DNC Protests: A Divided Nation

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[Library of Congress] Protesters stand in front of a row of National Guard soldiers during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois, August 26, 1968.
The Democratic National Convention protests of 1968 came to epitomize the unrest and divisions present in American society in the 1960s, as well as the voice of a nation ready for change.

Intent on protesting the war and challenging the power structure, thousands of Vietnam War protesters converged on the Democratic National Convention in Chicago on August 26-29, 1968. As a result, mayhem and bloodshed filled the city, and television broadcast a nation in disarray, in crisis, and divided.

Setting the Stage

As the August date for the Democratic National Convention approached, several developments indicated the protest might turn violent. In April, Chicago police launched an unprovoked, violent attack on 6,000 antiwar marchers; an assassin killed Martin Luther King Jr., worsening racial and political tensions; and in New York City, student demonstrators took over several buildings at Columbia University, a move that indicated a turn by radicals toward militancy, confrontation, and violence. Then in June, Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. Later in the summer, Richard J. Daley, mayor of Chicago, let it be known that he would not tolerate protesters.

The idea to protest at the Democratic National Convention came from two different sources, often at odds with each other. Radical political activists, including Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, and Tom Hayden, known as the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, planned to protest. At the same time, Abbie Hoffman, his wife Anita, Jerry Rubin, Nancy Kurshan, and Paul Krassner, known as Yippies, wanted to stage a festival at the convention, one that would include a free concert by rock bands.

Escalating Tensions

In the days before the convention, tension heightened. Daley put all 12,000 Chicago police on 12-hour shifts; the government mobilized 5,000 national guardsmen; the Federal Bureau of Investigation assigned 1,000 agents to Chicago; the army placed 6,000 troops in the suburbs, including the 101st Airborne; and radicals among the protesters itched for a confrontation.

The Yippies’ Festival of Life concert at Lincoln Park turned out to be a disaster. Chicago’s police disrupted the rock music by ordering the Yippies to remove a flatbed truck intended for use as a stage.

Violence Erupts

When many in the crowd refused to leave at the 11 P.M. curfew, the police charged, cracking heads with their clubs. Some among the 2,000 demonstrators relished the confrontation and fought back, and the cops responded with indiscriminate violence—clubbing a Newsweek reporter after he showed his credentials, beating an assistant U.S. attorney general dressed in suit and tie, attacking ministers, and lobbing tear gas. They did not clear the streets until 2 A.M.

[Bettmann/Getty Images] Police and demonstrators clash near Chicago’s Grant Park, during the Democratic National Convention, August 28, 1968. Americans were divided in their reaction to the frequent scenes of violence and mayhem broadcast on television during the week of the convention.
The next evening, protesters tried to march peacefully to the amphitheater where the convention delegates were meeting. The police, however, clubbed them and many bystanders and sprayed them with Mace. When the assistant superintendent of Chicago’s police tried to bring his men under control, they acted more violently, and some protesters retaliated by kicking and punching their assailants. Television cameras broadcast the melee as the crowd chanted, “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!”

A Divided Nation

The violence in Chicago left America divided. On the one hand, public opinion polls showed most people siding with the Chicago police and condemning the protesters. On the other hand, many protesters considered the police violence indicative of an oppressive society. Additionally, the turmoil may have contributed to the defeat of Democratic presidential candidate Hubert H. Humphrey, and the federal government arrested several of the protest leaders, known as the Chicago Eight, for conspiring to riot.

About the Author:

Neil A. Hamilton is a professor of history at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, and an adjunct professor of American history at the University of South Alabama. He received his PhD in American history at the University of Tennessee after graduating with a BA and MA from the University of Miami. A member of the Organization of American Historians and the Authors Guild, Dr. Hamilton has authored or co-authored a number of articles for historical journals and nonfiction books, including The ABC-Clio Companion to the 1960s Counterculture in America (ABC-CLIO, 1997); Visions of Worth: The Life of G.S. Lannom, Jr. (Preservation Publishing, 1988); American Social Leaders and Activists (Facts on File, 2002); Atlas of the Baby Boom Generation (Macmillan, 2000); Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary (Checkmark Books, 2005); and Militias in America: A Reference Handbook (ABC-CLIO, 1996).

Hamilton, Neal. “Democratic National Convention of 1968.” American History, ABC-CLIO, 2018, americanhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/298886. Accessed 6 June 2018.

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