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Watch the 1968 Democratic National Convention Descend Into Chaos
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    Watch the 1968 Democratic National Convention Descend Into Chaos

History Flashback takes a look at historical “found footage” of all kinds—newsreels, instructional films, even cartoons—to give us a glimpse into how much things have changed, and how much has remained the same.

The stage was set for conflict in the summer of 1968 as party members and protestors alike readied for the Democratic National Convention taking place in Chicago during the last week of August. It had been a tumultuous year, with the twin horrors of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Democratic presidential hopeful Robert Kennedy joined by the deepening cracks in the party as the thirteenth year of the Vietnam War dragged on.

When the big day finally arrived, no one was spared. Police brutally clashed with protestors in the streets of Chicago during a week of demonstrations that turned into riots attributed to both sides. Inside the convention hall, Democratic factions faced off in a struggle to choose the candidate who would run against Richard Nixon in the 1968 presidential election.

Even the journalists on site to report on the events were roped into the fight. Dan Rather, one of the contributors to this CBS News report, was punched in the stomach by security guards inside the convention center as he attempted to interview a Georgia delegation member who was being escorted out of the proceedings. The 1968 Democratic National Convention would live on long past the final words of Hubert Humphrey’s acceptance speech as one of the most infamous party meetings in U.S. history.

Protestors and Police Gear Up

The Democrats may have been in power at the time, with LBJ in the White House, but their base was roiled in turmoil caused by the Vietnam War. To protest the Democratic Party’s continued support of the conflict that was gobbling up America’s youth, a coalition of the Youth International Party (known as “yippies”) and the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE) planned to protest the convention proceedings.

They tried to do things by the book. The organizers applied for permits to set up camp in Lincoln Park and stage demonstrations at the International Amphitheatre (where the convention was being held), Soldier Field and Grant Park.

But Mayor Daley was having none of it. He wanted to prevent any shenanigans that would paint his city and his administration in a poor light, so he ruthlessly readied for the onslaught of visitors, both welcome and unwelcome. First, the city only granted one of the requested permits—that for demonstrations at Grant Park. Then, Daley assembled a force of nearly 12,000 police officers, 6,000 National Guardsmen (with 5,000 ready to mobilize at a moment’s notice), 1,000 FBI officers and 6,000 army troops.

As the weekend proceeding the convention rolled around, protestors began showing up in Chicago and pitching their tents, lack of permit be damned, in Lincoln Park.

It’s Showtime in Chicago

With the stage set for disaster, Mayor Daley issued the order that would instigate the first of many confrontations. At 11 p.m. on Sunday, August 25, the day before the DNC began, Daley ordered his police force to clear Lincoln Park. The police showed up in riot gear, wielding tear gas and clubs.

This pattern of violence was repeated over the next few days as protestors continued to demonstrate throughout the city. In one action, they staged the nomination of a pig named “Pigasus the Immortal.” The pig in question was arrested along with several of the protest leaders during its first press conference. Protestors gathered in the streets, in Grant Park, and in front of the Conrad Hilton Hotel (where many DNC delegates were staying). Everywhere they went—even in Grant Park where they had a permit to be—the protestors were met with indiscriminate violence from the security forces Daley had assembled.

“The cops are moving and they are really belting these characters. They’re grabbing them, sticks are flailing,” Fred Turner, a CBS engineer who watched the confrontation from the Hilton, reported live. “People are laying on the ground. I can see them, colored people. Cops are just belting them; cops are just laying it in. There’s piles of bodies on the street. There’s no question about it. You can hear the screams, and there’s a guy they’re just dragging along the street and they don’t care. I don’t think … I don’t know if he’s alive or dead. Holy Jesus, look at him. Five of them are belting him, really, oh, this man will never get up.”

Meanwhile, at the Convention…

Things weren’t much better inside the International Amphitheatre, where a deeply divided Democratic Party had gathered to choose their next presidential candidate. The leading contenders were Eugene McCarthy, who was against the Vietnam War, and Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who supported President Johnson’s pro-war policies. After three days of debates that often devolved into late-night screaming matches, Humphrey was chosen as the nominee.

“I say to America. Put aside recrimination and dissension. Turn away from violence and hatred. Believe—believe in what America can do, and believe in what America can be,” Vice President Humphrey said in his acceptance speech, trying to bridge the deep party divide.

But the choice had infuriated the anti-war faction of the left, and many of Humphrey’s fellow party members weren’t ready to join hands and sing “Kumbaya.” By then, the delegates had gotten wind of what was going on in the city, and one even went so far as to call out the police for their “Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago.” As Humphrey took the stage to give his speech and end the convention, several Democrats joined protestors in a candlelight vigil outside.

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