“The whole world is watching”: Turning points in the ’68 Democratic Convention and the trial of the Chicago Eight

By on July 28, 2016

Night Flight contributor Pat Thomas remembers the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago — which in some ways resembles much of what seems to be happening during this hot summer of 2016 — and takes a look at two newly-published books which explore what happened during that hot week in August ’68 and its aftermath, including the trial of the Chicago Eight.


The events leading up to Chicago Democratic Convention in Chicago in August of 1968 were tumultuous: the assassination of MLK, the abdication of LBJ, and the rise and fall of Gene McCarthy.

Suffice it to say that when Bobby Kennedy was shot — on June 5, 1968, the night he won the California primary — it was (from the Yippies point of view) both good and bad.

While they would have preferred to see Kennedy become president, they saw Vietnam as a bigger concern, which, in terms of loss of life, it was. Kennedy was one man, while thousands were being killed in Vietnam.

With Kennedy gone, the protest in Chicago for which they’d already invested months in planning (pre-dating Kennedy even deciding to run) was now back on track and likely to receive the media attention they craved.

The goal of the Yippies — Paul Krassner, editor of The Realist, had coined the name — was to create enough of a stir that Walter Cronkite would have to announce on the evening news that Chicago had become a “police state.”

Jerry Rubin wanted to bring H. Rap Brown’s statement that “violence is as American as cherry pie” to the media’s attention.

“History has chosen us, born white in middle class America — to reverse centuries of America…to vomit up our inheritance…ours will be a revolution against privilege and a revolution against the boredom of steel-concrete plastic.” – Jerry Rubin, 1968


Jerry Rubin

It’s interesting how this violence and fighting recalls Donald Trump’s troops physically attacking left-minded protestors during his campaign and even the bullying between Hillary’s fan-base and Bernie Bros on social media for the past six months.

One thing that doesn’t seem to have changed much since ’68 is that despite all the work of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movement, Black Americans are still not treated equally by law enforcement, hence today’s Black Lives Matter organizing.

Fold in the senseless killings of disenfranchised black Americans by white cops and, sadly, the recent, but not surprising retaliation killings of police in recent weeks, and damn, the summer of 2016 already feels a lot like 1968.

Before Bobby Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles, there were verbal battles across college campuses between his young, progressive followers and those of Eugene McCarthy (another anti-Vietnam War candidate), while the old folks supported Hubert Humphrey (then the current vice president) trying to take over for his retiring boss, LBJ.


Protestors and Chicago Police Officers, Grant Park.

That hot August week in Chicago started on Sunday, August 25th, and thanks to the editorial in the Chicago American that morning, which claimed the Yippies were insanely out of control, Sunday’s activities in Lincoln Park, the first day of “The Festival of Life,” were fractured.

The only band crazy enough to play Chicago were the infamous Motor City Madmen, the MC5. The Fugs’ Ed Sanders read some poetry first and then WBAI’s Bob Fass introduced the MC5. By the time of the park’s 11pm curfew, a couple of thousand protesters had vacated the grounds in anticipation of the police sweep. Those that remained were invited to leave by police clubs beating down on them.

On the next evening, the police moved in for their ritual 11pm curfew beatings, at least a thousand kids remained in the park to protest. The police took special care to beat as many journalists as they could that night.

Tear gas and violence ensued, and it moved into the neighborhoods surrounding the park, even local residents were getting pulled off their porches by cops and clubbed. The police took special care to beat as many journalists as they could that night.

Tuesday, August 27th, was a day of speeches by a diverse cast of luminaries, including Black Panther Bobby Seale, writers William S. Burroughs and Terry Southern, French novelist Jean Genet, comedian Dick Gregory, folk singer Phil Ochs, and Allen Ginsberg.

The events were scattered around the city including Lincoln Park and the Coliseum. Some 4,000 demonstrators gathered in Grant Park to hear African-American activist Julian Bond, along with Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden. The peaceful rally was within earshot of the Hilton Hotel were many delegates and television crews were staying.

While the Grant Park gathering was allowed to remain all night, the police performed their 11pm beatings like clockwork upon two thousand kids camped out in Lincoln Park.

