Editors’ note: This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. For those of us who watched — and especially for those who were there — the events surrounding the convention changed our perception of America’s promise. Gary Karnes, a longtime activist in Monterey County, was at the convention and shares his memories.
By Gary Karnes
History is a subject Americans have little need for. History is believed to be something that only happens to others, made by others, not me.
Our own past — as a family, as a nation and as a species — escapes us. Are we those people, as Santayana warned, who have not learned from history? Which brings me to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and my own personal story.
Sam Benowitz and I hitchhiked around the country in the summer of 1968 and we were there for the convention. Our first ride from Long Beach took us all the way to Oklahoma City along Route 66. We were on the road in search of America, the Mother Road as Steinbeck described it. The road of the Joad Family in Steinbeck’s 1939 novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” and of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in the 1969 movie, “Easy Rider.” Exhilarating! Back in the day I was the spittin’ image of Art Garfunkel, so before Sam and I headed into Texas and the South, we got haircuts.
The South hit us right away with its long-held racism. With our thumbs out along the highway in Houston, our next ride was from two drunk white guys who told us they were out “whoring and nigger-hunting.” The guy riding shotgun would roll down his window and wave a machete toward cars with black people inside. Being two out-of-towners from California, we decided this could be dangerous as well and decided we’d better take the bus instead to New Orleans, then hitching north to hopefully safer climes.
After a three-ride hop to New York City to visit family, Sam and I headed out toward Chicago, arriving one day before the convention began on August 25th. Demonstrations, concerts and other events were planned, though we really didn’t know what to expect. The year, 1968, was a world-historic year elongated into a qualitative change in how a significant number of people viewed the world. I was one of them. And the mandate for change was spreading around the globe. The mandate for change was in the factories, in the prisons, in the armies and in the schools in Prague, in Paris, in Tokyo, in Mexico City and in many smaller cities and towns. Across the United States, Native Americans, women, blacks, draftees, prisoners, farm workers, students and others were out there speaking of change and liberation.
My own transformation began in Chicago and my first real lesson in history was delivered by a billy club on the streets of Chicago. As a child I loved reading history. As a child our history was really not history but America’s creation-myth, where John Wayne shoots Indians, and they fall off their horses and no one gets hurt. But in Chicago the police cracked open a priest’s skull, news reporters were smashed across the face. At one point when the police charged the crowd, the woman next to me was hit in the head. I still remember the sound that made as we ran away from the agents of the government. America the indivisible. I spent four days in Chicago on the streets and came away realizing that I’d been lied to. Lied to by my government, lied to by my schools, lied to by the history books, repeatedly lied to.
So, I had the opportunity to listen to Jean Genet, Norman Mailer, Bobby Seale, and Eugene McCarthy. I listened to Phil Ochs sing on the sidewalk. I listened to Allen Ginsberg read poetry while sitting on the street. I heard Dick Gregory. I can’t remember what any of them said, but I still remember the cracking of the skull of a young woman who only came to listen and learn.
Fifteen thousand demonstrators surrounded by 15,000 Chicago police, national guardsmen and regular army with concertina wire, jeeps and tear gas clouding the sky was not what I was expecting.
My most positive memories of Chicago were of Dick Gregory, well-known comedian and social critic. He seemed to be moderating events off stage, on the street and keeping people focused and peaceful. Phil Ochs and Allen Ginsberg were with us. It was Dick Gregory who made the day. On Wednesday, August 28, late in the day, a line fifteen abreast and hundreds or thousands deep had formed to march from Grant Park to the Amphitheater near the stockyards where the convention was being held. Gregory was at the head of the line instructing people on how we were going to march. We had no idea if we would progress forward or not. I had no experience at the time how to protest. Getting started was slow.
Mayor Richard Daley would not issue a permit for any march near the Hilton Hotel or near the Amphitheater. Without a permit, Gregory led us off anyway. Twenty yards into the march we were stopped by the police. Negotiations ensued. There was no real order to the crowd. Later, I realized that we had no real experience at these things, no discipline. It was getting late and we seemed to be getting nowhere. Gregory came back to us and repeated the obvious, with humor: we didn’t have a permit and we couldn’t march. He stated to the crowd that we wouldn’t march, we wouldn’t have to, but since he lived down near the Amphitheater, he was inviting all of us down to his place for a beer.
So after much confusion and repeated attempts to get around the police lines, we broke through and out into the city of Chicago, with police in pursuit and busloads of additional police in crisp new riot uniforms and helmeted news cameramen following (“The whole world is watching”). Swathed in bandanas and smeared in Vaseline, we ran toward the Loop and outran the police. But we’d been scattered with no plan to regroup. I had lost track of Sam and would not find him until the next day. Dusk was approaching and a small group of us on Michigan Avenue, still dazed and surprised, met up unexpectedlywith other marchers with mules and wagons from the Poor People’s Campaign, headed by the Rev. Ralph Abernathy. We linked arms and voices in spirituals I barely knew at the time, and proceeded back the other way toward the Hilton Hotel. The streets still reeked with lingering tear gas.
About an hour later, the police stopped the march and surrounded us on three sides, right beneath the windows of the Hilton where delegates were staying. Suddenly, the police attacked with tear gas, mace and clubs, and, it seemed, without any real present danger or provocation by us. The cops went mad. The government had gone mad. Marchers, doctors, newsmen, McCarthy supporters and just tourists were beaten and bloodied. Police formed a circle around the bloody scene to prevent other cameramen from photographing. This was not the America we read about in our schoolbooks.
Sam and I got out that night, and out of Chicago the next day hitchhiking toward Seattle, physically unscathed but spiritually trembling. It was 1968 and dissent was being crushed in Chicago, in Prague, in Mexico City, in Paris. Like a razorblade to the wrists. Martin was killed, then Bobby. The Tet Offensive in January and LBJ’s declaring he would not run for re-election. Authority was called into question in the factories, in the fields, the foxholes, the classrooms, the courtrooms, the bedrooms and out on the streets of America.
The world was changing, willingly and unwillingly, brutally and peacefully. We had gone off in search of America and the search continues, one might say, for that one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all. For all!
FILM taken by U.S. Army photographers |
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