40 years later

By Brett Marlow

For the past few months, Liam Warfield and a group of 15 core members met weekly on Sundays in Wicker Park to discuss, organize and divvy up different tasks to individuals. There were assorted departments responsible for cultivating different tasks, planning, creating and gathering-among other tasks. Their efforts over the past two months have been to bring Warfield’s “brainchild” idea of re-enacting the protests surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention that took place in Chicago 40 years ago to fruition.

The re-enactment took place on Aug. 28 in Grant Park. People were encouraged to come, see what it was about and draw their own conclusions and parallels of what was happening then and what’s still happening now. The group thought people should be reminded of it.

“All the problems we had then, we have now,” Warfield said. “We’re posing [the questions] and giving people forum.”

Chip Hamlett, another organizer for the event, said,”[We want] people to have a good time, but draw the parallels and think of how we’ve changed as a city and as people.”

The group invited locals to attend via its website Reenact68.com, and much like the original event, people from out of town like Rude Mechanical Orchestra, a marching band from New York City, who help people yearning for social justice. The group also invited Food Not Bombs and sent out press releases to get the word out.

Meeting in Grant Park at Michigan Avenue and Balbo Drive a week before the event for a planning meeting, a third of the group scoped out the landscape to see where it would be best to set up each event, drawing maps to see where each event would best fit, and their location and time. But for all of them, they were unsure how it would turn out, and they were OK with it.

“I consider it a blessing that we don’t know what it’s going to be like,” Warfield said.

The group was waiting for a permit to be approved for the event, but on event day, it still hadn’t come. The group was expecting anywhere from 100 to 10,000 people to show, but two hours into the event, a crowd of around 100 had gathered sitting on the grass and on blankets in a piece of empty space nestled beside Metra tracks in Grant Park on Columbus and Balbo Drives.

Decked out in clothes from the ’60s, sans headbands and love bands, and with peace signs painted on their faces, protestors held anti-war signs and listened to speakers like Bobby Seale and Alan Ginsberg impersonators, channeling the same words the original activists once spoke years ago. Face painting, clown cops and snake dancing, a technique that was used to shimmy through police force back in the day, was taught. The group had planned to scale the Logan Statue, but it was barricaded. Instead they planned to march around it. They did manage to carry a large puppet of the city’s current mayor’s father, Mayor Richard J. Daley, another planned item on their agenda.

With people speaking, the mic was opened for others to share their thoughts.

One of the speakers was Columbia professor and chair of the English and Writing Department, John Schultz, who was present at the original protests. Schultz spoke Aug. 28 about the events that occurred the same day in 1968.

Schultz, who wrote about the events in 1968, is reissuing his two books, No One Was Killed and The Chicago Conspiracy Trial, with University of Chicago press in spring 2009.

In 1968, the scene in Chicago was chaotic and filled with angst after being selected as the city to host the Democratic National Convention. That same year, Sen. Bobby Kennedy was assassinated.

Many Americans thought Kennedy might have been chosen as the prime leader or frontman for the Democratic election that year. Lyndon B. Johnson was president but did not run again, as he thought his party would not be able to win and bear it, said Peter Alter, a curator at the Chicago History Museum.

Martin Luther King Jr., a leader of the civil rights movement, was also assassinated that year, causing riots nationwide and locally on the city’s South and West sides, he said. The United States was involved in war with Vietnam that left a bitter taste in many Americans’ mouths. The youth of the nation had lost their trust and faith in government.

Prior to the convention beginning in Chicago on Aug. 26, 1968, threats were made against the city from opposers, Alter said. Rumors circulated that the Chicago’s water supply would be poisoned, among others that Mayor Richard J. Daley believed.

“He got his police commissioner to really prepare the department for what could be in his mind a battle, literally,” Alter said.

State, local and federal agents were involved, even FBI, Alter said.

“By bringing all this law enforcement here, you almost create [an] environment for something like that to happen, where the law enforcement is on edge because their leaders are saying anything could happen and the left-wing student movement that [was] here [was] hoping something would happen so they could discredit the democratic party and discredit Daley,” Alter said. “Something obviously happened in the riots and so-forth.”

Riots broke out when King was assassinated, not just in Chicago, but around the nation. Alter said Daley issued an order to police that if riots of that magnitude arose again, they were to shoot to kill if they saw an arsonist, and shoot to maim if they saw looters.

“The people who came here to protest the convention were aware of that,” Alter said.

But many of those who came to protest were from out of town, and crossed state lines to attend. Many, who were arrested were released after the dust had settled, Alter said.

Warfield, Hamlett and the rest of the group had the same idea, but their idea was to have in a more peaceful, thought-provoking manner.

Although the group did not anticipate any violence or riots breaking out, Chicago police were present at the event, standing a few hundred feet away hours into the event near their bicycles, looking onward.

In conjunction with the 40th anniversary of the convention, the Chicago History Museum sent out a public invitation to collect aural histories of locals who were present for the protests. Although they were hoping to gather them during the week it happened, Alter said those who may have stories to share are welcome to come to the museum for an hour-long interview later on.