You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Cops and the Kids

The 1968 Democratic National Convention became a battle between police and protesters.

A police officer escorts a protestor to a squad car surrounded by dozens of anti-Vietnam War demonstrators outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Chicago, Illinois, August 1968. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The clashes between police and demonstrators began as calculated maneuvers by The National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, and the Youth International Party. The strategy was to confront the Chicago police, and thereby demonstrate that America was a police state. It ended as a full-blown insurrection of middle-class people against that state.

For the people who took part in this, the Democratic Convention was irrelevant; for them, politics is in the street. They either will be in the streets in increasing numbers from now on, or they will be returning to live the underground existence of the 1950’s over again, leaving politics to the police.

The Chicago police department, not Mayor Daley, was the clear winner in the street fights. And the officers knew it. After they beat up the demonstrators Wednesday night, they were exultant. Where the youngsters had once made fun of the police, the officers now took to openly taunting the citizensany citizen. Out of the debacle in Chicago, the police have emerged as an important political force. No candidate in America can run from now on without coming to terms with the police.

The city refused to give either the mobilization (mobs) or the yippies (yips) permits for their gathering. Instead they tried to run them out of town.

Plainclothesmen were assigned to tail both Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden, the two mobs leaders. Others followed Paul Krassner and Jerry Rubin of the yips. This was good humored for a time; Krassner had a tail advise him where the best food was. Then on Sunday evening in Lincoln Park, near the lake in northern Chicago, where the yips were headquartered, Hayden and Davis tried to slip the dicks by running off into the darkness. By mistake, Hayden ran across the two officers, who threw him up against the side of a police car. Hayden yelled for help and a small crowd gathered. “We’re going to get you, you son-of a-bitch,” the dicks told Hayden, then they freed him.

Monday afternoon, the yips again gathered in Lincoln Park and Hayden and Krassner discussed plans for the Miss Yippie contest and the Yippie Olympics which Krassner was especially keen to begin. Hayden was talking to a group of people when he noticed the two dicks who had nabbed him the evening before approaching with a small convoy of paddy wagons and officers on motorcycles. They came right up, collared him and threw him into the paddy wagon and drove off before anybody could make a move.

On the way to the stationhouse, one of the officers turned to Hayden and pleasantly said to him, “We’re going to get rid of you, you son-of-a-bitch.” At the police station he was taken to a room, and while awaiting processing with others, was told to sit on the floor. As he waited a number of officers stopped off to pass the time of day. “If you guys want to kick the shit out of the cops,” one of them said, “we’ll kill every one of you.”

“We’ll spray you fuckers with submachine guns,” said another.

“Phew,” said a third, holding his nose. “God, do you stink.”

(The police were especially angered by the radicals’ slovenly dress and body odors. “Animals,” they said in disgust.

“Pigs,” replied the yips. “Oink, oink.”)

Shortly after Hayden was taken, the yips gathered, and after hoisting Red and Viet Cong Hags, marched downtown to the police station. They were led by a sporty looking fellow with a plaid jacket and a peace dove button pinned on it. He walked along with a black man dressed in green pants and sporting a McCarthy button. Both these characters were dicks.

At first the police were badly outnumbered and flustered as they ran along to catch up with the march. But they soon recovered their verve and dashed into the marchers and hauled out a lad. Pinning his arms behind his back, they threw him into a paddy wagon. A mild-looking man wearing glasses rushed up to protest. A policeman knocked off his glasses and sprayed some mace in his face. As they marched into the city, an air of insurgency swept through the crowd. Gail Carter of Berkeley, wearing a black beret, was hoisted onto a boy’s shoulders, where she chanted, “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh,” and “Dump the Hump.”

The marchers finally reached the police station, which was guarded by what looked to be several hundred officers; then they went over to Grant Park, which is opposite the Hilton Hotel, the convention headquarters. There they clustered around the statue of General Logan, a Civil War hero. A couple of boys climbed up on the statue and decked it with the Viet Cong Hag. This angered the police, and several hundred of them formed a skirmish line. The officers charged at the statue, laying their billies to any youngster in the way. The youngsters rushed off from the statue in another direction, yelling, “Here come de pig. Oink. Oink. Pig. Pig. Oink. Oink.”

Meanwhile, Miss Carter approached the line of police, and going up to each man in the manner of an inspecting officer she paused, looked him hard in the eye, and said, “And you. What about you? I care for you. You know what I am saying. What do you feel in your heart? Or are you afraid to say what’s in your heart?” A group of plainclothesmen took her picture with a polaroid camera. But the films wouldn’t develop properly and they fell to quarreling among themselves on that score and quite lost track of Miss Carter, who wandered off elsewhere.