Wednesday, August 28th, was another banner day for speeches, with over 10,000 people arriving in Grant Park to hear author Norman Mailer and protest organizers including Jerry Rubin, Dave Dellinger, and Tom Hayden. They focused specifically on the war, while the delegates inside the Convention Amphitheatre, were voting down a “platform of peace.”

The Democratic Party had decided to officially support the Vietnam War!

As word spread around Grant Park that the Democrats preferred war to peace, fighting erupted between the crowd and the police and Rennie Davis was beaten unconscious. When the rally drew to a close, Dave Dellinger suggested marching to the Convention.

Some six thousand people marched towards the Amphitheatre but the police stopped them. Thousands of protesters dispersed into the streets and were greeted with mace and beatings followed by arrest. Many of them fought back which caused the melee to escalate.

For nearly twenty minutes television crews stationed at the Hilton Hotel filmed this bloodbath, and when the protesters began chanting “the whole world is watching, the whole world is watching ” (repeatedly) – the TV crews sent a live feed to television sets across America.

Rubin had gotten his wish, for middle class Americans to witness “good facing evil” as they watched the police beat their sons and daughters.


Anti-war protests rocked the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, Illinois, as more than 10,000 demonstrators took to the city’s streets. Opposition to the policies of President Lyndon Johnson’s administration even spilled over to the convention hall itself, where Vice President Hubert Humphrey accepted his party’s nomination.

The entire nation was entranced, as newscaster Walter Cronkite spoke over the footage during “The CBS Evening News”:

“The kids, my God, look what they’re doing to the kids.”

On Thursday, August 29th, the anti-war presidential candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy spoke to some 5,000 people assembled in Grant Park. After his speech, many protesters, led by convention delegates attempted to march to the Amphitheatre but were kept away with tear gas.

Around midnight on that Thursday, the 1968 Democratic Convention was adjourned.


Many photographers captured this dramatic shot of young people overtaking the General John Logan Monument in Grant Park and brandishing a Vietcong flag from it, August 26. (Peter Bullock/Chicago History Museum Collection)

Between Sunday and Thursday of that week, 668 people had been arrested while numerous people had been injured. And while the Yippies felt victorious to have embarrassed and upset the Democratic Party, it paved the way for Republican Candidate Richard Nixon to secure the national election in November.

The struggle between the protesters and the police at the Chicago ’68 Democratic convention is symbolic of the sociopolitical make-up of the sixties.


Long haired and bearded Hippies and Yippies use park benches at Grant Park’’s Band Shell to construct a barricade against Chicago police and National Guardsmen in Chicago on August 28, 1968. The confrontation left many injured and arrested. Grant Park is at the edge of downtown Chicago near the Conrad Hilton Hotel. The hotel is the headquarters for the Democratic National Convention now in session in Chicago. (Chicago Tribune)

The generation gap was fought in the streets and parks of the windy city, while for the kids and parents at home watching on TV, the battles took place in the living room and around the dinner table each night.

Speaking of fighting in the streets, both the Beatles and the Stones provided book-ended soundtracks to the 1968 rioting at the Chicago Democratic Convention: “Street Fighting Man” was released as a single on August 31st, just 48 hours after the rioting in Chicago calmed down, while the Beatles released their high-energy version of John Lennon’s “Revolution” on the 26th of August ’68, two days before violence had erupted in Chicago (the more subdued version of “Revolution” would appear later in the year on the White Album).

The bluesy-shuffle album version of “Revolution” — known as “Revolution 1″ — was recorded before the single version but released afterwards, while the more expressive high-energy single was recorded later but was released first.

Some militant lefties were dismayed by the lyrics of the single which declared “if you’re looking for destruction, you can count me out.”


The truth was, Lennon was ambivalent, sheepishly singing “count me out, in,” on the album version.

By the time he’d moved to New York City in 1971, in private conversations with Jerry Rubin, Lennon occasionally discussed destruction, which was not fueled by Rubin, but instead, according to some, by the IRA.

While there was some anticipation of possible 1968-like violence outside of the 2016 Republican and/or Democratic Conventions, that did not come to pass.


