The Riot Stuff

ANACHRONISM WAS THE RULE at the political conventions of the summer of 1968. It was anachronism that generated both boredom and spectacular violence. On Miami Beach it was as if the cast of Our Town had been gathered and multiplied by a few thousand to fill out the GOP ranks: The Republicans were a party stuck in the past and trying to perpetuate it. In Chicago you could say the demonstrators represented the future and that the police who beat them and arrested them were punishing the future for coming too soon. Or you could say that they represented a practically prehistoric syncretism of traditions: Their Dionysian spirit was out of the Bronze Age; Allen Ginsberg’s “Om” chanting came from the Upanishads, circa the sixth century BCE; and the presence of clergy recalled the asceticism of the Desert Fathers, circa the third century CE.

With their accessories of repression, the Chicago police combined the premodern (nightsticks: nineteenth century at best; caveman weapons at worst) and the modern (tear gas and gas masks: very World War I). From the 1930s came the New Left’s factionalism and the Chicago police’s bald aggression. The latter was a German import: “Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago,” as Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff described it in his nominating speech for George McGovern. A lip-reader later interpreted Mayor Richard J. Daley’s reaction shot: “Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch, you lousy motherfucker, go home.” Daley’s jowls were out of the Dark Ages. As William Styron wrote of one of many confrontations between police and demonstrators: “I had a quick sensation of the medieval in juxtaposition with the twenty-first century, or more exactly, a kind of science fiction fantasy, as if a band of primitive Christians on another planet had suddenly found themselves set upon by mechanized legions from Jupiter.” The scene on the streets was insane, and it was televised.

The conventions themselves had outlasted their roles as occasions for negotiations of party platforms and the selection of candidates, and were hardening into the multiday infomercials and donor roundups we know them to be today. In contrast to the coronations of the princely John F. Kennedy by the Democrats in 1960 and of the apocalyptic Barry Goldwater by the Republicans in 1964, the nominees were dull stuff: two stale vice presidents, both of them Cold Warriors and neither of them likely to bring a halt to the Vietnam War anytime soon. “Hawkish though he had always been,” Gloria Steinem wrote of Richard Nixon that fall in New York, “he at least had no reason to defend this Vietnam war, and therefore might end it sooner. As one of the conservative white middle class, he might be able to move them more easily. Mightn’t it be better to have a pragmatist with minimal philosophy who listened to opinion polls, than an ideologue like Humphrey who seemed still to believe we should be the world’s policeman?” Imagine that: Nixon as the lesser of two evils—for liberals.

Against this background of political depression—two candidates not worth getting out of bed for—a season of violence was already under way. The assassinations of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in April—which set off riots in dozens of cities—and Senator Robert F. Kennedy in June were the bloody preludes to the political conventions. A dance ensued between the city of Chicago, under Mayor Daley, and the anti-war youth groups seeking permits for protests for the Democratic Convention in the last week of August. The city denied the permits, and the Youth International Party (the Yippies) and the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam (generally referred to as “the Mobe” in the literature) went to court. On August 22, the Thursday prior to convention week, a federal judge—William Lynch, a former law partner of Mayor Daley’s—denied the Mobe permits for marches and the Yippies permits for sleeping in Lincoln Park after 11 PM. This had the effect of enraging the protesters and severely trimming their numbers by discouraging activists on their way to Chicago from out of state.

The police and the FBI, meanwhile, had been monitoring the underground radical press. Their eyes weren’t trained on the intra-left disputes—being waged among the Yippies, the Mobe, Students for a Democratic Society, and the “Clean for Gene” supporters of peace candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy—but on the revolutionary tactics being espoused. The Chicago police came under the impression that they’d be facing Molotov cocktails and a water supply contaminated with acid. As one cop put it: “We even heard they are going to throw flaming spears.” What the kids in fact had, and tossed in the air, were rocks, tomatoes, and stink bombs. Their program was one of nonviolent resistance, and arrest records later showed that only negligible numbers were armed (nine knives, two guns, two machetes, and one bayonet). They had their mouths, and it became a matter of legend whether the first night of violence—Sunday, August 25—was set off by a Yippie yelling, “Your mother sucks dirty cock!” Some cries were more overtly political: “Welcome to Che Guevera National Park!”

