August 28, 1968; prime television time.
Three wagons, hauled by mules, carrying blacks in work clothes, make their way down Michigan Avenue. Mayor Richard ("shoot to kil . . . shoot to maim . . .") Daley, who has all week adamantly refused permits for marches to any white groups, has thought it prudent, considering the powder keg of the South Side, to give a permit to Reverend Abernathy and the Poor People's Campaign for an inoffensive little procession to the Democratic Convention of three rickety farm wagons.
It now chances, however, that a permitless mass meeting in Grant park under the Mobe's auspices, of several thousand white protesters, having been contained in the park, as if besieged, by city policemen with Plexiglass face shields lobbing tear-gas canisters, has finally erupted from the park over an unguarded bridge and, marching impromptu down Michigan Avenue, drawing side-walk onlookers along ("Join us! Join us!"), comes up behind the mules. Just short of the crossing of Balbo Avenue. There police halt everyone. . .
And so we have come to the showdown of the year. All the forces, all the pairings, all the frustrations, all the year's stains of blood, all the dark turns of the public's id pueblo , Tet, My Lai, Johnson's withdrawal, King's death, Columbia, Hair, Kennedy's death, the money grab, the rape of the Earth, Nixon's nomination, the theme of the bully and the victim in the grub and the moth, and above all the never- ending guilt of Vietnam-all are here in symbolic representation. What is more, the Big Eye is also here-national network television cameras.
For almost a year the New Left has been planning this moment. The idea has been to assemble 100,000 young people in Chicago, at the time of Johson's-then it would turn out to be Humphrey's-hour of triumph, and by confrontation cause such a paroxysm of police brutality at the very gates of the International Amphitheater as to alert the whole country to the idea of Vietnam-like oppression right here at home. They have only a tenth of the turnout they had wanted, and Daley is not about to let them approach the convention hall. But such as they are, here they are, at Michigan and Balbo.
Perhaps more threatening to all the Daleys of America's heartland than the serious Mobe has been the siren call of one fluttering wing of the protest: The Yippies have called for a Festival of Life-as opposed, they say, to Lyndon's and Hubert's celebration of death in the convention. Abbie Holfman has said, "Our conception of revolution is that it's fun," and hairy youths and ankle-bell damsels have been invited to come to Chicago to take part in a free rock festival, a Constitutional Convention for the New Society, workshops in draft resistance and drug use, flycasting exhibitions, "and probably a march across town to haunt the Democrats." The country's oldest underground paper, The Realist , has threatened to put LSD in Chicago's water supply and turn the whole city on. Ed Sanders of the Fugs has promised "joy, nooky, circle groups, laughing, dancing, sharing, grass, magic, meditation, music, theater, and weirdo mutant-jissomed chromosome-damaged ape chortles. . ."
Richard Daley, the sworn enemy, even if sometimes the utterer, of ape sounds, has countermobilized 12,000 city police on 12-hour shifts, has topped the cyclone fence of the Amphitheater with barbed wire a 2,000-man force; and has on call a backup of 6,000 National Guard and 6,000 regular Army troops who have been airlifted to Chicago, complete with rifles, bazookas, flamethrowers. Daley will not outflank; he prefers to join the dance and clobber.
The Amphitheater is hard by the stockyard slaughter-houses, and Norman Mailer will tauningly point out the aptness of this Chicago setting: "In any other city they would have technologies to silence the beasts with needles, quarter them with Muzak, and have stainless steel for doors, aluminum beds to take over the old overhead trolley-animals would be given a shot of vitamin-enrichment before they took the last ride. But in Chicago, they did it straight, they cut the animals right out of their hearts-which is why it was the last of the great American cities, and people had great faces, carnal as blood, greedy, direct, too impatient for hyprocrisy, in love with honest pluner. . .Yes, Chicago was a town were nobody ever forgot how the money was made. It was picked up from floors still slippery with blood."
