's surprise, Daley came out quickly with a report on the disorders that exonerated him and his minions. But his The Strategy of Confrontation was annihilated by the inconfutable Walker Report, Rights in Conflict, which, after exhaustive research, concluded that a "police riot" caused most of the violence. Daley was unfazed when asked if he would do it all over again, "You're damn right I'd do the same thing, only with greater effort."
After an intermission, the second act of the brutal farce began in September 1969 on the stage of the US District Court in Chicago. The Marx Brothers made way for Lewis Carroll's Alice. US Attorney Thomas Foran, a Daley man, had ignored the Walker Report and brought eight antiwar demonstrators to trial. The charge of crossing state lines to foment disorder was legally shaky and had only come into federal law in April on the back of civil rights legislation. The indicted were Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, Yippie organizers; David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, and Tom Hayden, MOBE leaders; Lee Weiner and John Fraines, hardly more than bystanders; and Black Panther minister, Bobby Seale, who had been in town for only one day of convention week and hadn't done much more than tell the protestors in Lincoln Park to defend themselves with whatever means they had.
The show lasted four and a half months, marked at one point by the Weathermen's "Days of Rage" in the city's streets. Daley had an intelligence unit called the "Red Squad" that was probably more numerous than this self-styled "New Red Army," but Governor Ogilvie sent two thousand six hundred national guardsmen all the same.
Judge Julius Hoffman, a great character actor, played stubborn partiality like a virtuoso. He was seventy-four and only needed an ear trumpet to complete his impersonation of Scrooge. "I'm not running a school for civil rights," he announced before having Seale gagged and handcuffed to a courtroom chair. (He would sentence the Black Panther to four years in jail for contempt of court, reducing the eight defendants to seven. Talk of the "Chicago Ten" comes from the fact that the Judge would also charge the two defense lawyers.)
The New York defense counsel, William Kunstler, crowned the surrealism of his clients with the sarcasm of a Yiddish gagman. When Judge Hoffman read the charges to the jury, Kunstler asked for a mistrial and told him, "Your Honor sounded like Orson Welles reciting the Declaration of Independence." When Daley took the stand, instructed by some drama coach to play it steely cool, Kunstler asked him: "Did you say to Senator Abraham Ribicoff, 'Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch?'"
In the company of such acting talent, Thomas Foran, cast in the fighting district attorney's role, fell flat. No wonder he went on to do villains in very different scripts as a property acquisition lawyer that drove people from their homes in favor of construction firms.
Abbie Hoffman and the other defendants kept a good level of clowning going throughout. They blew kisses to the jury, dressed in judicial robes, leafed through comic books, decorated the courtroom with a Vietcong flag, and challenged Daley to a shootout, man to man.
In the end the jury found Dellinger, Hoffman, Rubin, Davis, and Hayden guilty of crossing state lines with the intent of inciting a riot. Each was given a five-year sentence and fined $5,000. But the appeals court would reverse all the convictions, including Seale's, as well as cancel the many years of prison sentences for contempt that Judge Hoffman had inflicted on everyone in sight as a parting shot.
So Daley had no vindication in court. Physically he came out of the whole episode listless and showing his sixty-seven years. But he was probably more upset by having the Republican Nixon in Washington than by the 1968-69 tumult in Chicago. Before long the Big Dumpling was on top again and the machine was as tight as ever. Chicago didn't want anyone else pulling the levers. Daley started his fifth term as mayor in April 1971. Mike Royco wrote:
Despite the angry bleatings from the nation's liberals, who had actually demanded and expected that he be destroyed, dethroned, punished by the Chicago voters, he was still there. They didn't know him and they didn't know Chicago. (Page 200-1, op.cit.)
Hadn't Nelson Algren said in the midst of the repression, "I don't think the clubbing represents one man. I think it represents a majority of the people of Chicago. If an election were held today, he'd win"?
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