Another provocation was the flag of the Viet Cong, waved by a fourteen-year-old boy in Lincoln Park on the first night of violence. “I’ll probably never get to be twenty-one,” he told a reporter. Many of the cops had served in Korea or Vietnam, and started to see the demonstrators not just as dirty hippies but as enemy collaborators. The police had bullhorns, floodlights, nightsticks, mace, bayonets, blue helmets, and tear gas. We’ve become accustomed, over the past decade, to images of police brutality on a smaller scale, captured surreptitiously on phone cameras. In crowd situations, when they know someone’s watching, police in riot gear now carry shields and appear to be adopting a defensive posture, even as they’re “kettling” unarmed demonstrators. In Chicago there was no disguising the cops’ rage, which was in several cases turned on camera crews for network television. The spectacle bore an obvious similarity to events of the previous week in Czechoslovakia, where Soviet troops had invaded to put an end to the Prague Spring.

The rise of the New Left coincided with the advent of the New Journalism, so the Democratic Convention in Chicago left a literary record matched only by the era’s legendary boxing matches—another ritual veering toward anachronism, as Jimmy Breslin pointed out in his dispatch for New York. Norman Mailer had just published The Armies of the Night—“History as a Novel; the Novel as History,” the cover declared—his account of the march on the Pentagon in October 1967 and his arrest at the event. Willie Morris had devoted an entire issue of Harper’s Magazine to the story, and Morris had signed up Mailer to cover the 1968 conventions, an assignment that would yield his book Miami and the Siege of Chicago.

Mailer had covered the 1960 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles and the 1964 Republican Convention in San Francisco for Esquire. That magazine was still in its golden era, and editor Harold Hayes compensated for the loss of Mailer by sending three writers to Chicago: Terry Southern, Jean Genet, and William S. Burroughs. Since these geniuses—a drunk, a convict, and a junkie—weren’t the most reliable of narrators, Hayes sent the young editor John Berendt (later the author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) to herd them around town, the translator Richard Seaver to handle Genet’s French, and the war correspondent John Sack to ensure a backstop of conventional journalism.

The New York Review of Books had two novelists on the scene. Styron arrived in Chicago as an alternate Connecticut delegate for McCarthy but wasn’t seated at the convention, and his account veers from the street to the hotel bars where he took shelter. Elizabeth Hardwick observed the dreary goings-on in the International Amphitheater. Clay Felker, who had recently founded New York and had been the one to recruit Mailer as a political correspondent to Esquire in 1960, sent Breslin and Steinem to Chicago. The New Yorker’s television critic, Michael J. Arlen, observed the way the riots were covered from the ground, making explicit comparisons to television coverage of the war in Vietnam. It was a young Chicago novelist and writer for the radical-left press, John Schultz, reporting for Evergreen Review, who produced the best book on the riots, No One Was Killed. Schultz—who chronicled the trial for conspiracy of the Chicago Seven (among them Yippie frontmen Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin and Mobe leaders Dave Dellinger and Tom Hayden) in a subsequent book—captures both the subtle ruptures of mutual contempt between the Yippies and the New Left and the moral indefensibility of the police, many of whom he witnessed erupting in spasms of violence when they were called “pigs.”

The valence of Schultz’s title is ironic but nonetheless true. There were many casualties in Chicago, much blood and broken bones, but no fatalities. It’s fallen out of the collective memory that there were also riots in Miami during the week of the Republican Convention. As in Chicago, the National Guard was called in and tear gas was deployed. In Miami the Highway Patrol released a cloud of tear gas using machines made for the purposes of spraying pesticides. But the protests in Miami were in a black neighborhood, Liberty City, far removed from the politicians and media gathered on Miami Beach. The violence, which led to looting and firebombs, was set off by a white man in a car with a WALLACE FOR PRESIDENT bumper sticker. (George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Louisiana, a former Democrat, ran for the White House in 1968 as a third-party candidate and won four Southern states in the general election.) The car was greeted with stones and bottles, its driver fled, and it was flipped over and burned. Police killed three men during the riots, the first in Miami’s history.

Race and geography conspired with journalistic negligence to render the Miami riots a footnote, while the Battle of Chicago, with its scenes of cops punishing white children, is remembered as the main event. By the time of the worst violence in Miami, Mailer had returned to Brooklyn to watch Nixon’s acceptance speech on television at home. Mailer wasn’t exactly a model of journalistic diligence in the late 1960s. There was an ironic tinge to the way he referred to himself in the third person as “the reporter.” He spent the Tuesday night of the convention away from the floor, drinking at Joe the Bartender’s in the Hilton among supporters of Nixon, who had deflected last-minute challenges from Ronald Reagan on his right and Nelson Rockefeller on his left. But his writing was at one of its three career peaks (the others being the youthful burst of The Naked and the Dead and the restrained tour de force of The Executioner’s Song). Sneaking into banquets by posing as a member of the security cadre, or hoisting pints at the hotel, he spins simple scenes into arias of cultural anthropology and tunes in to the mythic frequency politicians transmit to their supporters. Here he is on Nixon greeting a humble dinner reception for GOP delegates:

This was no line like the wealthy Republicans at the Gala, this was more a pilgrimage of minor delegates, sometimes not even known so well in their own small city, a parade of wives and children and men who owned hardware stores or were druggists, or first teller in the bank, proprietor of a haberdashery or principal of a small town high school, local lawyer, retired doctor, a widow on a tidy income, her minister and fellow-delegate, minor executives from minor corporations, men who owned their farms, an occasional rotund state party hack with a rubbery look, editor of a small-town paper, professor from Baptist teachers’ college, high school librarian, young political aspirant, young salesman—the stable and the established, the middle-aged and the old, a sprinkling of the young, the small towns and the quiet respectable cities of the Midwest and the Far West and the border states were out to pay their homage to their own true candidate, the representative of their conservative orderly heart, and it was obvious they adored him in a quiet way too deep for applause, it was obvious the Nixons had their following after all in these middle-class neatly-dressed people moving forward in circumscribed steps, constrained, not cognizant of their bodies, decent respectables who also had spent their life in service and now wanted to have a moment near the man who had all of their vote, and so could arouse their happiness, for the happiness of the Wasp was in his moment of veneration, and they had veneration for Nixon, heir of Old Ike—center of happy memory and better days—they venerated Nixon for his service to Eisenhower, and his comeback now—it was his comeback which had made him a hero in their eyes, for America is the land which worships the Great Comeback, and so he was Tricky Dick to them no more, but the finest gentleman in the land; they were proud to say hello.

This is a good picture of Nixon’s “silent majority,” the constituency that would elect him that fall, along with those who reluctantly turned to him because they thought he might bring a quicker end to American fighting in Vietnam than Hubert Humphrey. Mailer wrote that “the Republic might survive a little longer with old Tricky Dick and New Nixon than Triple Hips” but said he wouldn’t vote—“not unless it was for Eldridge Cleaver.” Mailer’s self-dramatizations can yield revealing, if also ugly, moments of candor. At a press conference in Miami where the civil-rights leader Ralph Abernathy is late, he writes, “It was unduly irritating to have to wait at a press conference, and as the minutes went by and annoyance mounted, the reporter became aware after a while of a curious emotion in himself, for he had not ever felt it consciously before—it was a simple emotion and very unpleasant to him—he was getting tired of Negroes and their rights. It was a miserable recognition, and on many a count, for if he felt even a hint this way, then what immeasurable tides of rage must be loose in America itself?” National polls taken at the end of the month would find that a majority of Americans sided with the police.

Art Shay, Police Clear the Park, Democratic National Convention, Chicago, 1968, ink-jet print, 11 × 17".
Art Shay, Police Clear the Park, Democratic National Convention, Chicago, 1968, ink-jet print, 11 × 17".

In Chicago, Mailer’s narcissism takes on a comic excess that gets a bit silly. His best scoop is a chance encounter with McCarthy at a restaurant just after Ted Kennedy turned down his offer of support in a last-ditch effort to replace Humphrey with a peace nominee. As the violence mounts, Mailer observes the scene from his room at the Conrad Hilton Hotel, watching demonstrators being beaten, police breaking the windows of the ground-floor restaurant and chasing kids into the building, tear gas wafting up from the street. (When the gas reached Humphrey’s room, he took a shower.) Mailer frets about joining the demonstrations, because being arrested and going to jail, as he did after the march on the Pentagon, would cut into the two weeks he has to write his piece for Harper’s. He decides to try to organize two hundred delegates to march alongside the demonstrators, and fails. After Humphrey’s bland acceptance speech on the convention’s last night, the day after the worst of the violence, he goes drinking with Pete Hamill. He creeps up to a National Guard jeep and antagonizes some officers, one of whom comments that he seems to be trying to get himself arrested. They let him off, and he and Hamill repair to Hugh Hefner’s mansion for more revelry.

Narrative accounts of the Battle of Chicago are tales of repetition and escalation. Schultz’s book treats the week day by day. Trouble began between the police and the demonstrators on Sunday afternoon—when a flatbed truck was driven into the park for the Yippies’ Festival of Life concert—and it exploded around the time of the 11 pm curfew. Until this point the Yippies and the New Left were at odds, Schultz writes: “These movements shunned each other in their beginnings, even disdained each other, generally siding with either ‘rationality’ or ‘irrationality.’ During Convention Week in Chicago, their distinctions did not dissolve, but they began to overlap, merge, blur, feed into each other, and most important, respect each other out of the common purpose in the action in the streets.” Of the 668 people arrested that week, more than half were residents of Chicago, one-third were students, and 10 percent were under the age of seventeen. There were shouts of “Oink! Oink!” at the police, but also marchers singing “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” in the face of tear gas and clubbings.

