1968 Democratic National Convention protest activity

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1968 Democratic National Convention protest activity
Part of the 1968 US presidential election, Opposition to US involvement in Vietnam, and the Poor People's Campaign
Date August 23 - 28
Location Chicago, Illinois
Parties to the civil conflict
Lead figures

Protest activity took place prior to and during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. In 1967, counterculture protest groups had been promising to come to Chicago and disrupt the convention, and the city promised to maintain law and order. For eight days, the protesters and the Chicago Police Department met in the streets and parks of Chicago while the US Democratic Party met at the convention in the International Amphitheater.

Youth International Party's involvement

The Youth International Party was one of the major groups in the organization of the protests. Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and a few friends engaged in conversation at Hoffman’s apartment on New Year’s Eve, 1967. They discussed the events of the year, such as the Summer of Love and the Pentagon demonstration. The idea of having a free music festival in Chicago was suggested to defuse political tension.[who?] Over the next week, the Youth International Party (known as Yippie) took shape. Yippie politicized hippie ideology and used street theater and other tactics to critique the culture of the United States and induce change.[1]

In preparation for the Chicago convention, the Yippies held the "Yip-In", and the "Yip-Out" at Grand Central Station in New York City. Both events were planned simply as "be-ins", with live music. The event was used to promote peace, love and harmony, and as a trial run for Chicago. The black banner of an anarchist group was hung on the wall, bearing the words, "Up Against the Wall Mother Fucker" in red. Police stood by watching the crowds. As the "Yip-In" progressed, relations between the police and Yippies became strained. Two people climbed a large clock and removed the hands; the police responded by clearing the station. They formed a skirmish line, ordered the people to disperse, and then started forcing their way through the crowd.[citation needed]

The "Yip-Out" was similar in purpose, but held in Central Park. To obtain the permits and aid from New York City officials necessary for the event, Yippies performed a sit-in at the mayor’s office until the Mayor would negotiate on permits. In the end, an agreement was made on staging, electricity, police presence, bathrooms, and other necessities for running a music festival. Police milled in the crowd giving considerable leeway to the proceedings which led to a peaceable day.[2]

The Yippies took a radical approach to the Democratic National Convention. They wrote articles, published fliers, made speeches and held rallies and demonstrations, to announce that they were coming to Chicago. Threats were made that nails would be thrown from overpasses to block roads; cars would be used to block intersections, main streets, police stations and National Guard armories; LSD would be dumped in the city’s water supply and the convention would be stormed. However, none of these threats came to fruition. Nonetheless, city officials in Chicago prepared for all possible threats.[3] A vilification campaign led by Chicago authorities worked in favor of the Yippies' plan.[citation needed]

One of the Yippies' main tactics was to use street theatre to create an experience that drew the attention of mainstream America. Yippie activities were used to put across the message that the average American didn't have control over the political process. They tried to show this by purposefully participating in non-traditional activities that would not conceivably affect the decision making process in the convention hall, unlike a "straight" protest with picket lines, marches, and rallies which could conceivably convince delegates of mass support for a program.[citation needed] On a Wednesday night, networks moved their coverage away from the Amphitheater where the delegates were voting on the nomination, to a "pitched battle" in front of the Conrad Hilton hotel.[citation needed]

National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam's involvement

The other main group behind the convention protests was the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (often referred to as "MOBE"). MOBE was an umbrella organization that included groups who were opposed to American participation in the Vietnam War. MOBE was run by a small executive board that set up a general framework for mass demonstrations, sent out invitations to the over 500 groups on its mailing lists, and coordinated activities between the groups. MOBE recognized and supported all tactics from marching to civil disobedience.[citation needed] MOBE’s main aim was to get the largest turnouts at its functions. David Dellinger, MOBE chairman, believed that "The tendency to intensify militancy without organizing wide political support [was] self defeating. But so [was] the tendency to draw way from militancy into milder and more conventional forms of protest."[4]

For Chicago, MOBE originally planned for two large-scale marches and an end of convention rally at Soldier Field. The goal was originally a massive show of force outside the International Amphitheatre. MOBE also planned to have workshops and movement centers distributed in 10 parks throughout the city, many in predominantly black areas, to allow demonstrators and participating groups to follow their particular focuses.[citation needed]

Mayor Daley and the City

This demonstration took place on August 10, 1968 as Chicago was preparing to host the Democratic National Convention.

