ISR Issue 60, JulyAugust 2008
wayne heimbach and Bill roberts
A look back at the 1968 Democratic Convention
ONE OF the most enduring images of the year 1968 was
the violent attack on antiwar demonstrators during the Democratic
Party’s presidential nominating convention held in Chicago in
late August. Chicago had a long established reputation as a city
wracked by political corruption, Mob control, and a racist and violent
police force. The city acquired an even more frightening reputation after
then-Mayor Richard J. Daley called on his police to “shoot to
kill” rioters following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
in April. Daley mobilized the vast resources of the city to intimidate
antiwar and antiracist activists who planned on demonstrating at the
In the end, Daley’s police engaged in violent
attacks on supporters of liberal Democrat Senator Eugene
McCarthy, the media, peaceful demonstrators, and bystanders. His
actions were denounced as “Gestapo tactics” from the podium of
the Democratic Convention. Many young people, who witnessed the violent
suppression of liberal reform in Czechoslovakia by Russian tanks just a few
weeks earlier, saw an eerie similarity in the political events in both
WAYNE HEIMBACH, a former Students for a Democratic
Society (SDS) organizer and a witness to the events in Chicago, and Bill
Roberts, a member of the editorial board of the ISR, recall the issues and
lessons from that important historical event.
CAN YOU tell us a little bit about yourself? What were
doing in 1968? What was the feel of the city?
I CAME to Chicago in the fall of 1967. I had been
working with a community organization initiated by the SDS in Minneapolis,
Minneapolis Community Union Project (MCUP), but the pull of Chicago was too
great. Everyone was talking about the Democratic Convention coming to
Chicago. I originally came to national SDS at the print shop in the
national office and my first introduction to the organization was to join
some of the staff in a trip to Washington D.C., for a march on the Pentagon
(October 1967). By February 1968 I changed jobs and became one of two SDS
regional organizers (called regional travelers) working out of the national
office. It was a good job—twelve-hour days, $5 a week, and a place to
It was an interesting time to be at SDS. It was
growing and trying to find its way through a range of competing
ideologies—from what should the attitude be toward socialism, should
we support abortion, was the Democratic Party relevant. We also had to deal
with the reality of organizing in a very uptight city. We had very obvious
police agents looking for work in the national office (we put them to work
bundling SDS’s newsletter New Left Notes) and we had the fear of what
the reaction of government forces would be. As we got closer to the
Democratic Convention, you would see army troops at the top of ramps on the
Kennedy Expressway near downtown Chicago.
HOW DID the Tet Offensive and Martin Luther
King’s assassination effect the Vietnam antiwar movement?
THE MID- to late-sixties were like a continuum—a
continuum of events and responses and escalation of how we were all dealing
with the reality in front of us. Those of us who had some relationship to
the civil rights movement and those who were affected by that movement felt
a real sense of urgency and a sense of being part of real changes in
society. The introduction of the military draft brought a whole new section
of society into a more immediate concern about their personal relationship
to what was happening. When I joined SDS at Johns Hopkins in 1964, fellow
students were usually dismissive of antiwar work. The draft had many of
them pulling leaflets from my hand to read rather than to throw away. It
was quite a change.
That intensity grew as we entered 1968. As I
mentioned, everyone knew something was going to happen in Chicago. The Tet
Offensive and, later in the year, the May–June events in France, gave
us the confidence that we were part of a real international movement of
people for change. At the same time, the assassinations of Dr. King and
Robert Kennedy showed the danger and uncertainty of our fight.
The upsurge that came after Dr. King was killed
obviously traumatized the whole country. For us in the movement, we had to
figure out how to relate to such an explosion in a political way. For us in
Chicago, we had a demonstration from downtown to the then-Chicago Street
armory—”troops out of Vietnam, troops out of the ghetto”
was our slogan. The response was immediate. The army was using the armory
for a staging point and they came out with fixed bayonets. After I was
arrested, I saw a number of examples of how these very tired and frightened
troops were not particularly shy in using those bayonets.
