The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. (in April) and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (in June) were flash points punctuating a months-long series of deadly race riots, student riots, and violent demonstrations: Detroit (43 killed, 1,189 injured, over 7,000 arrested); Newark (23 killed, 725 injured, 1,500 arrested); Washington, D.C. (12 killed, 1,097 injured, over 6,100 arrested, more than 1,200 buildings burned); and additional death, destruction, and tumult in more than 120 other cities and dozens of college campuses.
Far from being spontaneous affairs, testimony and evidence presented in various government hearings showed that time after time these conflagrations had been lit by organizers of the Moscow-directed Communist Party USA, the Beijing-directed Progressive Labor Party, and the Trotskyite communist, Havana-aligned Socialist Workers Party, usually operating through front groups such as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The leaders of these “student” groups were not students at all, but professional revolutionaries in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. Many had attended courses in riot-making and revolution in Communist China, Russia, North Vietnam, Cuba, and Czechoslovakia. For them, the “nonviolent” label was purely a cover.
Sol Stern was one of three dozen radicals who joined SDS leader Tom Hayden on a trip to the Czech city of Bratislava to meet with communist leaders after the deadly Newark riots. Stern later wrote that the other SDS leaders understood the Newark riots and the violent Columbia University demonstrations were part of “Hayden’s grand project to ‘bring the [Vietnam] war back home.’ The whole point was to provoke a confrontation” with the police.
“For Hayden and the various violence-prone SDS factions,” noted Stern, “Columbia was a dress rehearsal for the biggest showdown of all — the Chicago Democratic Convention. Hayden and Rennie Davis, his closest ally at Bratislava, set up shop in Chicago and spent four months planning a massive confrontation with the ‘war machine,’ otherwise known as the Chicago Police Department.”
With large swaths of American cities in ashes and ruin, Tom Hayden drew an illustration of a Molotov cocktail — the weapon most utilized to effect the devastation — for the cover of the New York Review of Books. And he wrote in favor of “organized violence,” in which the “conscious guerilla” would “carry the torch … to white neighborhoods and downtown business districts” — and “shoot to kill.” Just before the convention, Abbie Hoffman, co-founder with Jerry Rubin of the Yippies, published a call to action in the July 7, 1968 issue of the counter-culture magazine The Realist in which he said, “We will burn Chicago to the ground!”
It is part of the liberal myth that the violence that erupted in Chicago in August 1968 resulted from actions by a brutal and overzealous police force against rambunctious — but mostly peaceful — demonstrators. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley is scorned for turning the city into an “armed camp” with thousands of police officers and National Guard and Army troops. However, in view of the widespread deadly violence in the preceding months and the efforts to disrupt the Republican National Convention in Miami a few weeks before — as well as the open threats from the likes of Hayden and Hoffman — Chicago city officials decided to err on the side of caution.
The show of force undoubtedly saved many lives. The 100,000 demonstrators Hayden and company had hoped for never materialized. According to other activists and leaders of various groups, they stayed away for two reasons: they disagreed with the SDS-Yippie push for more violent confrontation; and they were frightened off by the announced large police presence. So the 10,000-plus “students” who did show up in Chicago tended to be the more aggressive provocateurs. And provoke they did: attempting to break through police lines, surrounding and attacking isolated groups of police officers, smashing police car windows, defying orders to disperse illegal marches. Eyewitness accounts — by spectators, convention delegates, news reporters, as well as police officers — reported many instances of demonstrators hurling missiles at police, including rocks, bottles, golf balls studded with nails, wooden spears, flaming rags and sticks, firecrackers, beer cans filled with urine or caustic chemicals, and plastic baggies filled with feces.
Around 200 police officers were injured and more than 80 police cars were damaged or destroyed. Slightly more than 100 demonstrators were reported injured. Considering the times and the circumstances, the police reacted with remarkable restraint. But you wouldn’t know that from most of the media accounts. Many of the reporters there clearly sided with the demonstrators and some TV camera crews actually helped stage events, ignoring the volleys of missiles being thrown at police and only showing the “brutal” police reaction against the “peaceful” protesters. However bad the cropped newsreel footage may have cast the police, the final tally is this: no one was killed, no police officer fired his weapon (though some would have been justified in doing so), injuries were minimal (compared to riots of the period), and Chicago was not “burned to the ground” (as the riot leaders had threatened, and as they had proven capable of doing in other cities).
Prior to the 1968 Chicago riots, David Dellinger, leader of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (otherwise known as Mobe or NMC), stated: “Our demonstrations shall be entirely peaceful…. We are not seeking a confrontation.” That, of course, was a lie. Several months earlier he had led the violent confrontation at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Dellinger, who had made several trips to consult with communist leaders in Cuba, North Vietnam, and Czechoslovakia, and who described himself as a “non-Soviet communist,” saw the “Pentagon siege” as practice for Chicago.
In the November 1967 issue of the pro-communist Liberation magazine, which he founded and edited, Dellinger included an article referring to the attack on the Pentagon as a “tactical event to be analyzed and criticized as one possible model for future physical confrontation.” It observed that “there will be more occasions for physical confrontations and they ought to be much better planned than the Pentagon was. Can we do better at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago?” By “better” he clearly did not mean more peaceful.
Whether or not the Chicago rioters of ’68 intended it, the effect of their actions was to further empower the government they claimed to oppose, and to further erode the personal freedoms of all Americans. Exploiting the Chicago riots and the string of similar rampages across the country in the preceding months, the media and political elites pushed through legislation that transferred vast new police powers to the federal government. One of the most important results along those lines was the Gun Control Act of 1968. Another was the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act that, among other things, created the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, the main federal agency that has been involved in nationalizing our local police departments over the past four decades.
The more immediate political effect of the Chicago DNC riots was to boost Richard Nixon, running on a “law and order” campaign, into the White House in one of the closest presidential races in U.S. history. Although Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey, then Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, lost the election, the riots may have helped him, as well, rather than hurt him, as conventional wisdom has held. Humphrey, a lifelong socialist activist, was (unbeknownst to most Americans) a member of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society/League for Industrial Democracy, the organization that created, sponsored, and financed the SDS. However, in comparison to the rioting radicals in the streets, Humphrey looked relatively conservative.