In the buildup to the Convention, Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley repeatedly announced "Law and order will be maintained".[5]

Chicago’s security forces prepared for the protests during the convention. Besides the standard gun and billy club, Chicago Police Department officers had mace and riot helmets. For the convention, the CPD borrowed a new portable communications system from the military, thus increasing communication between field officers and command posts. All summer long, police officers had received refresher training on crowd control and riot techniques. During the convention itself, Police Academy instructors were with the reserve forces, giving last minute reminders.[6]

To satisfy manpower requirements, the City put the force on 12-hour shifts, instead of the normal 8-hour shifts. This gave police commanders approximately 50% more field officers to deal with disturbances. Two-thirds of the officers would continue with the normal police duties with the remaining third available for special assignment. In the Amphitheatre, the City concentrated 500 officers filling various roles. In Lincoln Park, the number of officers patrolling during the daytime was doubled, but the majority of the officers assigned to the Lincoln Park area were held in reserve, ready to respond to any disturbance. In suspected trouble areas, police patrols were heavy. Further away from the center patrols were less frequent. This allowed the police to shift easily and quickly to control a problem without leaving an area unguarded. While maintaining a public image of total enforcement of all city, state, and federal laws, the Narcotics division was quietly reassigned to regular fieldwork, curtailing anti-drug operations during the DNC.[7]

Police officials and Mayor Daley had worked with the National Guard to create a plan to effectively use the Guard. It would be called up at the beginning of the convention, but held in reserve at strategically placed armories or collection points such as Soldier Field. With the Guard in place at their armories, the CPD could request and receive assistance quickly.[8]


Both MOBE and Yippie needed permits from the city in order to hold their respective events. The City had several reasons for denying permits to MOBE and Yippie and thus stalled issuing permits. The City was worried about a black rebellion, independent of the white protesters, during the convention. To avoid trouble, the City used its influence with black community organizations such as The Woodlawn Organization, the Black Consortium, and Operation Breadbasket to try to keep their constituents calm and peaceful. Some of the militant black leaders were encouraged to leave town during the convention to avoid being implicated in any violence.[9] The City also believed that having large numbers of white protesters marching through the black ghettos with a heavy police or National Guard escort would inflame the ghettos and set off rioting. Therefore, the City categorically denied any permit that included parks in or march routes through black areas.

Another argument the City used to deny permits was that the permits asked the City to set aside local and state ordinances. A city ordinance closed the city parks at 11 pm, although this was not rigidly enforced during the hot summer months. In a letter to Yippie, Deputy Mayor David Stahl gave eight rules for Yippie to follow, including submitting detailed plans and requirements, following all city, state, and federal ordinances, and toning down the rhetoric.[citation needed] The Yippies refused, so the City felt justified in denying Yippie their permits.[citation needed] In a last-ditch effort, MOBE filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking it to force Chicago to issue permits. Judge Lynch, Daley's former law partner, heard the case: Lynch ruled that the city had made efforts at compromise and it was the protest groups that were being unreasonable.[citation needed]


The start of the convention week’s violence is sometimes traced to the shooting of Dean Johnson by Chicago police officers. Dean Johnson, age 17, and another boy were stopped on the sidewalk by the officers for a curfew violation early on the morning of Thursday, August 22. When Johnson drew and fired a pistol at police (the gun misfired), police officers returned fire, hitting Johnson three times.[10] The Yippies and SDS hastily organized a memorial service for Johnson, but as one observer noted, due to poor planning “it turned out that no one had made any plans to actually do anything. We just milled around and began to fill up the intersection. Two squad cars pulled up and the cops got out and told us to keep moving ... but they were pretty gentle about it”.[11]