Chicago marked a turning point, in which many realized that perhaps the status quo were not right and maybe these kids had a point after all.

“The whole world is watching” indeed.

It was actually a global conflict with similar events that year in Paris, Prague, Mexico City and other cities; in each circumstance every participant had their own reality, each party felt that their actions were justified.

In the words of Stephen Stills in ’66, “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.”

CHICAGO 68 22.png

Abbie Hoffman

If you’ve been paying attention over the past several months leading up to and including both 2016 conventions, the similarities are a bit frightening — especially if we add in the dialogue of the NRA and the increased use of automatic weapons by “civilians.”

A year after the Chicago Convention, newly-elected President Richard Nixon decided he needed to make an example of the key participants of the protests in Chicago (despite the fact that they’d inadvertently helped him get elected!).

The Chicago Eight trial that stretched from September 1969 into February 1970 became as infamous as the events they were indicted for. For those too young to remember it, let’s just say it was getting as much media-frenzy as the O.J. Simpson murder trial decades later.

Was it coincidence that the eight were a blend of Yippies, SDS, MOBE, Black Panthers, and academics? No. J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon considered all of these groups’ enemies of the state. They were as carefully selected as the four Justices that Nixon nominated for the United State Supreme Court during his tenure as president.


In his new book, The Chicago Conspiracy Trial And The Press, published by Palgrave/MacMillan Books, author Nick Sharman looks at how mainstream newspapers portrayed the trial.

With a $100 price tag, this 250-page hardcover is obviously aimed at college libraries, academics and the like, but well worth seeking out for scholars of the era.

Besides the author’s own examinations, the most interesting part of the book is the occasional fresh commentary by the likes of Yippie Stew Albert (who sadly passed away before I could interview him about Jerry Rubin), SDS leader Tom Hayden (who seems to avoid discussing Chicago these days with lesser known authors), and former Attorney General Ramsey Clark (who under LBJ’s administration felt that it was the police and not the protesters who were at fault).

The book points out that some reporters such as Nick Von Hoffman of the Washington Post painted an empathetic tale of the defendants, but because his articles were left-leaning, he was banished from the News section to the Style section of the paper! He understood it was a political trial and not a criminal one.

Meanwhile, the New York Times “minimalized its criticism of the judge’s actions”, such as the time the judge had four of the defense lawyers arrested for protesting the “government’s attempt to get the defendants to waive their Sixth Amendment rights.”

What The Chicago Conspiracy Trial And The Press lacks in vibrancy — such as vivid descriptions of Abbie Hoffman blowing kisses to the jury, Jerry Rubin arriving in court dressed up in traditional judicial robes, and most famously, Bobby Seale telling the judge he was “a rotten racist pig” and a “fascist” — it recovers in spelling out the facts of Judge Julius Hoffman (no relation to Abbie) responding in kind by ordering Seale to be bound and gagged.

The drawings of Seale tied up (no cameras were allowed in the courtroom) were reproduced around the world and some forty years later; they remain as one of the most indelible images of America during the Sixties.

I find, in 2016, these words from Dick Gregory still ring true: “If a black man trying to defend himself in a courtroom, where the worldwide press is watching, ends up getting shackled to the chair, hands cuffed, mouth taped, what do you think is happening in these courtrooms in America where there ain’t nobody looking?”


In 1969 Howard Brodie, the dean of courtroom art and revered artist from CBS news, covered the Chicago Seven trial. Brodie’s caption reads: Seale “Cool” Panthers, “Heart” America.

The judge declared a mistrial in Bobby Seale’s case, followed by an outburst by Seale for which he was later found guilty of sixteen acts of contempt of court. He was then sentenced to four years in prison, each count accounting for three months of his imprisonment.

Seale was carried out of the courtroom as spectators screamed “Free Bobby!” The judge eventually ordered Seale severed from the case, hence the Chicago Eight became the “Chicago Seven.”


Much more reasonably-priced at $30 with over 600 pages, is Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost Its Mind and Found Its Soul, an oral history of summer 1969 through summer 1970, compiled by Clara Bingham, and published by Random House.

