50 Years Ago: As World Watched, Chicago Police Attacked Protesters at ’68 Democratic Convention

Mayor Richard Daley unleashed a brutal police attack on anti-Vietnam war protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. We discuss the story’s deeper implications for that moment and for today’s world with William Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn

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Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you with us.

Fifty years ago this week, the Chicago police rioted against antiwar demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic Convention. The Vietnam War was raging. King had been assassinated, and rebellion gripped working-class communities throughout America. Robert Kennedy, who many thought would be the Democratic candidate, had been assassinated, and the U.S. was in turmoil. Richard Daley was the mayor of Chicago, and declared war on the black community, antiwar activists, and the hippies he hated. TV images of the ensuing riots around the Democratic convention with scenes of mayhem as Chicago police violently attacked the demonstrators and reporters gripped this nation, and the world’s attention.

And today, we reflect back on that time and talk about what that history means for us today with our guests, Bernadine Dohrn, who’s a former law professor, activist, and organizer; Bill Ayers, a former professor of education, author, and activist; both leaders of the Weather Underground back in the ’60s. And Bill and Bernadine, welcome. Good to have you with us.

BILL AYERS: Thank you, Marc.

BERNADINE DOHRN: Hi Marc.

MARC STEINER: So, it’s actually pretty good here that you’re actually in Chicago as we’re having this conversation about Chicago in American now. But let’s peddle back those fifty years. This is the final day of the Chicago convention in 1968, August 29. Where were the two of you exactly at that moment? Talk about your involvement in the those three days and where you were. Bernadine?

BERNADINE DOHRN: Well, you’re going to like this, because I was in Budapest meeting with the Vietnamese. The Soviet Union had invaded your Prague, Czechoslovakia, when we were supposed to take off, when our airplane was supposed to take off to meet with the Vietnamese. So, our meeting was changed to Budapest and Hungary. And there was a large delegation of twenty-five people from North and South Vietnam and us, activists, youth from the United States, students and other activists. And we met there in Budapest in a kind of a hurry, that prearrangement. So, we were reading about the demonstrations here in Chicago and in the International Herald Tribune, even though I’d helped organize for it in the previous six months.

MARC STEINER: And Bill you were in Chicago and you were arrested in Chicago right.

BILL AYERS: Yeah, I was in Cook County Jail fifty years ago today. I was arrested in front of the Hilton. But I’d been organizing for months in Michigan. I was an SDS organizer, Students for a Democratic Society. And I’d been organizing for months to get people to come to Chicago. And of course, Mayor Daley had spent much, much energy and public relations trying to suppress the attendance in Chicago by saying it was going to be a bloodbath, said that people were going to get hurt. He didn’t issue permits and so on. But we came from Ann Arbor, a group of us, as a kind of a focal group, as a kind of a support group.

And we wanted, on the one hand, to be a massive demonstration. We wanted to show the world that the American people were against this genocidal, monstrous invasion and war. But we also wanted to demonstrate to the world that the nature of the system, the nature of the ruling class, the nature of the political class. And so, we intended to provoke the police and to provoke the convention. And we did. And they showed themselves for what they are, which is violent, dangerous and willing to assault anybody to hold on to power.

MARC STEINER: Let me explore that for a moment, because one of the things that people talk about at that moment in ’68 was they call this a police riot. Police attacking, violently attacking, demonstrators. I said in the opening that Mayor Daley despised leftists, he despised the Black community, he despised what he called “hippies.” And wanted to make war and had tens of thousands of police and Army Reserve and National Guard there to confront the demonstrators coming in. But you just used the word, you said, “provoke.” So what does that mean in terms of when people say, “Look, this is the demonstrators’ fault, they attacked the police, they’re the ones who started this. So describe, give me a little bit more depth about what you just meant.

BILL AYERS: Okay, so it is a contradiction, Marc, and I think it’s an important one. And that is that Mayor Daley intended to crush the antiwar movement in Chicago, to wield his power. And so, he didn’t grant permits, that’s very important. Everyone who came to Chicago was breaking the law in a sense because there were no permits granted at all until the very last minute. But he had also issued, remember, an order, during the uprisings in the Black community he had also issued an order saying “shoot to kill arsonists, shoot to maim looters.” So, he was well-known as a violent, powerful racist kind of leader.

