On the night of Aug. 28, 1968, I put away my books, turned on the 13-inch, black-and-white television and sat down to check on the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. I hadn’t planned to watch it, since Vice President Hubert Humphrey was supposed to be a shoo-in for the presidential nomination. But I had heard reports on the radio of unrest both inside and outside the convention hall, so I decided to tune in.
I had just begun my second year of college at a small Florida school, where classes began at the beginning of the week. I wasn’t political at all; cynicism dominated my thinking despite, or because of, my experiences of both the good and the bad in American society. But I did want to avoid being drafted by the Army and sent to Vietnam. I was opposed to fighting in the war because I thought the domino theory, spouted by the government to justify it, was ridiculous, and, of course, I didn’t want to get killed, let alone for a ridiculous idea.
I was aware that there were anti-war activists, hippies, yippies and political radicals, but that wasn’t for me. After all, I was a business major, and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.
For about 10 minutes, I watched the usual convention fare of speakers and cheering, though this year there also was a lot of jeering because of the candidates’ differing stances on the war. Then, suddenly, the coverage shifted down to the Grant Park area downtown where anti-war demonstrators were beginning to march to the convention site. Chicago’s Mayor Daley had said they wouldn’t be allowed to do that, so barricades and police blockades were in place.
Then, police in riot gear started attacking marchers with clubs and tear gas, kicking them while they were down and dragging them away to waiting paddy wagons. We watched in shock as bloodied demonstrators were beaten and hauled away, or left prostrate on the street, too injured to move. The brutal police action resulted in 589 demonstrators arrested and 219 injured.
So, the demonstrators never made it to the convention site. Inside, Hubert Humphrey got the nomination over Eugene McCarthy, who had vowed to end the Vietnam War. And I got one of the most significant lessons of my political education.
Forty-four years ago today, Feb. 18, 1970, the five-month trial for the Chicago Seven, the activists charged with conspiring to incite that violence, ended with the jury handing up its verdicts.
All seven defendants, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines and Lee Weiner, were acquitted of the conspiracy charges. The latter two were acquitted of all charges, while the other five were convicted of inciting a riot. The convictions were thrown out later because of judicial bias with jury selection and during the trial.
Even before the 1968 convention, the tide of American sentiment that year had turned against the war. The Tet offensive in February, President Johnson’s decision not to seek another term, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy left many people feeling something was wrong, and that included the war in Vietnam.
As anti-war demonstrations grew in numbers and size in 1969, the Chicago Seven defendants used their trial as a way to put the war itself on trial. Even without a CNN or other network around to broadcast the trial live into living rooms, news coverage of the witnesses for the defense and the antics of some of the defendants was enough to focus attention on the cultural and political divide in America.
Should the trial, according to University of Missouri at Kansas City law professor Douglas Linder, be viewed as “an important battle for the hearts and minds of the American people? Or is it best seen as a symbol of the conflicts of values that characterized the late sixties? These are some of the questions that surround one of the most unusual courtroom spectacles in American history.”
Either way, by the time the Chicago defendants were indicted after President Nixon took office, I was among the many young people who had moved from opposing the war on a personal level to actively joining the anti-war movement. And, no doubt, the trial spurred even more people to get on board.
Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of The Daily Star and its editorial board.