On Friday, August 23, the planned protests began. Jerry Rubin and other Yippies attempted to formally nominate the Yippie candidate for president, Pigasus the Pig. By the time Rubin arrived with Pigasus, several hundred spectators and reporters had gathered on the Civic Center plaza.[citation needed] Police officers were waiting, and as soon as the pig was released, Rubin, folk singer Phil Ochs, and five other Yippies were arrested.[citation needed]

At 6 a.m. on Saturday, August 24, continuous surveillance began in Lincoln Park.[citation needed] For the previous several nights, the police had cleared Lincoln Park at 11 pm and maintained a significant presence during the day. Women Strike for Peace attempted to hold a women-only picket at the Hilton Hotel, the main delegate hotel. Despite plans for buses from around the country to bring hundreds of picketers, only 60 or so women showed up.[citation needed] This apparently failed protest was the catalyst for much of the convention week violence as MOBE and the SDS contingent realized that their “‘liberal base’ [had] finked out big”.[12] It appeared that the expected hundreds of thousands of protesters would not be descending upon Chicago to disrupt the convention with their presence. It was generally agreed upon to not attempt to stay in Lincoln Park after the curfew, but to rather take the fight to the streets because “In parks, ain’t no place to go. Can’t fight battles on a grassy plain. No ammunition (unless you carry it)”.[13] At exactly 11 pm, poet Allen Ginsberg led protesters out of the park into the streets. SDS leaders organized several hundred protesters to march through the streets chanting things such as ‘Peace Now’ while the police simply guarded Lincoln Park. When the crowd stopped at Wells and North Avenue, blocking the intersection, a police contingent arrived and cleared the crowd. Eleven people were arrested and several police cars were stoned before the crowd dispersed into the normal Saturday nightlife.[14]

On Sunday, MOBE had scheduled a ‘Meet the Delegates’ march and picket. At 2 p.m. there were between 200 and 300 picketers marching across the street from the Conrad Hilton, and another 500 marching south through the Loop chanting, “Hey, Hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today”.[citation needed] After the police arrival, those who were picketing moved into nearby Grant Park to avoid a mass arrest situation. Once the marchers had reached Grant Park, there was a brief rally where Davis and Hayden claimed the day a success, and then went to Lincoln Park where the Festival of Life music festival was beginning.[citation needed]

At 4 pm, the Festival started with MC5, the only band who showed up for the festival. The police did not allow a flatbed truck to be brought in as a stage, fearing Yippie would use it to incite the crowd. When the concession stand owner insisted that Yippie stop using his electrical outlets to run the amplification equipment, confusion ensued.[citation needed] While Rubin and other Yippies tried to make frantic deals to get the sound back on, Hoffman used the confusion to try to bring in the flatbed truck. A deal was struck allowing the truck to be parked nearby, but not in, the park. The crowd that had gathered around and on the truck did not realize an agreement had been reached and thought the truck was being sent away. The crowd surged around the truck, pinning in the police officers.[citation needed]

Hoffman declared that the police had stopped the music festival, and proceeded to conduct a workshop on dispersal tactics to avoid arrest by police. As the next police shift came on duty, they were informed of the tense situation in the park. Due to the number, frequency, diverseness, and exposure of the threats made by the protesters[citation needed], the police were concerned about facing protesters armed with unknown weapons and unknown intentions.[citation needed]

At 9 pm, police formed a skirmish line around the park bathrooms. This drew a crowd of spectators who heckled the police.[citation needed] The crowd rapidly grew until the police charged into the crowd swinging their batons, scattering the crowd. The protesters exaggerated the violence and numbers of the police[citation needed], and the police exaggerated the violence and numbers of the protesters.[citation needed] At 11 pm the police pushed the protesters out of the park. Most protesters left the park and congregated nearby, taunting the police.[citation needed]

