[Marxism] Chicago 1968, a different kind of convention
Brian_Shannon at verizon.net
Sun Jul 25 17:36:13 MDT 2004
Golden: Chicago 1968, a different kind of convention
By Peter Golden
Sunday, July 25, 2004
Not too long ago on the way home from a pleasant dinner, a friend and I
reminisced about our lives, of paths taken and decisions made for
better or for worse. The talk turned to the 1960s and I shared some
recollections about stories I had covered as a young journalist when
just out of college. Among them was the 1968 Democratic National
Convention in Chicago.
More than three decades have past now since that violent year, yet
on a warm spring night, after a pleasant dinner, I could hear my voice
rising and feel my heart beating quicker. Something I had put out of
mind for a long, long time was reappearing at the edge of my
. . .
The concert stage [at Grant Park] stood in front of an elongated
cinderblock dressing room, with a small flagpole set off to one side.
What with maybe fifteen hundred kids sprawled on the grass, the scene
was not unlike one might expect at a summer day camp or small-town
college, but not quite.
Phil Ochs, a well-know protest singer was on the stage, and when
he finished his set he was warmly applauded. Relaxed and laid back
would describe the atmosphere, despite the hordes of police surrounding
what by any estimation was a crowd of teenagers and even children,
among them many young women with flower-laced hair. It was surreal.
What happened next went so fast, and yet was so drawn out it had
the feel of one of those slow-motion segments in a stylishly shot
movie. A young black man arose from out of the crowd and whether on his
own volition or at the urging of someone else began to lower the
American flag, which was flying from the pole near the dressing rooms.
I do not know his intentions, but in an instant a commotion ensued
as what must have been a small group of plainclothes policemen
interceded and tried to stop him from completing the task. There was
some brief shouting, and then all hell broke loose.
In 1968 I was in the Socialist Workers Party. My companion and I had
begun taking photographs in Berkeley in 1966. We were asked to come to
NYC to work on the SWP presidential campaign (Halstead and Boutelle).
Since we were both on staff, we were both available as photographers,
but most of it fell on me since I was working directly on the campaign
while she helped get our newspaper (The Militant) out.
We did not actively support the counter demonstrations at the 1968
convention, but our national staff went, knowing that there would be a
few thousand drawn to the action. And we also wanted to cover it for
the campaign and our paper.
I always wondered whether the person who took the flag down was a
police provocateur. We may never know. I am however sure that there was
a provocateur within our own ranks. A very militant young black man had
joined the Chicago branch of the SWP shortly before the convention. I
recall that after the police attack at Lincoln Park, he urged us to get
involved in the action and join those confronting the police. He was
given a very firm reply by Paul Boutelle, the SWP candidate for
vice-president, who I believe intuitively knew that the new recruit was
Yet even our members questioned why I, at least, wasn't there getting
pictures for The Militant. They didn't understand that I would not be
useful in jail and that my two cameras and four lenses had to be
protected--along with me!
However, I got plenty of pictures, after all.
I was also at Grant Park, I came a little late and was actually behind
the line of cops. However, my impression was that there were no more
than 200 there. There seemed to be a squad of cops in the lead who,
when the flag came down, began the assault. There was some resistance,
not so much fighting back as self-protection. I saw and heard one of
the few Black cops call out for help. I remember at the time thinking
that his cry for help seemed opportunistic, as if to say, "I'm with you
even though I'm Black."
Because I came in behind the police, I got some very good pictures
showing them beating the demonstrators. Once I got a few I pulled back,
knowing that I had what we needed. I gave my roll to one of my comrades
to take back to our headquarters and then continued with the crowd.
Other photo opportunities opened up that evening.
What was the impact of Chicago? Mixed I believe. Despite the negative
views of many, I think the action of the Chicago police was a
revelation to many who had not considered the idea that police in the
"North" might behave not very differently from police in Birmingham. At
a truck stop on the way back, I overheard some truckers talking about
what had happened. Rather than commenting negatively on the
demonstrators, they were comparing notes on the Chicago police and how
they were regularly pulled over when entering the city and had to fork
over $10 or more (possibly equal to $30 or more today) to avoid being
cited for some minor violation.
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.
from Brian Shannon
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