BERNADINE DOHRN: Bill, can I just interrupt you for a minute to say that was just months earlier. So, Dr. King’s assassination in April led to uprisings, as you know, in thirty-six cities and in Chicago. The National Guard was called in, and police forces from all over the area, to deal with the anger and the uprising on the King assassination. But that was an important pre-quell to the Democratic National Convention.

MARC STEINER: That’s an important point. We talked- at the opening I mentioned that ’68 was when the rebellion was surplaced after King was assassinated the same summer that Kennedy was also killed. So yeah, that’s a really powerful point.

BERNADINE DOHRN: You’re exactly right.

BILL AYERS: Yeah, so Tom Hayden, for example, one of the leaders of the mobilization against the war, of this demonstration, traveled the country. When he came to Ann Arbor, he gave a talk in which he spoke to literally hundreds of students, urged everyone to come to Chicago. And then he met quietly with us and said, “Look, let’s not let the police take advantage of usm let’s be organized so that we can respond to what they do and also expose the violence that’s inherent in the system.”.

Tom said, in his mass speech, he said something like, “We need to expose the madness and bring the monster down.” Now, you could imagine the madness as the Vietnam War and the monster being the military industrial complex. We thought of the madness as capitalism and imperialism and white supremacy itself and bringing the monster down meant revolution. I think Tom meant both things.

MARC STEINER: Also, let’s talk about what you think the consequences were. You know there’s still a lot of argument about what 1968 meant post that Democratic convention. The country was clearly in a major divide. And the Democratic Party, just as now in many ways, both the Democratic and Republican parties were going through major shifts because of the war, because of the Black rebellions and the push for rights inside the Black community towards a larger America.

All that was going on while while the Republicans and Nixon were wooing the Southern racists in the Democratic Party to join the Democrats and also kind of wooing the white working class which was being split apart from the other activists in the union movement who were supporting the antiwar effort and supporting the moves in the Black community and Latino communities.

So, this is a very explosive moment. So, what role do you think this explosion of ’68 that gripped the world with all those visuals, what happened at that moment? Was this just as pivotal as people are making it?

BILL AYERS: I think it was an important year.

BERNADINE DOHRN: Well, it was. Yeah, I think it definitely was. Because first of all, two major assassinations. It’s incredible when you look back and think that Dr. King was assassinated and then Robert Kennedy was assassinated in this very short period of time. But also, the war, this was the turning point around what Americans thought about the war. It was an absolute turning point. And you can say it was their children turning against the war, but it really was the understanding that six thousand people a week were being killed by U.S. and allied forces in Vietnam. Six thousand people a week. And now we’re well into it, this is three years into it now. Now, who knew it was going to go on for another seven years?

But it looked like it was at a place where the war could be stopped, the United States could get out of Vietnam, let Vietnam unite itself and be free of foreign invaders. And it was a peace rally. It was meant to be a peace rally, an activist, bottom up disruptive peace rally. The same time, this is the explosive growth of the Black Panther Party. And it means that the understanding of what happened with King’s death was pervasive and it was understood. And Bobby Seale came and spoke at the convention. This was a turning point on so many different levels, but it was definitely a majority of the American people having to rethink their position about U.S. wars and U.S. occupation around the world.

BILL AYERS: And about Black freedom. I mean, I think what was important, as you say Marc, is that two Americas faced each other. One was younger, more colorful, oriented towards peace and justice. The other was older and holding on to power. Let’s also remember, putting it in context, that in 1964, the Democratic establishment, the Democratic Party establishment failed to seat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation from Mississippi. That meant that they had sold out any opportunity unity for really being on the side of civil rights forcefully.

We have the same situation today, where the establishment of the Democratic Party has a hard time mounting an opposition because they’ve been colluding with the Republicans for so long on the major issues of our day now. So, what we saw was fire from below, an expression of masses of people saying no to war say no to white supremacy, saying yes to a future without racism and invasions and occupations. And those two Americas faced each other. What was the consequence? The consequence was many, many, many people were ripped away from their illusions about a kind of peaceful, democratic America and began to rethink what they had to do to engage in the political process going forward.