Later that evening, the police charged into Lincoln Park, spraying tear gas into the yippies and others who had barricaded themselves in. The officers beat up the reporters and anyone else they could lay their hands on. Meanwhile, Hayden was charged with disorderly conduct for sitting on the grass and was bailed out. About midnight, he was about to enter the Hilton Hotel when a house dick recognized him and ordered him away. Coming away from the hotel, Hayden spotted two tails coming down the street. Seeking to avoid them, he walked across the intersection. At that moment, another plainclothesman, standing up the block, recognized Hayden and yelled out to the officer directing traffic, “Get him. Stop him.” A dick grabbed Hayden from behind and threw him to the pavement. More police converged. Hayden yelled, “What have I done? I haven’t done anything.” But he was hustled off to the police station. An attorney who managed to see him there said the police wanted to charge Hayden with aggravated assault, but this was later dropped and he was charged with simple assault for spitting on a police officer. Bail was set at $1,000.

Hayden was released from custody about 3:30 that morning. On leaving the station house with a handful of reporters and friends, he quickly ran into another car carrying plainclothesmen. At an intersection both dicks jumped out and said, “Hello, we’re police officers, can we help you fellows?” After examining a White House press pass, they retreated. About an hour later, Hayden decided to go underground.

Tuesday evening, the yips, mobs, McCarthy youths and a lot of other people gathered to celebrate LBJ’s birthday at the Colosseum which is a few blocks down Lake Michigan from the Hilton. There they listened to Jean Genet and William Burroughs berate the police. Draft cards were burned. Rock bands played. David Dellinger gave out the usual stuff about the movement. Paul Krassner gave LBJ the finger. Then the crowd joined in singing Happy Birthday LBJ, and “Fuck you, Lyndon Johnson.”

At the end of the evening’s entertainment, Rennie Davis said the plan was to disperse in small groups, then gather in full view of the television cameras at Grant Park. There they could greet the returning delegates.

It was midnight. The police were lined up on both sides of the street in front of the Hilton. A small band of people from Lincoln Park had already arrived and were waiting for the others from the Colosseum to march up. Scattered among them were the usual lot of plainclothesmen, doing their best to look like hippies but, as usual, chattering about the unwashed smell of the slobs they were sent to observe. Standing among them was a man with a porkpie hat and with a neat mustache. He chatted amiably with another fellow who appeared to be listening to the convention on a small transistor radio. Both looked rather like the artificially got-up detectives. But they weren’t. The man in the hat was Hayden and his companion wasn’t listening to the convention; he was tuned to the police radio bands, following the cops’ movements. Here among the police was the mobs’ field communications headquarters.

As the throng from the Colosseum flitted into the dark of the park, an air of expectancy grew. The police brought in buses full of fresh men and lined them up two deep. People began to chant, “Peace now, peace now,” and then to burn draft cards before the television cameras. They yelled “Fuck you, LBJ,” “Fuck you, Daley.” More police were marched up. Helicopters circled overhead. Now word was coming over the transistor radios that the police had once more cleared Lincoln Park, using tear gas, which in addition to forcing the yips from the park, had gotten into drivers’ eyes and stalled traffic on the highway. The crowds were moving through the streets stoning cars, and a group began to march towards Grant Park. More police were lined up before the Hilton. They were five deep in some places. They quietly moved in behind the park and on both sides of it. A police officer walked among the apprehensive reporters, suggesting they might better watch the scene from across the street. The convention adjourned. Buses carrying delegates were returning and the crowd, now numbering about 3,500, yelled at them, “Peace now”; “Join us, join us.”

First a few, then more, opened the bus windows and made the V sign at the crowd. There were cheers. “Join us, join us,” went the chant. Fires were lit in the park. Now across the street in the hotel room lights were flashed on and off, giving the SOS signal. McCarthy youths began appearing at the windows, waving and calling out support. First one, then another came out on the street. “I didn’t feel comfortable in that hotel with the pigs protecting us from you people,” an Alabama challenge delegate said. “The real convention is in the streets,” another said.

