Volume 74, Number 17 | August 25 - 31 , 2004

Talking Point

Villager photos by Jefferson Siegel

Above and below, scenes from the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. Hubert Humphrey was viewed by demonstrators as the more pro-war Democratic candidate, Eugene McCarthy as the peace candidate.

Praying for calm, but haunted by memories of ’68

By Keith Crandell

We need next week, silly as it may seem, a peaceful, calm, anti-war demonstration in the midst of a nasty presidential election. I know it seems like an oxymoron. I know from bitter experience. I was in Chicago for the Democratic convention in 1968.

It was 36 years ago, almost to the day — the last week of August 1968. There I was, in the midst of a crowd of fleeing Americans, running through the dusk along one of Chicago’s alien, mid-city streets. Van Buren, I think. On our heels was a troop of Chicago’s meanest, eager to club anyone they could reach. Even though I was dressed most respectably — seersucker suit, tie, straw hat — my experience in Chicago had taught me that nobody was invulnerable to the anger of Mayor Richard Daley’s plug-uglies.

And then, nonsense! My prized straw hat flew off. Common sense should have told me to bid it farewell. But, no. Fool that I was, I stopped, ran back, picked it up, virtually from the toes of the onrushing police brigade, and turned to out-sprint my would-be assailants.

The Democratic Convention, which I attended to work on the candidacy of Senator Eugene McCarthy, was the most frightening experience of my life to that time. As far as I know, nobody was killed, although plenty of blood was drawn. At one point, I saw an angry Chicago cop running in an ever-widening circle, trying to bash a demonstrator — any demonstrator; finally his ever-larger circle took him up against the show window of an automobile dealer. In a rage, he bashed the window with his club.

When Hubert Humphrey gave his acceptance speech a few hours later, a friend and I had taken refuge in a senior citizens center where we watched him on television. As we watched, the seniors began to wheeze and snuffle. We stood up and announced to the group that their problem was caused by the police tear gas floating into the center.

I tried to play a constructive role in Chicago; I was one of a trio of people chosen to visit the New York delegation to bring delegates to Grant Park to view the brutality on the streets. I remember escorting a Manhattan delegate, James Herbert, to downtown on the bus. During the trip, a middle-class Chicago woman who noticed his delegate credentials tearfully described to him her experience the night before at the Hilton where police attacked diners. When Herbert, a district leader from Harlem, got off the bus, he immediately lined up with Democrats holding a candlelight vigil.

Now we have another tumultuous wartime convention looming up this coming week. The parallels give me the creeps. We have a mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who is as thuggish as Mayor Daley, although a tad more genteel. We have a Republican candidate for president who is as willing as Richard Nixon to employ agents provocateurs to stir up violence between war protesters and police officers. We have crazies of the left who may be all too willing to be provoked into foolhardy actions.

I have two primary fears. The first and most basic is that someone — someone I know and love — will be seriously injured or perhaps killed by Mayor Bloomberg’s minions (last February, the mayor sent his cops on horseback charging through the crowd of peaceful anti-war demonstrators; I was close enough to pat one horse on the flank from my wheelchair.) The second, more intellectual, fear is that some combination of protestor zaniness and police violence and Karl Rovish knavishness will play into the hands of the ineffable Bush.

Yet, I feel I must be on the streets next Sunday and through the week — not just to demonstrate my contempt for George Bush and all his works, but to try to choke off counterproductive activities. At this Sunday’s demonstration, the Village Independent Democrats will try to provide a small island of calm and common sense in the midst of possible chaos. I will be with them, trying to persuade demonstrators to keep the peace. Then, during the week of the convention, the V.I.D. will man a table every day in Sheridan Sq., providing information and refreshments to New York visitors, protesters and delegates alike.

In our attempt to keep the peace, we have two advantages over Chicago in 1968. One is the character of New York cops. Those of us who demonstrated in New York after the Chicago disaster found that New York police officers were better disciplined, more sensible than their Chicago counterparts. I hope that is still true. Second, New York’s finest have their own beef with Bloomberg. His failure to treat police and firefighters with decency in the wake of 9/11 has raised the hackles of many of them. It may well be that we will find allies among the men and women in blue.

If you plan to demonstrate against the war, against the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz crowd, welcome! Help us all keep the peace. 

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