by Dafydd Townley
It’s Convention season! This is the time of year when national delegates get together at their respective party’s convention to officially nominate their candidate for the US Presidential election. First up is the Republican Party National Convention in Cleveland where Donald Trump will be nominated as a contentious candidate. The Ohio city has spent $50 million according to sources on security, mindful of the violence that has followed rallies supporting Donald Trump. The preparations have increased significantly following the deaths caused by policeman in Louisiana and Minnesota, and the sniper attack on policemen in Dallas. Usually the Conventions are incidents that are full of energy and celebration as delegates pledge their support for the Party’s candidate. But concerns have increased significantly that the Republican Convention could turn violent. It would have to go a long way to rival the aggression and protests that took place at the most violent convention in living memory – the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
The 1968 Democratic Convention is famous for the battle of Michigan Avenue, when Chicago city police and Illinois National Guardsmen clashed with protestors. The scenes at the Convention were yet another indication of the violent nationwide schism that had manifested itself during the 1960s over the US involvement in the Vietnam War. The anti-war groups had lost their apparent leaders in Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Both men were assassinated in the months leading up to the Convention, and the peace movement had lost its rudder. By the time of the Convention the New Left and the political Left favoured peace candidate Eugene McCarthy. The incumbent President, Lyndon Johnson, had decided not to stand for re-election as the support of his party and the public turned against him. Instead, the establishment looked to Vice President Hubert Humphrey to be their candidate. By the time of the Convention neither candidate had a majority of delegates, which led to frantic behind the scenes dealing by Lyndon Johnson the Mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley.
When the Convention opened on August 26, 1968, the protestors had been in the city for several days and had already clashed with the heavy-handed city police. Daley had bragged that Chicago was ‘The City That Works’ and was adamant that no protests were going to ruin the Convention. However the fragmentation of the Democratic Party was unravelling before the nation. Over the four days of the Convention the supporters of Humphrey, McCarthy and Senator George McGovern of Dakota worked against each other to secure the nomination. In truth, there was little to challenge Humphrey who was Johnson’s preferred candidate, but the party was split on the issue of the future role of the US in the Vietnam War. But if it was organised chaos inside the Convention hall at the International Amphitheatre, it was pandemonium outside on the streets of municipal Chicago.
The protestors consisted mostly of the Yippies, the Youth International Party, and MOBE, National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. The Yippies, radical left wing students, had already held their own convention and voted a real pig, Pigasus, as their candidate. When he was paraded in the city centre, Pigasus and several Yippies were arrested by the police. This had set the tone for the relationship between the police and the protestors throughout the convention. The police, aided by helicopters with searchlights and loudspeakers, drove out approximately 3000 protestors from Lincoln Park on the night of August 27, injuring about 60 and arresting 140. Meanwhile close to the Conrad Hotel in Grant Park, protestors displeased with prospect of a continuance of the war shouted ‘Dump the Hump!’ As they marched towards the Convention they found that the hotel had been surrounded by National Guardsmen, armed with bayonets. Urged by Democrats to not engage the troops, the students dispersed peacefully.
The following day was a different matter. 15000 protestors convened for a MOBE event in Grant Park and were charged by police when a protestor lowered the American flag. The rally continued after police left and the protestors marched again towards the Conrad Hotel and the Convention. This time the Chicago police were there to meet them. As the marchers chanted ‘The whole world is watching!’ the police fired tear gas into the crowd and charged, swinging their billy-clubs with alarming precision. The brutal and horrific police violence was broadcast all over the world indicating a total breakdown in law and order. Over 175 were arrested and more than 100 were injured. The tear gas was so dense that it wafted inside the hotel reaching the thirteenth floor apartment of Humphrey. Near midnight, amid the delegates’ condemnation of the police brutality outside, Humphrey was elected as the Democratic candidate. Unfortunately for the Democratic Party in the forthcoming election it was associated with the violence and chaos of the Chicago convention. In a decade where there had been social upheaval, assassinations and street protests, the Democrats failed to portray itself as a party of law and order. As a consequence Republican candidate and former Vice President Richard Nixon, who had promised to end the war in Vietnam, won the law and order debate that surrounded the 1968 presidential election.