Although the gathering was pretty placid, with only a brief scuffle now and then, the police seemed increasingly edgy. At about 3 a.m. the first units of the Illinois National Guard were brought in. They got off their jeeps with rifles at the ready, and the police were marched off. The Guard commander, Brigadier-General Richard Dunn, tried to speak on his own microphone. But the crowd leaders suggested he come over and speak on theirs, instead. Dunn tried to do so, but was drowned out as Peter, Paul and Mary began singing, “If I Had a Hammer.” Finally, Dunn was able to say that the National Guard didn’t want to bother anyone. He retired to his jeep, which looked a little like a rabbit hutch, covered over with mesh wire for the commander’s protection.

The insurrection was full-blown by afternoon. Ten thousand people gathered at a band shell in the park, some distance from the hotel. When a youngster ran down the American flag, the police charged in swinging. One group of people wanted to go to the amphitheater, another to the Hilton. Both were blocked by troop movements which closed the bridges out of the park. To get out of the park, people walked north past the barricaded bridges. They milled around for a while, then seized upon one bridge which was still open to traffic, and blocked it. The police moved in, firing tear gas barrages to break up the crowd. The gas spread back into the city, choking people in the streets and hotels. The demonstrators now split up and moved back through the different streets toward the Hilton, grouping finally on Michigan Avenue and marching on the hotel. Medics moved through the crowds, dampening handkerchiefs with water to fend off tear gas. Waving their hands in the “V” sign, chanting “Peace now, peace now,” an enormous crowd marched on the hotel. The crowd came up against the police lines in front of the Hilton, milled around the edge of the hotel, held from below by the police and on the side by the military. It was about 8 p.m. Then the police charged, moving in skirmish line, columns and two and three man groups.

They hit the lines of marchers, clubbing down a man and then pulling him out for the arrest. A group to the south of the hotel fell back through stalled traffic before the police attack. The automobiles confused the officers and reduced the force of the attack. But suddenly 50 other officers burst out of a side street, hitting the march flank and driving the youngsters across the street against a wall. There they charged them, beating them indiscriminately.

A group gathered across from the hotel in the park. The police charged into it, beating people at will. They would pull them out into the street, fight them and then throw them into the paddy wagon. Others watching this from the Hilton grabbed anything they could find and threw it out the windows at the police.

The hotel was filled with nearly hysterical people, older women infants, youngsters with blood streaming down their faces, girls crying.

At McCarthy’s headquarters, on the Hilton’s fifteenth floor, frenzied youths ripped up the sheets for bandages. The hotel manager was furious that his sheets were being torn and twice he sent the police up to raid the McCarthy headquarters. The hotel management refused use of the hotel elevators to some people. The police sealed off the hotel and wouldn’t let injured people enter.

Outside, the police continued forays into the crowd, beating and clubbing the people to make them disperse. The streets in front of the hotel were completely cut off. There was a no man’s land around the side entrances where people darted in and out.

Vicious as this attack was, the demonstrators came back to Grant Park by midnight in large numbers. Thousands of people continued to gather there under the rifles of the troops, into the small hours of the morning. The lights flicked on and off in the hotel in support, but efforts to get the major candidates to come down and speak to the people ended in failure; Senator McCarthy wanted to go, but the Secret Service men dissuaded him.

That night there was a new group of people there from the South Side of Chicagowhite youthsand they stood behind the police lines to support their boys. “Fruit,” they yelled at a reporter wearing a checked coat. “Ya fuckin’ coppa. Fruit.” Long into the night, these two groups of Americans faced each other.

Following out their scheme to promote a continuing confrontation between growing numbers of people and the policethey figured that the Chicago officials would respond by bringing in more police and troops, and so make clear to all those looking on that Chicago was an armed camp and America was a police statethe radicals talked enthusiastically about little acts of violence, like a stink bomb in the hotel, or dirty words on some walls, to provoke the police and manipulate the liberal McCarthy youths into their own ranks. In effect, the idea was to simulate a little guerrilla war. By Wednesday night, it was clear that everyoneMcCarthy youngsters, reporters, radicals, yips, well-to-do people walking their dogs, delegates to the convention, even some blacksall sorts of people who had never heard of Tom Hayden or David Dellinger, were caught up in an insurrection in the streets. There were no real leaders. They came and went, sometimes carried out bleeding, sometimes arrested, sometimes off in a corner plotting. It made no real difference; to the crowds in the streets, it didn’t matter who was at the microphone. Nobody manipulated these people. On Tuesday night they waved the Viet Cong Hag and yelled, “Fuck you, LBJ”. By Wednesday night, after they had been beaten by the Chicago police, held off by armed troops, gassed, they still came back to Grant Park in great numbers. At last they confronted the armed forces occupying the city, not with the Viet Cong flag, but with the American flag.

Chicago smelled of revolution.