Friday, October 31, 2008

Chicago in 1968: Politics as War Zone


Copyright © 2008 by Leo E. Laurence for

Massive youth involvement changed political conventions/campaigns back in 1968, and continue in 2008.

Forty years ago, the massive youth mobilization at the Chicago Democratic Convention turned the Windy City “into a war zone,” as one CBS war correspondent told me. And I was there!

Today [October 23], Sen. Barack Obama is mobilizing the nation’s (world’s) youths in an unprecedented way, and some national polls say he is now the front-runner for president. (But that can change.)

While working as a reporter/producer at ABC-KGO News in San Francisco in ‘68, I took a short vacation back to my hometown in Monroe, New York. While returning to the Bay Area, I stopped off in Chicago to check out the convention, then in the news daily as massive youth demonstrations protesting the Viet Nam War, racism, poverty, etc. had taken over the city.

The ABC News producer at the convention hall gave me a set of official media credentials. They let me go anywhere in the convention itself. But, more importantly, I could go anywhere in the city — with the ability to pass police and army MP lines — which were everywhere near the convention site.

So I went everywhere.

The news media were transported everywhere in special school buses that also could go through police and army MP restricted lines. During one trip, I sat with a CBS News foreign correspondent who was on special assignment.

“The police and army MP’s have turned Chicago into a war zone,” he told me, obviously surprised — and he had had experience covering real wars.

KPBS-TV on Wednesday (10/22) carried a 2-hour documentary on those Chicago riots and the later, famous “Chicago Seven” criminal trials. Those shows captured the raw rage that filled the city; and the gross injustice of the show trial by federal district Judge Julius Hoffman.

He threw the “Chicago Seven” into jail, but all charges were later reversed by a federal appellate court.

I remember being in one of Chicago’s city parks on a warm afternoon when the park was filled with flower children of the hippie/yippie era.

I noticed three singers with guitars performing under a tree and surrounded mostly by youths, but also youthful seniors. I didn’t know who the performers were — thinking they were probably some local group — so I asked one of the kids.

“Peter, Paul and Mary,” he said with a proud smile.

My God, really? Big-time musical stars were here, with the demonstrators? As a journalist, I thought that was absolutely incredible!

The very bloody riots that I witnessed were actually created by the massive numbers of police who repeatedly attacked the peaceful, youthful crowds.

But, there were also some strange lighter moments.

I remember watching one short teenage boy walk up to a long line of army MP’s standing firmly at parade rest. In that position, their rifles are leaning forward at an angle.

The boy quietly and slowly placed a single flower into the end of the barrels of each of the line of rifles.

The equally youthful MP’s didn’t object. Indeed, several smiled at him.

If they could have taken off their uniforms, I’m convinced those young army MP’s would have joined the demonstrators.

I had never seen anything like the militarization of Chicago in ‘68. Working for a very conservative broadcasting company, I was then a solid Republican conservative myself.

But when I returned to San Francisco, I realized that my experience in Chicago had radicalized me.

I joined the New Left.

By day, I worked for ABC-KGO News in San Francisco.

By night, I was the first, regularly published Gay journalist in the nation, working at the Berkeley Barb. That widely read weekly underground newspaper was largely responsible for Gay Lib’s success today. Without it, we may not have the LGBT Center or the Gay & Lesbian Times in Hillcrest today. Yet, oddly neither acknowledge the role of Gay journalism in launching Gay Lib 40 years ago.

Together with 12 other young homosexuals (the word Gay didn’t become common until later), we launched the Committee for Homosexual Freedom, the first Gay Lib organization, five months before the famous Stonewall Riots, which many today incorrectly consider the birth of Gay Lib. That’s a myth.

Today, Sen. Obama is successfully using the power of the massive mobilization of youths — along with their Internet — to transform the current presidential campaign into one of historic proportions.

While seniors have historically been the people marching to the polls on election day, this month that may change as youths march massively to vote in unprecedented numbers — just as they marched in Chicago in ‘68.