What does the DNC riot reveal about the deeper transformations of leftist politics leading into early 70s?
For America 1968 was a year marked by upheaval, violence, and change. In August, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, members of the New Left sought to organise a mass demonstration to bring their protest of the Vietnam War right to the doorstep of the leaders of America. The demonstration was organised by a coalition of New Leftist leaders and groups, the ‘National Mobilization Committee to End the Vietnam War’, or simply The Mobe. The Mobe were not alone, however, joining them in Chicago would be the seemingly nonsensical Yippies. While very different, the Mobe and the Yippies reflected an important demographic shift that had occurred within the New Left. While the New Left was unified in its opposition to white supremacy, the fact that most of the protesters that arrived in Chicago were young and white, reflects that New Left groups were moving away from an integrated approach to civil rights campaigning, largely in reaction to the ‘Black Power’ movement. The Chicago demonstration faced strong state resistance, and quickly descended into riot, with police violence and demonstrator counter-violence. The violence of Chicago, and the wider shift towards violence in the era, infamously seen in the Kent State Shooting of 1970, show part of the underlying changes that occurred during 1968, both within the New Left and in reaction to them. While the Chicago riot itself is not the sole catalyst for changing landscape, it can be dissected as both a contributing factor and a snapshot of the movement amidst great change.
A year earlier, in 1967, a similar protest to that of the Chicago DNC demonstration was organised; a mass demonstration at the Pentagon that sought to reframe the challenges against the Vietnam War by bringing direct action to the very place from which the decisions were being made. Much like the Chicago demonstration, it was organised by the Mobe. The Mobe was led by many notable New Leftists. Most significant was anti-war pacifist David Dellinger, but also included former and current SDS leaders Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis, among others. The Mobe represented the more organised, direct-action orientated portion of the New Left. SDS, for example, had been organising protests, strikes, teach-ins and demonstrations since its conception in 1960. While the Mobe organised the Pentagon and Chicago demonstrations, demonstrators weren’t all from the Mobe; many different groups from the New Left attended these demonstrations under the banner of the Mobe’s cause. Of them, perhaps most significant, was the Yippies. The Yippies were the leaders of a political movement rooted in the counterculture. While SDS organised teach-ins to educate young activists on the Vietnam war, Yippie leaders Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin advocated for ‘be-ins’ as “a new medium of human relations,” in which participants were merely together, accompanied by drugs and music. Completely unlike the very serious approach taken by the Mobe, the Yippies sought to challenge the political system with theatrics, mockery, and satire, by linking the protest movement with the counterculture. Hoffman and Rubin believed that the television was “raising generations of kids who [wanted] to grow up and become demonstrators,” and as such, they oriented their political action around capturing the attention of television cameras. The Yippies prioritised theatrics over action; for them bringing a pig to Chicago as their own presidential nomination drew the cameras and let their demonstration into the homes of millions across America. While very different, the Mobe and the Yippies were unified in their campaign against the war and for participatory democracy. These two goals led them to the Pentagon in Washington DC. Fifty-thousand demonstrators marched on the pentagon. The demonstration featured peaceful protestors, outright civil disobedience, goading from demonstrators against police and ultimately descended into a large confrontation with teargas, police clubbing and arrests. For the Mobe, it was considered a great success, that marked, in Dellinger’s words, a shift “from protest to resistance.” The new symbolic political approach to “confront the war makers at their own corrupt institutions” inspired the Mobe to organise the Chicago Demonstration in the following year. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago would be the next place for the New Left to rally against the system.
Political action at the Democratic Conventions was not a new idea. Civil rights campaigners, Student Non-Violence Coordinating Committee (SNCC), had organised the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964. Civil rights activists attended and testified at the Democratic Primary in Mississippi. Testimonies from Martin Luther King Jr. were televised, and notably, during a testimony from sharecropper Fannie Lou Harmer, on voter suppression, President Johnson held a press conference to take her off the air. Political action led by SNCC such as the Mississippi Democratic Challenge as well as the Freedom Rides or the Mississippi Summer Project “shook the nation,” and for SDS (and groups like them), SNCC continually “inspired, challenged and educated.” The activism of the early 60s had an integrationist approach, seeking to properly grant black people access into American society. This goal is also reflected in the political action taken. The Mississippi Summer Project, in particular, was a collaboration between black and white activists, in which white students from the North came to Mississippi as part of the project. The demonstration organised by the Mobe in Chicago in 1968 has clear roots in the activism of the civil rights movement, but the demographic reflected an important change that had occurred.