MARC STEINER: Before I move into another aspect to this, I want to read Jules Witcover, who’s written for The Sun and other places, who wrote a book on ’68. I interviewed him for that years back, I remember, years after the years after ’68, Obviously, in the ’90s. But this is a quote. I just waant to see what you think about this quote that he wrote. His quote was, 1968 became the “pivotal year something vital died – the post-World War II dream of an America that at last would face up to its most basic problems at home and abroad with wisdom, honesty and compassion” was over.

And the young James Galbraith wrote, “The Democratic Party lost its working class base,” and divided, and was sort of saying that they became the party of, as he put it, “minorities and urban liberals.” So, talk about that idea, about how some of the establishment figures look at what ’68 meant and what your analysis tells you about what ’68 meant for who we are right now and that moment.

BERNADINE DOHRN: Well, there was a bipartisan agreement. I mean, people had certain kind of hopes and anticipations, as they still do today about what the Democratic Party could become. But it has always been and is today still a party of war, of militarism, of occupation. And let’s just take Puerto Rico, sitting right in front of us, today. Did the Democrats stand up and fight for what just happened with the catastrophe in Puerto Rico, and Donald Trump going down throwing and throwing paper towels at people?

It’s so transparent that the question of color, the question of racism and the question of American occupation of places when they can extract wealth from them is right there in front of our eyes. And we can’t look- we thought then we couldn’t looked at the Democratic Party for help, and that really it was only social struggles from below, powerful social movements from below. Today, we have Black Lives Matter, we have Undocumented and Unafraid, we have a revitalized women’s movement, and on, and on, and on. And those are the forces, I think, that have the possibility, if they don’t have an exclusive electoral strategy, if they keep organizing, if they keep being a vivid presence, of making a difference.

MARC STEINER: Well I think Bernadine is absolutely right. I don’t have a big analysis of the Democratic Party and what it lost and what it gained, because I think the Democratic Party is one of the two great capitalist parties, one of the parties of the establishment. I don’t mean by that that we can never work within the Democratic Party, but it’s not where we have access. And it seems to me that too many radicals spend their time worrying and wringing their hands about both the Democratic Party and which leader might lead us out of the morass we’re in, when the reality is, we don’t have access to the halls of power in the way that others do.

We do have access to the neighborhood, the community, the school, the workplace, the community college. Those are the places we ought to be organizing because those are also sites of power. I take away from the from the moment of 1968, which I think in many ways, the whole myth of the ’60s is to glorify or to demonize something that was important and interesting. But whatever the ’60s was, it was prelude to what we need to do today. And being nostalgic about it doesn’t take us where we need to go. But I do think that we have an opportunity.

We had an opportunity then to limit the options of the war makers, and that we did. We did not end the war. As Bernedine said, in ’68, a majority of the people were opposed to the war, which was a huge advance in three years. One million Vietnamese, one million Indochinese were needlessly killed in those three years. But we thought it would end in ’68. We thought we had convinced the American people, the world was against the war. We thought we’d won. The reality is, the war stretched on for seven more years.

Now, three plus million people would be murdered. And that’s on our-kind of on our consciences, on our souls. And that’s the kind of thing we have to face. But on the other hand, having a massive antiwar movement, having masses of people in the streets also limited the options of the war makers. By that, I mean Oliver North and others had written plans to use tactical nuclear weapons in North Vietnam, to bomb the dike system and kill hundreds of thousands more people. That, we were able, I’d say, to stop. And I think we should take some pride in that. The other thing we should take pride in is that everybody, even the establishment, when they go to war, they always say, “We come in peace.” We’ve won the argument, we haven’t won power.

MARC STEINER: So, this is interesting. We talked about it earlier. When we look at 1968 and 2018, a lot of the grassroots activists that had been pushing this country around Black Lives Matter and rights in the Latino communities, around the environment and clean energy movements and more, are running for office inside the Democratic Party. And you see that split going on right now within the Democrats between progressives and folks the left inside the party who are winning in many places, as they did again yesterday in Florida and in parts of Arizona.

So, there’s a different dynamic going on now than then, even with the endless wars that we’re facing in Afghanistan and Iraq, for lots of reasons, the drafting and many other reasons, it’s a different dynamic. So, what does that moment say about this moment, if anything?