A less collective response was for us at SDS to
produce leaflet entitled: “Wanted for incitement to murder, Richard
J. Daley, Mayor of Chicago.” This came after Mayor Daley’s
“shoot to kill” orders to his police department. We delivered
this flyer all over Chicago’s West Side and it was an immediate
success. There was even a TV report of a Chicago police officer trying to
rip down one of the flyers we had put up. It turns out we knew the secret
of glue and water in putting up flyers.
HOW DID the antiwar movement approach organizing
activities with the Democratic Party planning on having its convention
THE ANTIWAR movement related to the Democratic
Convention in different ways. The Yippies1 and Up Against the Wall2 folks
invited people to the city for a celebration of protest. This idea of
celebration became much more serious for them as we got closer to the
convention date, however, as everyone saw that this was not going to be a
The official position of SDS was not to come to
Chicago. It was obvious that people were going to come anyway, so the
national office asked me to write a short statement for New Left Notes making it clear
what could happen in the city. I stated the official SDS position and said
if people were going to come, be prepared to deal with the convention
politically by having discussions with the many McCarthy supporters who
were going to be here. I also suggested they bring a copy of their blood
type with them, just in case.
The McCarthy organization was asking people to come to
Chicago to support their candidate. They were generally less experienced in
the street actions that others had seen and they came to participate in
what they thought would be a massive lobbying event. As the convention got
underway, most of these different tendencies merged both in the streets and
in how the city administration dealt with them. We all became comrades in
the fight against the war.
WHAT WAS the response of the Daley machine to all of
MAYOR DALEY made it known that, if you came to Chicago
for the convention, you would see trouble. His statements were very clear.
His actions during the protests after Dr. King’s death did nothing to
dispel that threat. Police agents were all over the place trying to find
out what was happening. A good source of information on this police
intelligence work was the contemporary accounts in the Chicago Tribune,
which expressed their displeasure on seeing the various intelligence
groups, army, navy, Chicago Red Squad, etc, all competing with each other
and refusing to cooperate on intelligence gathering. The Tribune described
a plan to send people into the movement, say they were from Baltimore, and
incite violence during the convention. The very next day I chaired an SDS
meeting where a guy raised his hand, said he was from Baltimore (where I am
from), and he incited violence. He should have read the Tribune the day
THE VIOLENCE at the Democratic Convention has been
historically referred to as a “police riot.” What do you think
THE POLICE were a disciplined force in Chicago. If
they were told to do something, they did it. If they were told not to, they
didn’t. This is not to suggest that they weren’t excessive,
it’s rather to suggest they were told to be very forceful in their
work. They did what they had done previously in the city, they did what
they said they would do, and they were very efficiently organized to
accomplish their task. It was called a police riot by the press because the
press was dealt with in the same way many others had been dealt with
On a personal level many of the reporters were truly
surprised by the actions of the police. On a national level there was a
discussion by the rulers of this country on what the future of the war in
Vietnam should be. For many of us in SDS we saw a clear attempt to make
Chicago and the violence at the convention look bad enough to start to
change some of the discussion about the future of the war.
IF IT wasn’t a “police riot,” what
did the police do? What did you witness?
THE POLICE were quite efficient in moving in formation
to force protesters from different sections of a
neighborhood into smaller and more controllable areas. Riot implies
they were somehow out of control. Generally that was not true. Even when
they were particularly violent—like when they targeted protesters who
had already been bandaged—you felt it was part of a larger plan. I
only heard of one time when a couple of police officers drew their guns.
That was when they cornered two protesters in a dead-end alley and looked
behind them to find thirty other protesters. Realizing they were in the
same dead-end alley as those they chased, they drew their guns to protect
themselves. They were convinced to holster their weapons and allowed to
leave the alley. It’s not especially useful to criticize the
individual officers for their actions without having a clear understanding
of what they were told to do and who was pulling the strings.