Initially when the police reached the edge of the park, they maintained their skirmish line, however when a squad was ordered to ‘clear’ Clark Street to keep traffic flowing the police lost control.[citation needed] A running battle began.[citation needed] Yippie Jerry Rubin told a friend “This is fantastic and it's only Sunday night. They might declare martial law in this town.”[15] Order was not restored in Old Town until early Monday morning.[citation needed]

In Mayor Daley’s convention report, a list of 152 officers "wounded" on Wednesday's melee was presented. Their wounds ranged from an officer's split fingernail to an officer's infra-orbital fracture of the left eye.[16] Although the precise number of injured protesters is unknown, Dr. Quentin Young of the Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR) stated that approximately most of the 500 people treated in the streets suffered from minor injuries and the effects of tear gas. During the entirety of convention week, 101 civilians were treated for undisclosed injuries, by area hospitals, 45 of those on Wednesday night.[17]

On the convention floor, several delegates made statements against Mayor Daley and the CPD, like Senator Abraham Ribicoff who denounced the use of "Gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago" in his speech nominating George McGovern.[citation needed] Village Voice reporter Paul Cowan asked his editor not to print a story about the throwing of objects at the police, in hope to provoke reprisals to publish a story on the police riot which "seemed to me a far greater evil than the fact that some kids had wanted to provoke it".[18]

The rest of the convention week violence followed the pattern set Sunday night. Protestors were joined on 28 August by the Poor People's Campaign, now led by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Ralph Abernathy. This group had a permit and was split off from other demonstrators before being allowed to proceed to the amphitheater.[citation needed] The hard line taken by the City was also seen on the convention floor itself.[15] In 1968, Terry Southern described the convention hall as "exactly like approaching a military installation; barbed-wire, checkpoints, the whole bit".[19] Inside the convention, journalists such as Mike Wallace and Dan Rather were roughed up by security; both these events were broadcast live on television.[citation needed]

Subsequently, the Walker Report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence assigned blame for the mayhem in the streets to the police force, calling the violence a "police riot". It later became said that on that night, America voted for Richard M. Nixon.[20]

See also


  1. Farber, David (1988). Chicago '68. University of Chicago Press. pp. 3–28. ISBN 0-226-23801-6.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Farber, 38
  3. Stien, David Lewis. Living the Revolution; Yippie in Chicago. Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merril Co., 1969
  4. Farber, p. 90
  5. 1968: a timeline of events
  6. Farber, 128–32; Walker, 106–20
  7. Walker, 106–112
  8. Tuttle, 54
  9. Walker, Daniel. Rights in Conflict. New York, E. P. Dutton & Co. 1968
  10. Farber, 165; Walker, 132
  11. Stien, David Lewis. Living the Revolution; Yippie in Chicago. Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merril Co., 1969. pp 37–42
  12. Farber, 172
  13. Farber, p. 172
  14. Walker, 138–9
  15. 15.0 15.1 Blobaum, Dean (16 October 2011). "A Chronology". Chicago '68. Retrieved 3 October 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Chicago Department of Law. The Strategy of Confrontation; Chicago and the Democratic National Convention, 1968. Chicago, 1968. pp 65–66
  17. Walker, Daniel. Rights in Conflict. New York, E. P. Dutton & Co. 1968. p 353
  18. Gitlin, 330
  19. Online NewsHour: Terry Southern reports from the 1968 Democratic Convention - November 1968
  20. Max Frankel (1968-12-02). "U.S. Study scores Chicago violence as "a police riot"". The New York Times. p. 1. Retrieved 2007-12-31. Italic or bold markup not allowed in: |publisher= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

  • An excerpt from Chicago '68 by David Farber.
  • An excerpt from No One Was Killed: The Democratic National Convention, August 1968 by John Schultz.
  • An excerpt from Battleground Chicago: The Police and the 1968 Democratic National Convention by Frank Kusch.
  • Art and Social Issues Offers a description of Bernard Perlin's Mayor Daley which depicts protests during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Further reading