BERNADINE DOHRN: You know, one of the enormous differences between then and now is access, visual access to the battlefields that the U.S. is creating around the world. So, the fact that G.I.s In Vietnam were turning against the war, the whole year of ’68 at home contributed to that, is very important. Because by ’69, vets were coming back. By ’68, ’69, vets were coming back and telling the truth about the war and throwing their medals back at the Pentagon. And that became a huge factor and a huge force. That’s still true, of course, today, but it is the fact that we don’t see the people that our country is paying to bomb.

Americans don’t see Yemenis, Americans don’t see Syrians, Iraqis, Afghan people. The challenge of of humanizing the other, other people around the world, is a very important one that all social struggles today face. And we don’t have the advantage of seeing it, seeing people, because journalists like you, Marc, aren’t allowed anywhere near the battlefield anymore. The Pentagon learned that lesson very well from that period in ’68, ’69, ’70.

MARC STEINER: That’s a really important point. Bill, you were about to say what as well?

BILL AYERS: Well, one of the things that I admire very much, people like Ocasio-Cortez and others who are jumping into the fray and will likely end up in Congress, I think that’s a terrific thing. Who can who can not respect Barbara Lee and the force that she’s been out of Oakland, being a representative in Washington? On the other hand, the danger- it seems to me, it’s a hopeful thing that people are are saying we need to engage regular politics, normal American politics. We need to engage them. And Barbara Lee, Ocasio-Cortez and others are doing that. And I think that’s important.

On the other hand, we can never lose sight of the fact that it’s fire from below and the mobilization of people from below that brings about lasting change. You need to walk toward the fundamental changes we need in this country on two legs. One is mobilizing people and the other is engaging regular politics. Let’s not imagine that one of these candidates can save us, let’s not spend our energy thinking about which Democrat is going to be just a little bit better and will represent our interests. Let’s build a movement where our interests are represented by the force that we bring to the table.

MARC STEINER: This has been a great discussion, and we didn’t even touch what happened. Let’s do that for a moment before we end, just take a couple of minutes. I think it’s important for the context of history that out of what happened in Chicago came the trials of the Chicago Eight. That included Bobby Seale and Tom Hayden and Dave Dellinger and many others in that Chicago eight who- they were literally being charged with having fomented the riots that took place in Chicago as the government tried to take the blame away from themselves and put it on activists. So, that was also a post-Democratic convention that also gripped this nation.

BERNADINE DOHRN: After the Democratic National Convention, although it was going on during it too, was the FBI campaign, COINTELPRO, to assassinate the Black movement.

MARC STEINER: Literally.

BERNADINE DOHRN: Literally assassinate them, which they definitely- Fred Hampton is the case that we can prove, I know, but there are many others. And to criminalize and demonize and infiltrate and disorganize the white movement. So, that was their written strategy and that’s what they carried out. So, yes. Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, arrests, but also Rap Brown, the Rap Brown Law and trying people and putting them under arrest and trying to disintegrate the tremendous organizing that was going on in Detroit or in Cleveland.

So, these formations that that sprang up in the wake of ’68, not just the Democratic National Convention but all of the organizing going on, became very powerful. And the government escalated its strategy to murder, to assassination, to jailing people, disrupting them, putting them away for long sentences.

BILL AYERS: Yeah, the Chicago Eight trial, there are a couple things to note about it. One is, the activists who were put on trial and their supporters did a brilliant thing, which was the strategy of the government was to crush the antiwar movement by organizing the conspiracy trials all over the country. They organized one in Chicago, one in Seattle, and then they stoped. And the reason they stopped is that the activists were able to flip the script and put the government on trial.

So, the Chicago Eight trial was theater at the highest level, where Bobby Seale, the Black Panther and the only black defendant in that case was gagged and strapped to his chair. And the visual of Bobby Seale being carried in and out of court on a chair, strapped in, was an extraordinary metaphor for our whole country. And the organizers were able to say, “The war is wrong.” And they were acquitted because the jury was convinced that what the government had done was appalling and that the antiwar activists were right.

MARC STEINER: Well, I want to thank you both, Bernadine Dohrs and Bill Aires. Great to talk to you both, thanks for all the work you do, good to have you with us here on The Real News today.

BERNADINE DOHRN: Marc, thank you. Pleasure.

BILL AYERS: Hope to see you soon, Marc.

MARC STEINER: We’ll continue looking at our history to figure out where we are today. I’m Mark Steiner. Take care.