There was an important point of distinction between civil rights activists and the New Left. The New Left was “a movement of white people who viewed white supremacy as the leading tangible defect of their society” (emphasis added). While black activists shared a language and goal with the New Left, the New Left was a white movement. Over the course of the late sixties, the distinction between black and white activists in leftist politics became glaringly apparent with the evolution of civil rights into ‘Black Power’. In the words of SDS National Secretary, Gregory Calvert, Black Power “slapped [SDS] brutally in the face,” in demanding that white activists organize white America to change white racism. Black activists, such as Stokely Carmichael, argued that the integrationist approach taken by the New Left and the civil rights activists of the early 60s was “based on the assumption that there was nothing of value in the Negro community.” Black power sought to champion blackness, rather than trying “assimilate” into white society. Such demands posed a great challenge to the New Left, who had been awakened to the “paternalist” role they had been taking. Chicago 1968, then, reflected this. Demonstrators who attended Chicago were almost entirely white and middle class. What Chicago was protesting became less clear. Chicago was not a demonstration against white supremacy or even an anti-imperialist demonstration against American involvement in Vietnam. Chicago was a protest against ‘the System’, against ‘the Man’, against the cops, the state and the elite. But unlike the civil rights activism of the early-to-mid sixties, what the protest was for wasn’t obvious.
As efforts by the Mobe and the Yippies were made to organise the Chicago demonstration over the course of 1968, there were counter efforts made to hamper it. This work, largely led by Chicago Mayor, Richard Daley, was successful. Demonstrators and organisers expected heavy police presence from Daley, and consequently, many protesters avoided Chicago. While organisers expected demonstrators to number at least fifty-thousand, as in Washington the year prior, or even as high as “a quarter of a million,” only roughly ten-thousand demonstrators arrived in Chicago. And the expectations were well-founded; protestors that attended faced difficulties from Mayor Daley from the start. Hoffman and Rubin planned on the Yippies using Lincoln Park as their organising ground and hoped to get permission to use the park for the days surrounding the demonstration, arguing that letting them sleep in the park would avoid them filling the streets and sparking riots. Permission was denied, and a curfew was put in place for the period of the convention. On 22 August, police stopped a group of Yippies on the street for violating curfew. After young Dean Johnson drew a handgun on the officers, he was shot three times and died. By this time, the Yippies and SDS had established their presence in Lincoln Park. On 23 August, reporters had flooded the event, and the Yippies took full advantage, bringing a literal farmyard pig named Pigasus to nominate as a presidential candidate. Before Pigasus could, as Rubin put it, “make his own acceptance speech,” the seven Yippies present, and Pigasus were arrested. The seven Yippies were released later that day. Pigasus, however, remained with the police. At 11:00 pm on 24 August, police began to enforce the curfew. Demonstrators were forced out of the park and were then led by SDS on a march through nearby streets.
Over the following days, several organised protests occurred. Equally, numerous skirmishes by police, where demonstrators were attacked after goading the officers. Clearing the park on the night of the twenty-fifth resulted in several beatings of protestors by police. Police violence wasn’t just limited to demonstrators; officers, concealing their nameplates and badges, also targeted photographers and cameramen trying to capture the violence of the event. On 28 August the largest of the demonstrations occurred. Leaders of the movement spoke, including Dellinger and Rubin, to a crowd of fifteen-thousand. During a speech by former SDS president Carl Oglesby, a teenage boy climbed a flagpole and began to lower the American flag. Police converged on the boy to arrest him and began beating him, enraging the crowd. Rennie Davis attempted to deescalate the violence that had broken out around the flagpole but was caught up in it and beaten to unconsciousness. After attempts from Dellinger and other speakers to calm the crowd, an impassioned Tom Hayden called protestors to the streets, saying “let us make sure that if blood is going to flow let it flow all over this city.” Demonstrators then took to the streets and faced heavy resistance from police and national guard. Excessive use of tear gas was used to disperse the crowds, and fierce clashes between protestors and police played out in front of the hotels of Democrat Nominees. That night footage of the extreme violence was intermixed with Hubert Humphrey’s nomination as presidential candidate.
