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40 years ago, the whole world was watching
Suburbanites reflect on turbulent 1968 Democratic National Convention
By Marni Pyke | Daily Herald Staff

Chicago played host to the 1968 Democratic National Convention, at which Hubert Humphrey was nominated as his party's candidate for president.

 

Daily Herald file photo, August 1968

Chicago played host to the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

 

Daily Herald file photo, August 1968

Chicago was the host city for the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Masses of people protested the Vietnam War and the general state of the country in Grant Park.

 

Courtesy of Bernie Kleina

Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley called on 6,000 Army troops, 6,000 Illinois National Guardsmen and 12,000 Chicago police officers to be on the ready.

 

Courtesy of Bernie Kleina

Chicago was the host city for the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Masses of people protested the Vietnam War and the general state of the country in Grant Park.

 

Courtesy of Bernie Kleina

Chicago played host to the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

 

Daily Herald file photo, August 1968

Chicago was the host city for the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Masses of people protested the Vietnam War and the general state of the country in Grant Park.

 

Courtesy of Bernie Kleina

As Chicago, with its leader Mayor Richard J. Daley, right, played host to the 1968 Democratic National Convention, turmoil erupted in Grant Park as thousands of people protested the Vietnam War.

 

Daily Herald file photo, August 1968

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Published: 8/20/2008 12:06 AM | Updated: 8/20/2008 1:46 PM

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Marty Gleason doesn't go to political conventions anymore.

"They're awfully dull, and nothing happens," the 77-year-old DuPage resident said.

Of course, as a key player for Eugene McCarthy's fateful campaign during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, Gleason's bar is set high.

1968. Forty years later, it still makes people wince.

Mayor Richard J. Daley was spoiling for a fight. Vietnam War opponents were equally determined to make some noise. Democrats were searching for a leader with the abdication of Lyndon Johnson and assassination of Robert Kennedy.

Instead of positive spin, chaos reigned in the International Amphitheatre and out on the streets as police clubbed protesters in Grant Park and along Michigan Avenue.

"It was the only instance in my Roman Catholic life that I've considered suicide," Gleason said, straight-faced.

Four decades after the fiasco that propelled Hubert Humphrey to a showdown he couldn't win with Richard Nixon, we talked to five suburbanites who experienced history that hot week in August: a political organizer, two cops, a peace advocate and someone in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Innocent bystander

Freelance photographer Gerry Souter had just returned from an out-of-town assignment Tuesday, Aug. 27, 1968, the second day of the Democratic Convention.

He and his wife, Janet, decided to catch the Bob Dylan flick "Don't Look Back" at Piper's Alley, in the Old Town neighborhood.

On their way home, the couple drove east on North Avenue by Lincoln Park toward Lake Shore Drive in their Peugeot 403.

Abruptly, "we saw the flashing lights and all the people, the cop cars and the paddy wagon," Souter recalled.

Threats of violence to his beloved city caused Daley to ramp up security with 6,000 regular Army troops, 6,000 Illinois National Guardsmen and about 12,000 Chicago police officers armed and ready. Clashes between law enforcement and the thousands of anti-war protesters, hippies and yippies assembled for the event became inevitable, especially when Daley ordered the parks cleared at 11 p.m. each day.

As a photojournalist, Souter had no illusions about the tactics of Chicago police.

"I wanted to stay clear of it, to get away as fast as I can," he said. "They'd fired tear gas because the crowd was throwing things like rocks and bags of feces.

"Suddenly, this great cloud of gas rolled over the car."

As Janet cranked up the windows, Gerry slammed the sunroof shut so firmly the metal handle broke and cut his hand.

With blood everywhere, Souter drove at a crawl, eventually reaching the Outer Drive.

As the Peugeot pulled away, the effects of the tear gas were everywhere. "I saw cars pulled over to the side; there was one Cadillac with an elderly couple getting rid of their evening meal."

Souter, now a 67-year-old author who lives in Arlington Heights, remembers seeing colleagues being beaten up on television that week.

"That was the spooky part, seeing people you know getting pushed around," he said. "Those were interesting times."

Police presence

Retired Elmhurst Police Chief Bill Payne has seen a lot of crime and violence in his 98 years. But the '68 convention, when he was chief inspector at Chicago police headquarters at 11th and State streets, still stands out in his memory.

"It was a busy time," Payne recalled. "We worked 12-hour days."

