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Marino de Medici: Chicago 1968 – when Mayor Daley beat the press

Marino de Medici

Aug. 30, 1968, is one of those days that made me realize that being a journalist is tantamount of being an observer of history with an appendage of involuntary involvement and personal risk. On that fateful Friday, I was, with other reporters, drawn into one of the most dramatic episodes of American political history, on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, where the Hilton Hotel had become the epicenter of a demonstration that had spiraled into widespread violence. On the previous day, on that very spot, I had listened to Sen. Eugene McCarthy proclaim in front of a crowd of 200 people that he rejected Hubert Humphrey as the anointed candidate of a majority of the delegates to the Chicago Democratic Convention.

Twenty-four hours later, total bedlam exploded, when the police force and the soldiers of the National Guard attacked the demonstrators as they left Grant Park and tried to get through the barriers erected on Michigan Avenue. I was standing right in front of the hotel when the fury of the clash spread like a wildfire enveloping protesters, policemen, soldiers and bystanders. I saw it coming like the giant wave of a tsunami, mostly policemen swinging batons and hitting people with a ferocity that I could not expect from an arm of the law. Suddenly, I felt that I had become a target and I shared my fear with a colleague standing near me, Stephen Barber of London’s Daily Telegraph. A few seconds later the arm of the law came crushing down on us, breaking the right arm of Stephen as he was trying to fend off the blow. I was lucky because at that very moment the large plate glass window of the travel agency office facing the street came crushing down. I quickly rushed into the empty space and escaped without injury.

Outside, the conflagration went on without respite or mercy. Twenty-five convention delegates, who had chosen to be with the demonstrators, were charged, beaten, arrested and forced onto the police paddy wagons. The same fate was meted out to 10  journalists, some of them belonging to the foreign press, including an Italian photo reporter who had his head bashed by the blow of a police baton and had to be rushed to a hospital. Not far from me the comedian Dick Gregory was beaten and arrested. People with blood on their heads were milling around in a stupor. Tear gas was in the air. What has stuck with me since that abominable suppression of a protest is the fierceness shown by the policemen who were not limiting themselves to one hit with their baton on a demonstrator but unleashed a torrent of blows becoming rampant in their unbridled hostility against the young people in the crowd.

As I covered the closing session of the convention, I sensed that the violence authorized by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley had compromised the chance of the “happy warrior” Hubert Humphrey to be elected president. No matter how hard the Democrats tried to make Daley the scapegoat of the convention catastrophe, I found it deplorable that all that Humphrey could say was that “neither the violence of an uncivilized mass nor the brutality of police belong to America.” I expected sterner stuff from the Democratic candidate who had watched the brutality of the police from his room in the Hilton Hotel.

I found the reaction of Sen. George McGovern more representative of the opprobrium that many convention delegates and Americans at large felt for the fateful events of that August in Chicago. McGovern, who in 1972 won the fight for increased representation of minority groups in the party convention but lost the election to the incumbent president Richard Nixon, addressed the issue of police brutality in clear words: “the repressive tactics contribute to create disorder and desperation.” By the same token, I reported in a positive vein the final words of the man who became the Democratic candidate and tried to herald “a new day” in America, with the moral strength that he always projected. “There is trouble in America but it does not come from the lack of faith. I say to America, put away recrimination and dissension. Turn away from violence and hatred. Believe what America can do and believe in what America can be.”

Fifty years after that fateful day of American history, I remember vividly what I saw and wrote about the strategy of confrontation that the young activists of the radical left – Tom Hayden, David Dellinger, Jerry Rubin among others – had embraced with the specific purpose of throwing the Democratic Convention, and with it America, into chaos. They were hardly the one hundred thousand that the historian of the New Left Staughton Lynd had seen coming to Chicago, but the strategy of confrontation had worked just the same. The reason it did is that Richard Daley had picked up the challenge and multiplied the confrontation. Rather than smartly containing a crowd of no more than 3,000 youths and assorted protesters, the police launched a repression that was totally disproportionate to the threat. Television, the medium that was fast becoming a national megaphone, spread an image that was both incomplete and deformed. It all played into the hands of the protesters and activated the escalation of violence. That is what I saw and reported. Mercifully, though, my head was not cracked by a police baton

Marino de Medici is a Winchester resident and formerly the dean of foreign correspondents in the United States.

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