WHAT DO you think was the ultimate impact of the
events at the Democratic Convention on the politics of the sixties
generation and the antiwar movement?
I THINK SDS’s position on the Democratic
Convention was correct. If you were going to be in Chicago, make discussion
with McCarthy supporters your priority. The demonstrations weren’t
going to end the war unless we were able to build the movement, not only in
numbers but also politically. By this time SDS had said that neither the
Democratic Party nor the Republican Party had the answers for reform. An
independent movement needed to be built.
What this independent movement would be, however,
wasn’t clear. There wasn’t a direction agreed upon by everyone.
One wing of the movement turned more and more toward elite
“vanguard” actions that eventually led to a split in SDS a year
later and to the growth of the Weatherman mentality.3 Germs of this
position were obvious in Chicago during the summer of 1968 and they
continued to grow. This is even true with a huge upsurge of interest in SDS
throughout the country when college opened in the fall. We would get calls
from all over from schools large and small which said they had forty or
fifty people at their first meeting, had no experience with SDS or
organizing, and wanted to know what to do.
The problem for the SDS leadership was that they had
no idea what to do either. The name of SDS was well known by this time, the
SDS leadership was dedicated and often quite experienced in civil rights
struggles, labor struggles, as well as the student movement. The problem
was politics. A clear idea of building a mass movement was lacking as was
the ability to have confidence in that movement to find its direction. The
idea of a “vanguard” took precedence over the building of a
relationship of that leadership to a larger movement. The idea of a
vanguard has a long and useful tradition—either in discussion of a
vanguard layer of workers at a job site or in the development of a vanguard
party. However, that concept loses usefulness when it is developed in
isolation from a clear understanding of this vanguard’s relationship
to those it is supposed to lead.
A different direction existed in SDS, and more
generally within the movement, from the early 1960s. Partly reflected in
the Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP) which, with some union
support, had set up community organizing projects throughout the country,
partly reflected in civil rights and labor support work done throughout the
decade, and partly reflected politically within SDS by those of us
advocating a socialist approach to labor. This different direction was
isolated within SDS and eventually kicked out of the organization in 1969
(the so-called split convention).
The question, however, was still a question of
politics. A number of ERAP project leaders became leaders in the Weatherman
formation. A number of SDS leaders with years of labor experience became
strong advocates of the “vanguardist” tendency.
One aspect of 1968 that many people forget is that
there was a wildcat strike of Chicago bus drivers during the convention
time. In the year following the Democratic Convention, we saw wildcat
strikes at Chicago UPS when the striking workers came to the University of
Illinois campus to get support from the students they saw in the streets a
year earlier. Nationally, we saw the beginnings of rank-and-file organizing
in auto, teachers, trucking, telecommunications, steel, mines, and numerous
As the country generally got tired of the war in
Vietnam and as the economy presented more challenges, the lesson of
building a mass movement spread throughout society. The 1960s taught us
about building a mass movement and, as the movement started to decline in
strength, it taught us the difficulties of sustaining such a movement. Most
important, it taught us that such a movement can be built.
1 The Yippies, or Youth International Party, were a
countercultural group that used guerrilla theater-type actions such as
running a pig as a candidate for president in 1968.
2 Up Against the Wall, also known as Up Against the
Wall Motherfuckers, was an anarchist “street gang with
analysis” based in the Lower East Side of New York City.
3 The Weather Underground, one of the organizations
formed after the split in SDS in 1969. A radical terrorist group, the
Weathermen saw themselves as outlaws in a society ripe for revolution but
where no social force existed to carry it out. The organization made its
name in October 1969 during its “Days of Rage” in Chicago,
where 800 people showed up in combat boots and goggles armed with sticks to
do battle with the police and “to tear the motherfucker
WHAT WAS the political atmosphere like in Chicago from
the time of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination to the eve of the
FOR FIVE months, Chicago’s political atmosphere
followed a rollercoaster prompted by the series of events from local to
international. The city administration under Mayor Daley, at every turn,
tried to head off any activity that might ignite something they
couldn’t control. Even before King was killed, Daley’s police
had attacked an antiwar demonstration of less than a thousand with a force
nearly as large. Daley’s “shoot to kill” order after Dr.
