Sixty Years after the 1968 Convention Riots, the Democrats Return to Chicago

EDITORIAL, 20 May 2024

#849 | Richard E. Rubenstein – TRANSCEND Media Service

Is This a Problem?

Should the Democrats fear the chaos of the 1968 convention as they prepare to renominate Joe Biden in Chicago?  A recent USA Today report (April 27, 2024) suggests that they should.  Noting that “Thousands of Americans angry over Biden’s staunch support of Israel in its war with Hamas are planning to protest outside the sports arena where he is to accept the nomination,” the article suggests that stormy demonstrations could derail Biden’s presidential run just as the 1968 disorders doomed the efforts of Hubert Humphrey.

An interesting speculation – but 2024 is not 1968.  At least, it doesn’t have to be.

On August 28, 1968, I was in Chicago’s Grant Park with around 5,000 other people to participate in a peaceful protest of the Vietnam War. The city government, ruled by Mayor Richard J. Daley as his personal fief, had refused to give the organizers a permit to gather anywhere but in that isolated location. When we decided to leave the park and march peacefully down Michigan Avenue, we were met by thousands of club-swinging police clearly more interested in breaking heads than in making arrests.

A few months later a task force of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence headed by Daniel Walker, a future governor of Illinois, would describe the Convention disorders as a “police riot.” Unless Mayor Brandon Johnson of Chicago is planning to “do a Daley” – to deny protestors permits to demonstrate and then to mobilize police and troops to punish them – 2024 need not be 1968.

It is useful to recall the violence that suffused U.S. politics in 1968. Before the Democrats met in August, the Tet and May Offensives had taken place in Vietnam, with thousands of American body bags shipped home from Vietnam and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese killed. In April Martin Luther King was murdered by an assassin, and Robert F. Kennedy met the same fate in June. Major race riots erupted in Washington, Baltimore, and Kansas City, and a three-day uprising in Chicago left 11 citizens of color dead, with 48 wounded by police gunfire, 90 police injured, and 2.150 people arrested.

In 2024, despite the ghastly toll of lives lost and destroyed in Gaza and Israel, nonviolence remains the norm in American politics. Yes, there are anti war demonstrations on college campuses now as there were then, and university officials have again called the cops to restore what they define as order. But in 1968, a whole generation of young Americans was struggling to avoid conscription, stop the massacres of Vietnamese, and bring U.S. troops home. They were also part of a movement to end the oppression of people of color, women, sexual minorities, workers, and poor people in the United States. The current campaign to end the Gaza War is linked to other campaigns for social justice, but it is not yet part of a nationwide upheaval like that of the capital-M Movement of the 60s and early 70s.

The closest parallel between 1964 and 2024, it seems to me, is the relationship between anti war protests and an impending presidential election. Once again, the liberal candidate is a foreign policy “hawk” whose association with atrocious war making (even if by proxy) has alienated large numbers of young people, as well as many older adults. Once again, the conservative candidate is a right-winger of dubious moral character whose domestic policies are loathed by progressive voters and many moderates. And once again, the election promises to be very close. (In 1968, Republican Richard Nixon bested Democrat Hubert Humphrey by less than one percent of the popular vote.)

I cast my vote in 1968 for Dick Gregory, a famous comedian and anti war leader who lived near me in Chicago. It was the first and only presidential election in which I watched the televised returns in the candidate’s living room – but despite this thrill, my vote helped to put Illinois’ 29 electoral votes in Nixon’s pocket. I voted for Gregory because Humphrey had refused to promise to end the Vietnam War. But thanks to Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the war lasted for seven more years, spreading to Cambodia, pulverizing Laos, and killing as many as two million civilians on both sides, as well as more than one million soldiers.

I hope that the demonstrators demanding a full ceasefire in Gaza and an end to America’s support for oppression of the Palestinians will come to Chicago – and Milwaukee – and make their voices heard loud and clear.  But I also hope that they and their supporters will not repeat my mistake in 1968. The American political system, like this nation’s foreign policy, needs a serious makeover. But Donald Trump is no more the person to solve these problems than Richard Nixon was.  First, defeat Trump.  Then, fight for radical reform of the warmaking system.


Richard E. Rubenstein is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and a professor of conflict resolution and public affairs at George Mason University’s Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution. A graduate of Harvard College, Oxford University (Rhodes Scholar), and Harvard Law School, Rubenstein is the author of nine books on analyzing and resolving violent social conflicts. His most recent book is Resolving Structural Conflicts: How Violent Systems Can Be Transformed (Routledge, 2017).

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 20 May 2024.

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