So far this week, quick forks of farce have flickered in the thunderheads. The Yippies have nominated a pig for President of the United States, Pigasus by name. A cop has spanked Hugh Hefner of Playboy . An undercover police agent has become a trusted aide of Yippie leader Jerry Rubin before arresting him. As a final touch of the bourgeoisie embracing the counterculture, Esquire has sent to the scene, as intrepid war correspondents, author of Nakek Lunch and cult hero of the druggies, and Jean Genet, the French writer who has made high art of prison buggery. Allen Ginsburg has calmed the butterflies in Lincoln Park by chanting OM. . . But there have also been clashes, tear gas, taunts, brickbats, Mace, fast rushes, and nightsickery; the wiring in the cops' central nervous systems has begun to fizz and crackle.
So here we are on the payoff streetcorner, Michigan and Balbo, right under the windows of the Conrad Hilton Hotel, which houses the candidates' headquarters, and in the direct gaze of the Big Eye that Roves in the Night. The police hold up the procession long enough to block all street exits. They let the mule wagons of the Poor people's March cross Balbo, to get them out of danger.
Then, with an abandon that is to stop the nation's heart, they attack . . .
Inside the hall the inevitable of videotape.Dissidence was in disarray: the grieving supporters of Robert Kennedy and the high-minded cohorts of Eugene McCarthy could feel that the clutch wasn't grabbing at all. There was one high moment, when the slock of the fury on Michigan Avenue had been felt even in the Amphitheater, as Senator Abraham Ribicoff, nominating George McGovern in solemn, droning cadences, suddenly said, "And with George McGovern as President of the United States we wouldn't have those Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago. . .Daley was on his feet at once, shaking his fist, and the nation, which wasn't very good at it, practised up on lip-reading: each saw epithets to his own taste on the working rims of Daley's purple mouth-epithets of political forecast, anti-Semitism, sexual malpractice.
Hubert Humphrey, that decent, decent man, done in long habits of The Senate Club-loyalty, Obedience, friendship, trading a dollar for half a dollar if the Party commanded-and driven moon-draft by a lust far more potent than that of the loins, had compromised himself so that he was bound to be nominated. So pathetic was the eagerness of this Hubert that he would impulsively throw his arms around the shoulders of Lester Maddox, a Neanderthal racist armed with an axe handle, to harvest a sheaf of Southern votes. his code of the Good Soldier had taken him right down the Johnson line on Vietnam: this was to lose him the office. And in the scramble for delegates at the Convention itself, he had given everything he had away, as someone said, except Muriel.
And so he ran away with it on the first ballot, 176 3/4 to McCarthy's 601 and McGovern's 146 1/2. He went back to the Hilton. When Lyndon called, he said, "Bless your heart." And when he saw his wife's face on the television screen, he rushed across the room and kissed the glass cheek.
Here was an imaged for '68, to stand alongside that of the President on the john: the winner kisse the tube. The deepest and most humbling lesson we had to learn in 1968 was that television had become the real power in our national life, more influential by far than statesmen or armies - or poets. Who could summon more credence - Lyndon Johnson or Walter Cronkite?
The nation watched the wild rage of the police on television and felt the psyche crawl beneath the skin. Nothing we saw in the Battle of Michigan Avenue was as bad as Tet, or My Lai, or the assassinations, or much else in that year of pain. Yet it was this scene that proved to be the pivot of the era of the Sixties. After it, there was shore-to-shore moral exhaustion, fragmentation of fragments, and a time in which there seemed to be nothing left at all to feel.
As many as 15,000 die in an earthquake at Khurasan in Iran. What does such a number mean, and where the hell is Khurasan? . . . Denny McLain is the first pitcher to win 31 games since '31 . . . U.S. officials in Saigon announce that defoliation has produced "no harmful results." . . . Sixty Minutes has its debut. . . . "Hey Jude" is the most popular song . . . Abe Fortas, bombarded with charges of cronyism, withdraws from consideration for Chief Justice. . . . Three astronauts, orbiting the earth in practice for a ring around the moon, mark a first in space history - they all catch cold up there. . . . Decoders of DNA win the Nobel Prize; on to "genetic engineering"! . . .