King was assassinated added to the repressive atmosphere. It was clear that
intimidation was Daley’s strategy leading up to the August
One April 4, I was in the Old Colony building on South
Dearborn in the Loop, where my union—the Independent Union of Public
Aid Employees (IUPAE)—had an office. Within a couple of hours of Dr.
King’s assassination smoke began to rise from the slums on West
Madison. The radio was crackling with warnings about which areas of the
city to avoid. There was a siege atmosphere in the city.
My immediate concern was getting back to our small
apartment in Hyde Park where my wife Deborah was waiting and seven months
pregnant. The ride home that night on the Illinois Central was a sober,
tension-filled journey. People were sad and scared. I was angry as well as
sad. The world seemed to be coming apart. Deborah and I were especially sad
at Dr. King’s death because we had marched with him two summers
earlier in the Chicago open housing marches.
Between Dr. King’s assassination and the August
convention came the uprising of students and workers in France, Bobby
Kennedy’s assassination, and the crushing of the hopeful political
opening in Prague. One week you were up and the next down. It was an
exhilarating time, but also a bit schizophrenic, especially without a
WHAT TYPE of political activity were you involved in
while you were living in Chicago?
I WAS a caseworker for public aid, but in ’68 I
worked full-time for the union as its publicity vice president. Our union
had broken from the Service Employees, which meant we were not welcomed by
the labor establishment. Nevertheless, we were very active. IUPAE linked up
with the UAW after the riots ended to distribute clothes and food on
Chicago’s West Side. We also lent our support to the Chicago Transit
Authority workers as they prepared to confront the city that summer.
IUPAE was filled with radicals of various
experiences—Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), civil rights
workers, antiwar activists—so the atmosphere was very political. We
took a contingent to Gary, Indiana, to help register voters in preparation
for electing the first Black mayor—Gary Hatcher. I was in several
informal political discussion groups formed by union activists. We
discussed everything from left Democratic Party strategies to Marxism.
The organization of a protest at the Democratic Party
Convention (DNC) faced several challenges that year. First, large sections
of the antiwar movement were immersed in the campaigns of Eugene McCarthy
and Bobby Kennedy—the “get clean for Gene” idea captured
a lot of activists. I know in my union several members joined one or the
other of the campaigns. Second, ultra-leftism was beginning to divide the
movement. A third challenge was the emergence of Black Power. Pulling
together a united approach to the DNC in Chicago was very problematical.
I wasn’t directly connected to the planners of
the August demonstrations, but I monitored the various plans that were
being floated. Although not active in SDS in Chicago, I still had a few
connections from my earlier SDS activity. I knew SDS was not particularly
keen on people coming to Chicago, but also knew that it was where many
activists would want to be in August.
Many in my union wanted to support a demonstration and
to go as a contingent. But the IUPAE split over endorsing for three reasons:
First, there was a core of Democratic Party loyalists who didn’t
want to defy Daley. Second, the plans being floated were not very clear.
And third, the various police agencies seemed to be competing for how much
disinformation they could spread. What often passed for “plans”
were the musings of self-appointed movement stars, like Abbie Hoffman,
leader of the Yippies. The rumor that Chicago’s water would be laced
with LSD was only one of their provocations.
While the clowns drew the press and stoked the
paranoia, others were seriously planning for a mass demonstration at the
convention site. But Daley wasn’t about to give a permit for any kind
of demonstration that would put the DNC in a bad light. That it was Daley
himself on the floor of the convention—cursing the chair—and
his patronage goon squad—roughing up reporters and McCarthy
supporters, not to mention what happened in the streets—that shined a
bad light on Chicago. It was one of the great ironies of that week.
