Chicago 2008/1968: An Obama Meditation

Thursday, November 13th, 2008

Larry Cohler-Esses

It was in Grant Park, at East Ninth Street, that my past revisited me amid the cacophony of Barack Obama’s victorious night in Chicago last week.

As hundreds of thousands of supporters snaked, tickets in hand, down a line stretching for blocks down Michigan Avenue, I interviewed random participants, from an excited first generation Indian immigrant waiting patiently with a stunning woman friend from Kazakhstan—both amazed that a child of immigrants could be president—to a mixed race couple from the South Side who saw Obama’s family as their role model.  Then, at East Ninth Street, I paused.

There, across street from the smart shops, was a quiet hill I remembered well in the park itself. At its summit was a statue of Civil War Gen. John Logan astride his horse. Flag in hand held high, the general looked down in classic noble pose, surveying the scene.

Making my way slowly up the grassy incline, I heard drumming as I approached the top. And when I got there, what I saw looked like a throwback to the last time I remembered visiting this very spot: a half-dozen adolescents chanting “Obama!”-a primal incantation-while dancing to the beat of a shirtless drummer who seemed lost in rhythmic pounding.

In the unseasonably mild night that blessed Obama’s victory celebration, there was a kid in an unbuttoned red flannel shirt, pausing to roll himself a cigarette from a pouch of American Spirit tobacco; a fetching girl in a bare shoulder dress and red scarf undulating to the beat and laughing. From the hilltop, across the wide park’s expanse, the Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium shone in the distance, lit bright by backlights on the Lake Michigan shore. The lake itself glimmered in the night, and the city with endless drab bungalows stretching off way to the west, well hidden, seemed to positively glisten at its eastern entrance.

Suddenly, I became aware that the teens dancing to the drum beat had suddenly changed their chant. “Smoke weed!” they were now shouting. And I smiled at the realization I had found what I came looking for: an echo, somehow, of the last political event I had attended here, 40 years earlier, at the age of 15.

Back then, against the backdrop of the Democratic National Convention in the humid heat of late summer, angry young protesters against the war in Vietnam—and a lot of other things, choate and inchoate—took this very hill amid clouds of tear gas spewing from canisters lobbed by the Chicago police.  It was Monday, Aug. 26, the first day of the convention, and there were about 1,000 of them, intent on marching to Police Headquarters at South State Street and Eleventh, where protest organizer Tom Hayden was being held after being arrested. But dozens of cops surrounded the building, blocking them. The marchers then turned north to Grant Park, where they swarmed the hill with Gen. Logan and his horse. Soon, several of them climbed atop the statue, joining the military commander on his granite steed. From there, they hoisted Viet Cong flags and one black flag of anarchy next to the stoic old general’s own battle flag.

Police responded with a charge up the hill, from which they dragged down the protesters and hauled them off, with liberal beatings along the way. One helmeted cop methodically broke a protester’s arm as he took him away.

It was the first of three nights in which my high school friends and I would be tear gassed, shoved and, finally, transported as we joined protests with the likes of Norman Mailer, Abbie Hoffman, Phil Ochs and tens of thousands of others, from straight laced liberals to intense looking Maoists to wild-eyed Yippies. I had simply volunteered to canvas for Eugene McCarthy in Wisconsin during the presidential campaign. During the convention, feeling still connected, my friends and I would take the subway downtown each night from the North Side to protest the war we all abhorred. We would then rush home each night to watch ourselves on the late night TV news.

The last night in Grant Park was the most vivid, at the corner of Michigan and Balbo across street from the Hilton Hotel, where many convention delegates stayed. By that time, the parents of my best friend, Joe, had decided to join us, at least as much out of concern for our safety as from personal conviction. They were former-or maybe not-so-former-Reds, with a colorful past I would become vaguely aware of as I got older. But to me then, they were parents, grown-ups, over-30’s. And I watched with astonishment as amiable Mrs. G. angrily confronted the National Guard troops blocking the Michigan Avenue Bridge, demanding they let her through to exercise her rights.

Even more amazing was Mr. G., a cigar-chomping former New Yorker, standing with us as we were wedged in more and more tightly with thousands of others on that corner, between the cops pressing in on the west and the National Guards blocking the bridge out to our east. “F*** Daley’s toilet!” Mr. G. bellowed repeatedly at the top of his voice, pitching his own cry in with the rest of the crowd’s.

The whole world was watching. But no one was observing more closely and wider eyed than I.

The following December, an official study of the convention disorders found the Chicago cops had committed “unrestrained and indiscriminate police violence” against protesters and bystanders alike, amounting to a “police riot.” Less noted, the presidentially appointed National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence also found that protesters’ over the course of the week deliberately provoked the police, with “obscene epithets . . . rocks, sticks, bathroom titles, and even human feces hurled at police by demonstrators.”