Television coverage of the conventions heralded two innovations. The first was the arrival of the instantaneous twenty-four-hour news cycle, as NBC made the decision to cut between floor speeches and scenes of street violence, a first-aid camp set up at the Hilton, and police entering the convention itself: “The Chicago police are now in the aisle with billy clubs,” John Chancellor told the nation, “clearing people out! . . . They’re dragging people right out of the aisle. One, two, three, four, five, six—some of them wearing blue helmets.” It was reported that police had detained and struck Mike Wallace of CBS News. (Many reporters and photographers on the street got it much worse.) In a tick-tock chapter about NBC’s coverage of the Wednesday of the convention in Nixonland, Rick Perlstein recounts that these images were repeatedly interrupted by commercials for Gulf Oil. On ABC, William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, setting the template for decades of Crossfire-style debates, had their famous exchange of insults. Vidal: “As far as I’m concerned, the only pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.” Buckley: “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face, and you’ll stay plastered. . . .” Who knows what would have happened if they’d taken their argument outside.

The correspondents for Esquire were fearless about entering the fray. The convention, after all, was boring: “The Yippies are stealing the show,” Burroughs wrote. “I’ve had about enough of the convention farce without humor barbed wire and cops around a lot of nothing.” Genet said, “It is time for writers to support the rebellion of youth not only with their words but with their presence as well.” And so Southern, Genet, and Burroughs, along with Ginsberg, the singer Phil Ochs, and the comedian Dick Gregory, were present in Lincoln Park, delivered statements at the anti-birthday held for President Lyndon Johnson (who through Humphrey and Mayor Daley was exerting control of a convention he didn’t attend) at the Chicago Coliseum, and ran from the police in the streets. Southern, who claimed to be able to recognize undercover agents provocateurs among the crowd in the park by their “lewd, tasteless stupidity,” wrote of one confrontation with a cop:

“You communist bastards!” one of them snarled, “get the hell out of here! Now move!” And he raised his club at the nearest person, who as it happened was Genet—but the latter, saint that he is, simply looked at the man and shrugged, half lifting his arms in a Gallic gesture of helplessness. And the blow didn’t come. Another tribute to Genet’s power over people. Instead, they pushed and prodded us out onto the street where they talked about taking us to the station; but they were soon distracted by activity farther down the block, and they rushed away. Because it wasn’t really us they wanted to get—it was the children.

Genet’s own contribution is the most poetic account of the Battle of Chicago. At one point the Esquire “reportage team,” as Southern termed it, was boxed in on a block where everyone was being battered and sought shelter in an apartment building. Genet writes: “The person who opens her door to receive us as we try to escape from these brutes in blue is a young and very beautiful black woman. Later, when the streets have finally grown calm again, she offers to let us slip out through a back door, which opens onto another street: without the police suspecting it, we have been conjured away and concealed by a trick house.” Genet said the cops’ helmets were blue to give the impression that they had come down from heaven.

Styron and Southern were at the bar at the Hilton when the police broke through the windows, chased demonstrators inside, and beat them. There was a commercial for Bic pens on the TV and “Mood Indigo” was playing when the glass shattered and the cops pursued bleeding kids inside. A middle-aged bystander in a straw hat with a Hubert Humphrey band told Southern: “Those damn kids . . . I haven’t seen a clean one yet. . . . Hell . . . I’d just as soon live in one of those damn police states as put up with that kind of thing.” Behind them two policemen were beating a young man on the head and dragging him across the floor. “Insouciant the police could be,” wrote Sack, the one correspondent who managed to affect something like sympathy for the authorities, “for they recognized that the challenge to their values arose from too tiny a minority of America to pay much attention to.” The post-riot opinion polls attested to “the terrible truth that Chicago’s police did represent the will of Chicago’s people.”

History has turned against that judgment, we hope. No political conventions have been as violent or historic since those of 1968. The scariest things that happened in Cleveland in 2016 happened onstage, where Rudy Giuliani whipped the crowd of Trump loyalists into a frenzy and Michael Flynn led unhinged chants of “Lock her up!” The Democrats in Philadelphia were mostly serene and self-satisfied, little aware of the surprises November had in store. The best a literary journalist can manage these days is cultural anthropology and theater criticism. Even Martin Amis is reduced to describing the security apparatus around the arena. Genet understood the nature of the televised convention: “And what of the convention? It is democratic, it babbles on, and you have seen it on your screens: it is there for the purpose of concealing from you a game both simple and complex, which you prefer to ignore.”

Christian Lorentzen writes the books column at New York.