WHAT DID you do during the days of protests at the
BECAUSE I wasn’t directly connected to SDS, or
Mobe (Mobilization Against the War), I followed events through the daily
two-page broadside put out by Ramparts, the left-wing monthly magazine that had sprung to life in
tandem with the growth of the antiwar movement. I distributed the Ramparts Wallpolster to public
aid workers in the course of my union rounds. When I could break away from
my union duties as well as the duties of a new father, I would head for the
various action sites. Mobe had targeted a number of symbolic locations,
like the Armory, to rally at, but mostly these were tiny actions. Tom
Hayden was quoted as saying, “My God, no one is here,” after
one of the actions fizzled.
It was clear the weekend before the convention that
the mass mobilization talked about in the spring was not going to happen. I
checked out Lincoln Park on the Saturday before the convention and only a
handful of Yippies were there sitting around a guitar player. The
intimidation tactics of the city, the assassinations, and the electoral
activity had all undercut a broad mobilization. But McCarthy activists did
come in large numbers. They truly believed their candidate might prevail in
some way. In three days they learned the lessons of hardball politics and
many left Chicago with revolutionary conclusions.
After the police attacked the Yippies in Lincoln Park
on Sunday, the word went out that the police were ready to rumble. From the
number of press people attacked there too, it was clear the city was
drawing a line in the sand.
The largest mobilizations were never more than 5,000.
Every day there were battles between police and demonstrators. I missed
Tuesday’s skirmish, but was there for the Wednesday war on Michigan
Avenue in front of the Hilton. I walked up to Grant Park on Congress from
my union office. Already there were whiffs of tear gas floating from the
south end of the park. Crowds of protesters were streaming out of the park
as I walked south on Columbus Drive trying to get around the machine-gun
manned jeeps on the Congress overpass. One teary-eyed demonstrator told me
the police had broken into the assembled demonstrators before they had even
decided on the direction of their march. I moved down Columbus Drive toward
Balbo. Most of the crowd was scattered in this part of the park and it was
eerily quiet except for police radios and idling police wagons.
I followed a group heading toward Michigan Avenue and
the Hilton. At the bridge over the Illinois Central tracks I stopped to
survey the gathering confrontation. The demonstrators were in front of the
Hilton shouting, “Dump the Hump,” [Senator Hubert Humphrey was
given the nomination instead of McCarthy] and “Peace now.”
These were mostly McCarthy supporters, who were now joining the
demonstration, clearly furious at the treatment of their candidate and the
failure to get a peace plank.
Further north, the Poor People’s mule train with
Rev. Ralph Abernathy was waiting to head down the avenue. The police
separated the three mule wagons from the rest of the demonstration and
escorted them out of the area. Then all hell broke loose. From my elevated
position on the bridge, I could see phalanxes of blue-helmeted cops move
methodically from several directions and wade into the demonstrators in
front of the Hilton. The crack of clubs and the smell of gas were all
around. People were stumbling out of the melee dazed and bloody. I decided
I could contribute by getting people out of the area. I somehow managed to
get to my VW bus and drove north and circled back down Columbus Drive until
I found groups of wounded demonstrators behind the Art Museum. I loaded as
many as could cram in and then drove them out of the area to find water. I
repeated this a couple of more times.
HOW DID the events in Chicago impact your political
THE EVENTS of Chicago that year, combined with the
events in France and Prague, accelerated our political development. Deborah
followed the week on television while nursing our daughter, but every night
when I returned, she wanted the first-hand reports. Then we would try to
digest what it all meant. We gathered our political friends together for
discussions. We were beginning to grope toward finding a political group
that could help us in this process. It would take a couple of years before
we found the International Socialists (IS), but, like many who participated
in the events that year, we were propelled toward revolutionary conclusions
by the actions of those who unleashed the blue helmets against the peace