This week marks the 50th anniversary of the demonstrations in Chicago that shocked America. Thousands of students came to the city to protest the Vietnam War; some of them aimed to disrupt the Democratic National Convention. Mayor Richard J. Daley was just as determined to show the protestors that nobody was going to question his ability to maintain law and order.
I had a front row seat to the confrontation. My high school football team held its pre-season practices in Lincoln Park. This was the first encampment of the “Yuppies” who came to the city to change American policy in Vietnam. As we put on our equipment in the locker room, our coach, Mark Williams, a former professional football player, told us, “Gentlemen, put on your helmets and buckle your chinstraps. We are going through this rabble.” We ran from our school past a line of police brandishing batons and the protestors, who yelled, “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, Ho Chi Minh is going to win... LBJ, LBJ, how many kids have you killed today.” As we practiced our plays, the odor of tear gas hung over the field.
The police would periodically wade into the crowd with billy clubs, dragging protestors by the hair into vans. It was a confrontation of youth versus middle age. It was also class warfare, with working class police against a more affluent group of college students. My teammates largely came from privileged backgrounds, but a few were the sons of policemen, on scholarships at Latin School. We were a speck of thirty kids in a sea of violence trying to pretend that all was well.
On the third night of the convention, I watched on television with millions of other Americans as the action moved downtown to Grant Park. The demonstrators attempted to storm the Conrad Hilton Hotel where the candidates were staying. The Chicago police initially stood their ground, then attacked the protestors. Among the demonstrators was Chicago Sun Times managing editor James Hoge, trying to do first person reporting. He was taken by the neck and thrown through the plate glass window of the hotel. As he rolled over, he flashed his press card, narrowly averting a head-smashing blow from a police baton. All of this I heard from Hoge in 1968, then confirmed the story when I saw him this summer.
A year later, I was off to prep school. I came back for Christmas break and was given the opportunity to sit in the courtroom of Judge Julius Hoffman who had been tasked with overseeing the trial of the Chicago 8, the organizers of the protest, including Black Panther Bobby Seale, Yippies Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Seale refused to be quiet during the proceedings so the judge had a piece of masking tape placed over his mouth. From my one day in court, it became clear that a confrontation in Chicago had been inevitable, that the protestors wanted to provoke and the police department leaders had lost control of their men. Later in the trial, New York Times correspondent Anthony Lukas wrote a satiric article about Judge Hoffman’s society lady friends who regularly attended the proceedings; one of them was my mother.
America has not felt so divided since the troubled days of the late 60s, when the War, race, class and age collided on the streets of my city. It took fifteen years to recover our national self-confidence with President Ronald Reagan declaring that it was Morning in America. We should not need a violent event to come together as a country.
Richard Edelman is president and CEO.