From The Archives

Blood in Chicago: Covering the Convention that Changed History

Voice reporters and photographer Fred McDarrah brought back eyewitness accounts of the bloody melee at the Democratic National Convention in 1968


Lyndon Baines Johnson became president when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Early on, LBJ told his aides that he wanted to expand on his predecessor’s policies for alleviating systemic poverty in the richest nation the world had ever known. His plans included Head Start, which supplied early education to poor children to give them a better chance to advance in society, as well as Medicare and Medicaid, which would provide healthcare to the elderly and to those who could not afford it. Johnson also wanted to combat racial discrimination in order to give every citizen equal opportunities in the marketplace. Some advised him against spending too much political capital on civil rights, but, having been a congressman and then senator since 1937, Johnson understood the levers of power. He replied, “What the hell’s the presidency for?”

Fighting against centuries of entrenched racism, LBJ accomplished much with his “Great Society” programs, but he was also spending vast resources on a war in Vietnam, a remnant of French colonialism that had mutated into a propagandistic conflict between capitalism and Communism. The loss of American lives in an increasingly savage war with murky moral underpinnings overshadowed Johnson’s slowly advancing progressive accomplishments. After almost five years as president, Johnson was too weary to fight the growing anti-war movement and so his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, who supported the administration’s war policies, ran for the presidency in 1968.

In the Voice pages from that time you can literally see the tension between the establishment’s status quo and young people who feel that social progress at home and peace abroad is taking too long. One ad in the paper exhorts students to come to the Democratic National Convention to demand change. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy — the charismatic preacher and the earnest politician who had both come out against the war — are fresh in their graves, the hopes of millions interred with them. Now, for those sick of the carnage of a geopolitical chess match, it is time to let the powers that be know that the death and destruction must stop. An ad from the August 1 issue reads:


Two weeks later, the tone has changed from wry cajoling to righteous anger:






The eyes of the world will be on Chicago that week as the Democratic Party acts out its ritual of pretending to consult the people while escalating its aggression in Vietnam and continuing a policy of racism and poverty at home.

After that we get a bit of absurdist theater, as Chicago cops corral a pig let loose in Lincoln Park by the Youth International Party, more commonly known as the Yippies — the activists were running “Pigasus” for President. But another photo on the front page of the August 29, 1968, issue of the Voice conveys the grim business of practicing civil disobedience and self-defense tactics. An article by Paul Cowan and Voice stalwart Jack Newfield reports, “The boomlet for Teddy Kennedy turned out to be a fantasy of Bobby’s orphans.” They add that the liberals had been routed inside the convention center by the pro-war, pro–Hubert Humphrey forces, and the protesting kids had been repulsed on the streets by Mayor Richard Daley’s club-wielding police force. On the jump page the Voice writers explain that the cops arrested one of the protest leaders, Tom Hayden, on trumped-up charges. He’s released on bail, so they travel through back alleys to escape more officers and run into some prostitutes and their pimp, all wearing buttons for the anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy. Nick Von Hoffman, a Washington Post reporter, tells of witnessing the cops sadistically beating protestors: “You know that they don’t make arrests any more. They can’t be bothered with lawyers, courts, any of that stuff.”

“Yeah, they just maim people and leave them hidden,” one of the convention delegates says.

Another politician, disgusted with what he’s seen, tells the assembled newsmen, “It’s up to you guys to keep reporting that stuff. There’s not much we can do any more — not the politicians, not even the kids. You have to keep telling the public what’s going on.”

By the September 5 issue, all the Voice reporters and photographer Fred McDarrah have filed their stories. A McDarrah photo of an armored troop carrier on the streets of Chicago is paired with images of the Soviet invasion of Prague that same week.

On the inside pages reporter Steve Lerner tells a tale about men of the cloth joining the protest: “Having foreseen that they could only wage a symbolic war with ‘little caesar Daley,’ several enterprising clergymen brought with them an enormous wooden cross which they erected in the midst of the demonstrators under a street lamp.… During the half-hour interlude between the arrival of the clergy and the police attack, a fascinating debate over the relative merits of strict non-violence versus armed self-defense raged between the clergy and the militants. While the clergy was reminded that their members were ‘over 30, the opiate of the people, and totally irrelevant,’ the younger generation was warned that ‘by calling the police “pigs” and fighting with them you become as bad as they are.’ ” Then the police strike: “It happened all in an instant. The night which had been filled with darkness and whispers exploded in a fiery scream. Huge tear gas canisters came crashing through the branches, snapping them, and bursting in the center of the gathering. From where I lay, groveling in the grass, I could see ministers retreating with the cross, carrying it like a fallen comrade.”

Lerner’s story jumps to a spread with other reports of the assaults by the police, as well as four pages of McDarrah’s photos. If reporters are charged with providing “the first rough draft of history,” the ground-level, street-smart photojournalist McDarrah gave us some of the first contact sheets of the counterculture.

Along with McDarrah’s bare-knuckle images, Richard Goldstein’s eye-witness account — wittily headlined, “Theater of Fear: One on the Aisle” — analyzes the rationales and morals of civil protests: “If you want to experience the ecstasy of street-turmoil, you must first understand the reality of fear. Because no one could have come to Chicago without first fighting in his head the battle he would later fight in the streets.

“I made lists. Weeks before my first whiff of tear gas, I spent a night dissecting my motives and expectations, in two neat columns. On one side I wrote: adventure, good copy, and historical imperative. On the other: danger, loneliness, and cost.”

Cowan’s “Moderates, Militants Walk A Bloody Route Together” examines the radicalization of those who initially want to work within the system. Arrayed against an implacable power structure, they feel they have no choice: “After all, a Yippie or a member of the [anti-war] Mobilization is a civil rights worker or a McCarthy volunteer who has recently reached the far side of despair. He has grown his hair long, fastened a Viet Cong pin to his lapel, quit reading the Saturday Evening Post, and begun to underline editorials in the Guardian or the Berkeley Barb, he shouts ‘pig’ at a few policemen. Immediately Americans see him as the contemporary anti-Christ. But friends of Jerry Rubin’s say that the Yippie leader is still proud of the fact that he worked for Adlai Stevenson in 1956; Tom Hayden always sounds a little nostalgic when he recalls that he was present the night that John Kennedy announced his plans for the Peace Corps at the University of Michigan.”

Newfield had always considered the insult “pig” a “satisfying exaggeration. An example of in-group argot.” But after he saw the Chicago police indiscriminately beating demonstrators he changed his mind: “The Chicago police, with their thick heads, small eyes, and beery jowls, actually resemble pigs. And they surely behaved like animals in this city famous for its stockyards.” In “The Streets of Daleyland,” he reports on the wounded being brought back to the convention hotel: “Upstairs on the 15th floor, the girls who worked for Senator McCarthy were treating the bloody and the sick. They were ripping up Conrad Hilton’s bedsheets and using them as gauze and bandages. Jerome Grossman, a bureaucrat in the McCarthy campaign, asked them not to destroy hotel property, but nobody paid attention to him. A lot of the girls had bloodstains on their dresses, legs, and arms.”

And so it goes. Had Daley — an old-line political boss who could not stomach this young, vigorous generation with ideals that challenged his power base — restrained his police rather than letting them run amok, millions of voters across the country would not have been sickened and disillusioned by the bloodletting. And then maybe they might have found it in their hearts to vote for the flawed, but ultimately forward-looking Hubert Humphrey. Instead, Richard Nixon won a razor-thin victory, and his retrograde policies — and even more retrograde appointments of Supreme Court justices — haunt us to this day.