Bingham’s own narrative is minimal, allowing a few dozen former radicals and activists to recall that heady twelve-month period of Weather Underground bombings, the shootings at Kent State, and other key events.


Anti-war activist Jerry Rubin, along with other defendants in the Chicago Seven conspiracy trial, speaks to the press in this February 1970 photo. Front row, from left: Rennie Davis, Rubin, Abbie Hoffman. Back row, from left: Lee Weiner, Bob Lamb and Thomas Hayden. (Associated Press)

As a historian of this era, I find there’s plenty to critique. It’s nice the book opens with a photo of the Chicago Eight defendants, but strangely she only chose to include interviews with just one of five surviving members.

Obviously, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin aren’t here anymore — the quotes from Steal This Book feel more like an afterthought, and no other Yippies were included, but this is a pretty grand piece of work overall.

If the following names mean something to you (in a positive way), you’ll be pleased to read fresh accounts from the mouths of Bill Ayers, Peter Coyote, Bernadine Dohrn, Daniel Ellsberg, Jane Fonda, David Harris, Tom Hayden, Ericka Huggins, Michael Kennedy, Laurel Krause, Robin Morgan, Mark Rudd, and Cathy Wilkerson (amongst many others).


Yippie & Black Panther confronting each other at the riot conspiracy trial of the Chicago Eight, 1969. (photo by Lee Balterman)

Bingham’s previous writing for Vanity Fair, Vogue, Harper’s and Ms. allowed her to bring in some A-list voices, and for that she deserves applause. She wisely allowed long passages to be quoted from each of these people, and, at its best, the book is a documentary of what Tom Hayden called “The Great Refusal”: refusing to accept the war in Vietnam, the status quo, the Nixon White House, the COINTELPRO actions of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.

A year or so ago, the best selling Days of Rage (written by a conservative) covered similar ground and annoyed many of us for all the “right” reasons, this leftist account is a hundred times more satisfying.

A lot of Democrats later thought one of the reasons that their candidate Hubert Humphrey lost the presidential election to Richard Nixon later that year was because of what happened at their unruly 1968 convention in Chicago, which showed that their party was hopelessly divided, torn in two by the Vietnam War and the party itself was badly in need of reforms in the way they selected their candidate.

Humphrey being selected during the ’68 convention — although the incumbent Vice President hadn’t even been running for president (until LBJ dropped out) — was seen by many as undemocratic, fueling the riots, but eventually it did lead to changes in the party’s nominating process.

Faced with unifying and uniting his fractured party after beating Senator Eugene McCarthy, Humphrey — just like Hillary Clinton has recently been faced with uniting the Democrats who had voted for her rival, Senator Bernie Sanders — told Democratic delegates at the 1968 convention, “Put aside recrimination and dissension, turn away from violence and hatred.”

Democrats later decided that future conventions should fairly represent the choice of Democratic voters, not elected officials and senior party leaders.

Maybe it’s time to take a look at the nominating process again? Just this past Saturday, July 23rd, the Democratic National Convention rules committee voted to create a “unity commission” that will consider overhauling the role of superdelegates as part of a complete review of the nominating process.

Pat Thomas is the author of Listen, Whitey! the Sights and Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975, and the forthcoming Did It! From Yippie to Yuppie: Jerry Rubin, an American Revolutionary (both Fantagraphics).

Below: Members of activist organizations such as the Youth International Party (Yippies) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), however, took issue with Chicago as a city, led by Daley, rife with poverty, crime and segregation. The SDS distributed this alternate broadside critiquing Daley and Chicago, and the lack of interest in representing anti-Vietnam War voices during the DNC.


About Pat Thomas

Esteemed author and reissue producer Pat Thomas spent five years in Oakland, CA, researching Listen, Whitey! The Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 (Fantagraphics, 2012), and his new book, Did It! From Yippie To Yuppie: Jerry Rubin, An American Revolutionary will be published by Fantagraphics in March 2016. As a producer, Pat Thomas has reissued recordings by Allen Ginsberg, Eugene McDaniels, Watts Prophets, and Black Panther Elaine Brown. His music writing has appeared in MOJO, Crawdaddy, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. He has lectured at San Francisco State University and Evergreen State College. He lives in Los Angeles.