The intense law enforcement presence was crucial, Payne explained, after threats of anarchy and boasts about tipping over squad cars by anti-war agitators.

"We weren't worried," he said. "We figured we could handle it."

But Ed Becht, then a 27-year-old rookie cop, remembers frightening moments when someone yelled on a bullhorn that members of the Black Panthers were carrying automatic weapons or people screamed "kill the pigs."

Becht, now an Oak Brook executive, was in the thick of it and trying to keep his head while mobs smashed windows and looted.

"I never met a policeman who went out of the way to harm someone," Becht said. "From my perspective, if the crowd had listened to orders and obeyed the law, there would have been no confrontation. The crowd was not an orderly crowd."

While Becht blames "professional agitators" in the crowd for stirring up emotions, he also criticized his former boss, Mayor Daley.

"Twenty men can't contain 20,000 people," he said. "We were not properly trained for riot control."

The mayor's order to clear Grant and Lincoln parks of demonstrators at 11 p.m. was something that stirred up a hornet's nest, Becht believes, and a policy that "to a man we thought was idiocy."

"It was a matter of male ego, in my opinion," he said. "If Daley had not elected to clear out the parks at 11 p.m., you wouldn't have had a street fight at the convention."

At around Thanksgiving 1968, Becht received a phone call from the police station. Don't come to work, they told him. You've been suspended on charges of excessive force.

In spring 1969, Becht was found innocent by a jury. He returned to the force but it wasn't the same as before. He took a job with an air freight company he'd worked for during his suspension. Now he owns the company, Bellair Express.

He's moved on but still remembers the sting of those times.

,

"It dehumanized the police," Becht said.

The organizer

When Democratic power broker Steven A. Mitchell asked Marty Gleason to be deputy convention manager for Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy, Gleason needed to be persuaded.

Despite his love of politics, Gleason knew the demands of a convention. He was going through a divorce; working hard at the family business, Gleason Cranes; and was still recovering from a 1966 campaign for the state Senate.

But the Joliet native was swayed by his admiration of McCarthy and his hope of reforming the tight control party bosses such as Daley held over convention proceedings.

"I wanted change in the party," he said.

One night at dinner, McCarthy put his hands on Gleason's shoulders and pronounced him deputy convention manager. "I told him, 'Senator, I just came here to be appointed, not ordained,'" Gleason recalled.

His myriad duties included handling the fresh-faced McCarthy volunteers.

"They voted me the only guy they trusted over 30," he said.

Whether longhair kids from nowhere or blue blood trust-fund heirs, they had one common cause - stopping the war in Vietnam.

"The war being fought now doesn't have a draft associated with it," Gleason said. "It's the draft that made all the difference. These people had friends in Vietnam."

As the convention descended into discord inside the amphitheater and chaos outside, Gleason found himself picking up the pieces.

When delegates defeated a proposal for a withdrawal from Vietnam, one of the young McCarthy backers collapsed in his arms. "She broke down," he recalled. "It was a close to a nervous breakdown. Those kids were distraught."

With convention experiences running the gamut from rubbing shoulders with celebrities Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward to bailing McCarthy volunteers out of jail at 1 in the morning, Gleason summed it up as "like rolling over Niagara Falls in a barrel."

The peace advocate

Bernie Kleina was hoping to talk about peace, but he got war on Aug. 28, 1968.

A former Catholic priest and civil rights activist who had marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he came to Grant Park to participate in anti-war rallies.

"The people at the rally felt very strongly about what the war was doing to the people of Vietnam but also to the people of this country," Kleina said.

From atop a platform, the amateur photographer was able to snap shots of the crowd and watch as police started to move in.

"The police formed a V-wedge through the middle of the crowd. No one had any idea they were coming through. They were just listening to the speakers," Kleina recalled.

"I think I was shocked the city and state would go to such extremes to stop what was for the most part a peaceful organization."

As proceedings grew more violent, Kleina looked for a way out and found Michigan Avenue blocked as tear gas started to flow.

"It was painful and made you cry," Kleina remembered. "But I didn't get the brunt of it."

The tear gas and beating of protesters brought the Democratic convention debacle to its denouement.

For Kleina, who lives in Wheaton and is executive director of the HOPE Fair Housing Center organization, it was a watershed moment.

"At the end of the day, I felt very demoralized," he said, "and felt change was much further off than I expected. I think there were more tears in my eyes because of what I saw than what the mace caused."