The police riot on 28 August revealed the violence of the American machine. Not only to the protestors, or the members of the democrats watching from their hotel windows. But also to the wider America who, watching from their homes across the country, could see exactly what was happening on the streets of Chicago. This could have been an incredible moment from the New Left, allowing them to show, as Carl Oglesby wrote, the “humiliation of liberalism” to America. The press was with protestors too; New York Times wrote “the truth is that these were our children in the streets, and the Chicago police beat them up.” Instead, the public chose to see police preserving the order against outside agitators and riot-starters. Polling following the event found that only 10% of white Americans thought too much force was used and 25% believed there was not enough. This revealed a growing trend among the wider American public against the youthful New Left. Richard Nixon would be elected president later that year, largely on a platform of maintaining ‘law and order’. By 1970, the killing of four protesting students by Ohio National Guardsmen was not met with outrage by the American public, but condemnation of the students. Kent State, and the attitudes towards the students following it, would mark the effective end of the New Left movement and the conclusion of the trend against them that became apparent following Chicago.
For SDS, Chicago was a clear point of change and brought rise to debates about the nature and ideology of the group. The SDS National Convention in December of 1968 would host a central debate about the future of the organisation. National Secretary Mike Klonsky called for SDS to transform from a student movement to a “revolutionary youth movement,” that would include not just students, but working-class youth. Despite a highly factional convention, the outcome was a national movement of SDS towards a “class-conscious revolutionary movement,” essentially cementing the movement on more radical, revolutionary grounds. In practice, this meant not just an ideological shift but an “‘official’ reversion of SDS to a Marxist-Leninism worldview.” SDS, at this point, had come a long way from Port Huron statement of the early sixties, that proposed the student organising surrounding the university “could serve as a significant source of social criticism.” SDS, and by and large the New Left, had, by 1968, “framed its decision to shift ‘from protest to resistance’ in increasing ideological terms.” The SDS National Convention of 1969, a year later would be even more dramatic, with major splits in SDS driven by the ideological differences. 1969, as a result, would be the effective end of SDS, as it and the larger New Left movement became fragmented over diverging approaches to leftist radicalism.
While the ‘official’ fragmentation of the New Left occurred with the SDS split in 1969, the outcomes of 1968, particularly Chicago, were the driving forces of ideological changes that pushed members of the movement down distinctive and separate paths. Most dominant was a less radical approach to that of the New Left movement, towards community building, in which small enclaves of university-educated, young white people could form a “less alienated and more moral subculture.” This wasn’t a total abandonment of leftism, with many of these neighbourhoods championed social democracy in local politics. Doug Rossinow argues that in this sense these communities “fulfilled the imperative” taken from the black power that white radicals should organise their own society, however, he notes that rather than a “radical racist vanguard,” they organised “post-scarcity white liberalism.” Many of the New Left leaders would move on from the movement through the 70s and 80s and into successful careers. Tom Hayden launched a political career in the mid-70s, serving as a senator from 1992–2000, and Jerry Rubin would become a successful businessman in the 80s, ending up a multi-millionaire after early investments in Apple. Another avenue taken by New Leftists was a return to the institutions of the ‘Old Left’. Activists returned peaceful labour institutions, trade unions and even churches. The final and yet smallest of the post-68 approaches was that of the insurrectionist. The Weatherman Underground, one of the groups produced after the SDS split of 1969, saw there no remaining option for radical change. Weathermen hoped to act as a “fifth column of the assault” against the revolutionary global south, through violent revolution. From 1969 they sought to bring about the destruction of the system, declaring a state of war against “Amerikan (sic) Imperialism,” in 1970, and bombing dozens of buildings through to their disintegration by 1977. While never numbering more than a few hundred (emerging from the New Left movement of hundreds of thousands), the Weathermen left a lasting impression due to their notoriety and extreme violence.
Chicago is both a moment and turning point for the New Left. It showed the shifts in the political organisation that had occurred over the sixties; differences between the Mobe’s direct-action activism and the Yippies countercultural style. Chicago also showed the growing divergence between black and white activism of the era. Ultimately, the violent events of the Chicago protest exposed the limits of the New Left and of the brutality of the American state. The increasing support of state violence by the American public became apparent after the public sided with Mayor Daley following the police riots. For SDS and the wider New Left, Chicago signposted the beginning of the end. The shift of SDS towards a more radical, revolutionary ideology and the following fragmentation marked the end of the group, while the Kent State Shooting marked the end of the era. The parts of the New Left that would survive 1968 were those that had already begun to distance themselves. Black Power remained relevant into the seventies. Most significant, however, is Women’s Liberation, a movement that flourished as the New Left faded out of public consciousness.