The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What happened in Chicago in 1968, and why is everyone talking about it now?

Police lead a demonstrator from Grant Park during demonstrations that disrupted the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August 1968. (AP)
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As the Republican National Convention began in Cleveland on Monday, against the backdrop of a particular turbulent summer, everyone seemed to be holding their breath — and echoing the same refrain: Please, don’t let this be like Chicago ’68.

In case you need a quick refresher: The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago was an infamous, violent, unprecedented disaster.

[In jittery Cleveland, security tight as protests and cops-on-bikes get rolling]

As the Democrats gathered in Chicago that summer, their party and the nation were in turmoil. President Lyndon B. Johnson had announced that he wouldn’t seek reelection, and an obvious alternative hadn’t yet emerged to lead his party. The country was reeling from the assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in April and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy on the June night he won the California presidential primary. Major cities were rocked by riots, college campuses were gripped by peace protests, and the Vietnam War was raging toward its peak.

All of this came to a head in Chicago. Haynes Johnson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who was covering the convention, wrote in a 2013 Smithsonian Magazine story that the convention was “a lacerating event, a distillation of a year of heartbreak, assassinations, riots and a breakdown in law and order that made it seem as if the country were coming apart.”

(Sound familiar?)

But the scene in Chicago was particularly apocalyptic. As the convention prepared to launch, thousands of antiwar protesters flocked to the Windy City, where thousands of authorities — Chicago police, Army soldiers, National Guardsmen and Secret Service — were braced and waiting.

The two sides clashed with mounting violence, culminating in the so-called Battle of Michigan Avenue on Aug. 28. As the protesters marched toward the convention site, the police set out to stop them, wielding tear gas, rifles and clubs. Onlookers and innocent bystanders — including reporters covering the scene and doctors attempting to offer medical help — were brutally beaten by the police, according to archival news accounts.

When the Democratic National Convention returned to Chicago in 1996, Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory wrote about her recollections of 1968 — and the moment when she stepped outside her hotel and saw what was unfolding in the streets:

A young man was spread-eagled across the hood of a car while four policemen beat him with their billy-clubs. What made the scene most hair-raising was that the presence of the press — our credentials were plain to see — had not the slightest deterrent effect. The cops wanted us to see them beating an unarmed and defenseless man and felt no need to explain themselves. They were making a statement. In Chicago, in 1968, it was a crime to be young. The streets literally ran with blood. The police pushed a crowd of Democrats through the plate-glass windows of the Hilton Bar.

By night and by day in Grant Park, the police hammered the demonstrators, who had no weapons but their tongues. An emergency hospital was established in Eugene McCarthy’s suite. The candidate and the poet Robert Lowell visited the patients. Tear gas was everywhere. There was violence in the convention hall as well. Dozens of delegates were arrested, apparently for dissenting from the pro-war platform.

The chaotic and gruesome scene, which was broadcast to viewers across the nation, left a lasting impact, Haynes Johnson later said.

“In its psychic impact, and its long-term political consequences, it eclipsed any other such convention in American history, destroying faith in politicians, in the political system, in the country and in its institutions. No one who was there, or who watched it on television, could escape the memory of what took place before their eyes,” he wrote. “I can still recall the choking feeling from the tear gas hurled by police amid throngs of protesters gathering in parks and hotel lobbies.”

In a 1996 interview with The Post, veteran “60 Minutes” correspondent Mike Wallace, who covered the convention for CBS, described the moment he was punched in the face by a police officer. Wallace said he had followed authorities as they removed an antiwar delegate, Alex Rosenberg, from the convention floor.

“I went and followed him out of the convention hall, and I kept asking, What’s going on?’ and ‘Why is he being taken off? What’s his offense?’ and that kind of thing,” Wallace recalled. “And they were telling me in effect to mind my own business, and I suggested it was a public convention being held in a public facility, and they were quite angry. And so I, like a damn fool, I took my thumb and forefinger and pinched the cheek of the officer and said, ‘Why are you getting so upset?’ This was happening off the floor, and when I did that he slugged me hard in the jaw. And immediately his two colleagues said to me, ‘You are under arrest.'”

The incident, Wallace said, was “a microcosm of the entire convention.”

By the time the week ended, the Chicago police had reported nearly 600 arrests, and 119 police and 100 protesters had suffered injuries, according to a CNN report.

Frank Mankiewicz, who had served as campaign press secretary to Sen. Kennedy, told The Post in 1996 what it was like to finally leave Chicago.

“I was on this packed plane with a lot of delegates headed back to Washington,” he said. “It was quiet. As the plane got airborne we all applauded, and we were all enormously relieved that it was over, and we were all incredibly unhappy.”