My three high school friends appear in the photo section of that study, sitting astride Gen. Logan’s horse. So I presume I must also be wandering around somewhere nearby. We ranged in age from 14 to 16, and none of us were anything close to hardened radicals. But knowing the thoughts of myself at the time and at least one of the others, I imagine he and I had romantic images of just what a hardened radical might be. And not to put too fine a point on it, I am sure we were influenced, if not manipulated by hardened radicals.

I am sure of this because I recall a pamphlet I read several months before the convention put out by a faction of the Students for a Democratic Society. The tract basically advocated provoking the police as a means of radicalizing the white, middle class kids they expected to attend the convention protests.

In my case, it worked.

For years afterward, my experience at that convention led to me feel a reflexive paranoia and hatred whenever I saw police. It entrenched within me a similarly reflexive and unmediated anger at most forms of authority. Given the deceitful and criminal manner those in government authority at that time were leading the country, this was not without cause. I hated poor Hubert Humphrey, the former civil rights pioneer turned hapless defender and heir to Lyndon Johnson’s war. He seemed the grey embodiment of all that happened to me that week. Somehow-I have no idea how-I convinced my faithfully liberal mother to vote that year instead for the Peace and Freedom presidential ticket, led by Dr. Benjamin Spock for president and Dick Gregory for VP. It probably helped to be the only child of a Jewish mother who’d seen her son come under attack.

This was all misplaced indulgence, of course. In their indiscriminate sweep, the instincts that led us that week to cheer and thrill to the political performance art of brilliant activists such as Abbie and Tom Haden were deeply counterproductive. Their high jinks-along with far more defensible 60’s causes, such as the civil rights revolution-led to the crystallization of Nixon’s Silent Majority, later to become the Reagan Democrats. They, in turn became an enduring component of the conservative coalition, enlistees in the Culture War that has raged even as another component of that coalition-the  wealthy-have implemented the deregulatory policies that have over the decades so increased economic inequality, shrunk the middle class and now wounded all of us so deeply.

As I reflect on all this back on the hill, the drummer and dancers have picked up and gone. There are only a handful of people quietly watching now as the multitudes on Michigan Avenue begin to file forward into the field where President-Elect Obama will address them.

Janie Votta, a cherubic, round-faced, white haired woman of 63 with a youthful pageboy haircut, is sitting with her 30-something looking daughter, who declines to give her name. They are holding hands.

“I haven’t been so excited since 1968, when Robert Kennedy ran,” said Votta, who lives in the town of Braidwood, about 60 miles south of the city. “This is so wonderful for Chicago,” she adds. “Now people will remember this wonderful party for Obama instead of the ugliness of ‘68.”

Her daughter, who lives nearby, on Printers Row, says she does not know too much about what happened then. “I come to this hill all the time with my daughter,” she says. “She’s six years old, and she just loves to roll down it.”

As we are talking, a reporter for The Chicago Tribune climbs up to our area and says loudly enough to be heard by all those sitting and watching: “Were any of you here in ‘68? I’d like to interview you.” But he is uninterested in interviewing another reporter.

Barack Obama has promised to take us past all those tired old ’60s arguments. Nowadays, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Dailey, son of the mayor who unleashed the 1968 police riot, defends Bill Ayers, the former SDS radical his cops arrested as a prime agitator on the convention’s second day. Go figure.

“Ayers,” Daley told the press when the McCain campaign cited his relationship with Obama, “worked with me in shaping our now nationally-renowned school reform program. He is a nationally-recognized distinguished professor of education at the University of Illinois/Chicago and a valued member of the Chicago community.

“I don’t condone what he did 40 years ago,” Daley said, referring to his role in planning bombings. “But I remember that period well. It was a difficult time, but those days are long over. I believe we have too many challenges in Chicago and our country to keep re-fighting 40 year old battles.”

But the spirits and passions unleashed by the 1960’s are, even today, still unfolding with a tangled ledger sheet that makes it hard to tally up all the pluses and minuses: the civil rights revolution; feminism; the peace movement; the sexual revolution or, more broadly sex, drugs and rock and roll. They all-even the most self-indulgent and Dionysian-played a role in loosening up, if not quite liberating a sick and straitened post-war culture. And they all, even the most noble of them, played a role in provoking a terrible backlash from which we may be only today starting to recover.

There is a sense of ghosts exorcised in the air this evening. Down on Michigan Avenue, the well-ordered crowd is filled with opponents of the current war and supporters of equal rights whose feelings are no less intense than were ours. During those August days 40 years ago, we were, at most, perhaps 20,000 strong and quite unhinged. Their sense of focus and discipline has turned out an estimated 125,000 this evening, brought the majority of the country to their side and produced a new president.

Tonight, the whole world is watching.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.