GQ: The Mess We Made

Compiled by David Gargill

In August 1968, a party divided over race and political tactics and a hugely unpopular war (sound familiar?) erupted in rage at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

GQ interviewed more than seventy five people who were there in '68, from former presidential candidates to activists of all stripes to retired Chicago cops, and asked them to re-create what took place over the days of August 22 to 30. Among the participants are: Dan Rather, then a floor reporter for CBS News; John Berendt, who long before he went on to write Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil worked as an associate editor for Esquire and was charged with making sure the magazine's reporters (William S. Burroughs, Terry Southern, and Jean Genet) didn't get lost among the chaos in Chicago; Donald Rumsfeld, then a young congressman from Illinois who was there as part of a Republican "listening post" organized by Pat Buchanan, who also takes part in the oral history. The list also includes George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Gore Vidal, Harold Ickes, Julian Bond, Tom Hayden, Dick Gregory, and Shirley MacLaine, among many others.

This excerpted highlight describes the events of the third day of the convention, Wednesday, August 28, when the violence in Chicago reached a climax, in what is now referred to as the Battle of Michigan Avenue. The excerpt begins in the early morning of the 28th, as protesters gather outside the Conrad Hilton, where convention delegates are staying. It continues throughout the next 24 hours, taking in the events at the convention hall, where the peace plank (a commitment to pulling troops out of Vietnam that divided the party) is defeated, and then the violence that explodes in the city as police and National Guard troops clash with protesters on the streets.

Wednesday, August 28, 1968

1:00 a.m. Police and National Guard set up perimeter around Conrad Hilton.

George Hitzman (National Guardsman): When we were called up, the hippies were really going wild. We pulled up our transports in the park across from the Hilton. Oh, they were really giving us a good mouth job, all kinds of insults. They were calling us the baby killers and all that. They would come walking down the line and stick little daisies in the ri?es. Once we got into formation, though, all of a sudden they weren't so brave. Then we shut them up.

3:30 a.m. An army vet in crowd at Grant Park grabs microphone and asks delegates in their hotel to blink their lights in support of the protesters outside.

Peter Yarrow (folksinger, Peter, Paul and Mary): I put on my three-piece suit and went into the convention hall and started buttonholing people. I went to Birch Bayh, who I had worked with before, and I said to him, "You can't expect me to support you from here on out unless you support this peace plank." And from the look on his face, I knew my ability to use Peter, Paul and Mary's history of campaigning was going to be very minimal. I went back to the Hilton that night feeling very discouraged. I went up to my room, which overlooked Grant Park, and I heard someone down below saying into a microphone, "Delegates, if you are with us, flash your lights!" So I went over and started flipping the light switch up and down, and then I heard a huge cheer come up from the crowd. I realized that the wall of this hotel looked like a Christmas tree.

So I went downstairs with my guitar in hand, and at that exact same moment, Mary [Travers] made the same decision. We went down together, and in front of the hotel were two lines—the Chicago police and the National Guard, their guns in a ready position.

Someone thrust these two microphones in front of us, and Mary looked at me, and I said, "Sing, Mary!" So we started singing "If I Had a Hammer," and then they said, "Sing 'Puff, the Magic Dragon.'" Underneath a helmet was a 19-year-old kid who had grown up on "Puff, the Magic Dragon." It was absurdity.

12:02 p.m. Session reconvenes. Mahalia Jackson sings national anthem, then "Ain't Gonna Study War No More," and receives loudest applause of convention to date.

Marty Oberman (Staffer for McGovern Campaign): A lot of us young people really believed in this. We were there to stop the war, and it failed. And sort of spontaneously on the convention floor, delegates started forming a huge circle. I mean, across the whole convention floor was a circle. Many, many delegates, and I remember getting in the circle, all of us holding on to our neighbor, and we started singing "We Shall Overcome" and swaying. I think this went on for an hour. After the vote was taken, we just took over the floor and, in defeat, stood there and sang this protest song. And it wasn't just young people. There were lots of older people, establishment people, who were really upset. To me, it was probably the most moving moment of the convention.

George McGovern: It's just a tragedy that it wasn't adopted. I think if we had passed that peace plank, Hubert Humphrey would have been elected president.

5:40 p.m. McGovern announces he can't support majority Vietnam plank and therefore can't run as vice presidential candidate with Humphrey.

6:05 p.m. Police use tear gas to halt attempt of protesters to march from Grant Park toward the amphitheater. Gas drifts into rooms at Hilton, where Humphrey is reportedly affected.

Donald Rumsfeld (Congressman, Illinois): Governor John Love of Colorado and I went down into Grant Park. No one knew who we were, and we just moved around and tried to get a sense of what people were saying and thinking. When the violence started, we went back to our hotel room and stayed out of it. When you're in a hotel, and the hotel ?lls with gas, and there's that smell, that odor, and there are police around -- it creates an unpleasant environment.

Pat Buchanan (Aide to Richard Nixon): I was coming back to my hotel, because there was tear gas all over the place. The hotels along Michigan Avenue were all sealing their doors. You couldn't get out.

Tom Hayden (Activist, National Mobilization Committee to End the War): We were in the park, and a young man named Angus MacKenzie climbed a flagpole, intent on bringing the American flag down halfway and turning it upside down, which of course is an international symbol of distress. Well, this aroused the police, who were all lined up on the Michigan Avenue side of the park, and they charged into the crowd. It was madness.

I urged people to head back toward the Hilton by any means. If there was gonna be blood or gas, let it be all over the city. So people started up the long, narrow park along Lake Michigan. There are small bridges along the way that get you to the Grant Park area adjacent to the hotel, but all these bridges were occupied by troops with bayonets. And there were submachine guns mounted on tripods pointed at the protesters as we went from bridge to bridge.

Finally, though, like the Red Sea parting, we came upon a bridge that was open. And there was this cheering, and this large crowd of people rushed across the bridge as if they had been liberated, and they arrived on Michigan Avenue. We simply had to turn left and march towards the Hilton, which was a mile or a mile and a half away.

Before he was murdered, Martin Luther King had agreed to send people from his proposed Poor People's March to march with us against the war. And suddenly here they were, too, this mule train from the South, with sharecroppers in blue Levi's shirts, overalls, and horses -- clop, clop, clop -- joining us and marching forward. It was kind of a joyous, delirious half an hour. There were no police in front of us. But as we arrived at Michigan and Balbo, with the Hilton on the right and the park on the left, suddenly the line was blocked.

James P. Turner (Civil Rights Division, Department of Justice): I was there to investigate police abuse. The idea was that the attorney general needed a lawyer's eye on the ground, because everyone else had an ax to grind. So I went down there to look around. The police had cleared out Grant Park, on the east side of Michigan Avenue, so that gave you just kind of a dead end where the marchers and the demonstrators and the mules and the wagons and everybody just kept pounding in. Didn't just stop; they just kept packing tighter and tighter. It was pretty solid humanity.

Rumsfeld: The police had the diffculty of trying to determine what their response should be. They responded against people who were instigators and also noninstigators, and I suspect the latter was much larger than the former. All I know is, when things are that hostile, there's no way any one individual can tell you what took place and whose fault it was.

Hayden: At the sight of the police, people expected to be beaten and gassed again. And so they just sat down. They sat down in the street and on the sidewalk at the corner of Michigan and Balbo. The street was completely occupied by police vans and police cars and police o8cers and I'm not sure what other military forces. And there were lights from media cameras, I guess. People sat down. And then somebody invented the chant "The whole world is watching."

Turner: The protesters were singing songs -- "This Land Is Your Land" -- and they had cheers -- "The whole world is watching" -- and everybody was pretty rowdy but behaving all right. At some point, a platoon of police offcers came east on Balbo Street, and they just marched right into the crowd, knocking people around. Of course, the crowd then backed off, away from the cops, but if you push one side of a balloon the other side goes out. And so over on the Grant Park side, they began pushing into the cops, and the cops over there thought they were being assaulted by the crowd, so they start in. And first thing you know, it just. . . Everything hit the fan.

Buchanan: I was in my room, and who walks in but Norman Mailer. José Torres, the boxer, was with him. We watched from the nineteenth ?oor. Mailer and I were hanging out the window with Torres. We were up there drinking. It was late afternoon, as I recall, spilling into evening. The cops were marching down there like a military unit, and then all of a sudden they took off after these demonstrators. From nineteen floors up, they all looked very tiny. Torres was cursing out the cops, and I was rooting for the cops -- though I didn't say anything out loud. José Torres is a pretty tough guy. It was just a big battle, and what I thought at that point was that the Democratic Party was a horribly divided institution. And I knew that the American people's perception of the Democratic Party as a party in chaos would be of enormous bene?t to Richard Nixon. And there's no doubt it was.

Hayden: I found myself in a crowd of people against the glass window of the Haymarket Lounge at the hotel on the corner. The police walked into us, spraying Mace on everyone and clubbing people. I remember somebody shouting that a woman was having a heart attack. This was a big mass of humanity being crushed. And as the mass fell backwards, my back was to the window, and I could hear this glass breaking. And all of a sudden the whole window collapsed, and everybody fell into the bar, where delegates were sitting there drinking and talking as if this was routine for a political convention. The police came charging in after us, and there were people all over the place, bleeding, cut. They were just arresting anybody who looked like they didn't belong in the hotel. I don't know what happened, but I walked out. I don't even know where I went.

Buchanan: After the battle on Michigan, I was wakened by Nixon's call. He said, "What's going on?" So I said, "You want to know what's going on, sir?" And I held the phone to the window, where nineteen floors below they were yelling, "F--- you, Daley! F--- you, Daley!"

Turner: The signature shot of the whole convention was these four cops, each with an arm or a leg of this demonstrator, dragging him to a paddy wagon, while a fifth cop walked alongside. The fifth cop kept whacking the victim with his stick the whole way over, every step. I followed him around, and I wrote down his name off of his nametag, and I have the name of the meanest cop in Chicago. But I never could put together a case, because I couldn't find the victim. I just saved his name for Judgment Day. He's got one coming.