My Political Baptism by Fire: The Riotous Democratic Convention in Chicago, 42 Years Ago This Week

08/27/2010 10:28 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

With another sultry August nearing a close -- and a hot fall political season to come -- I can't help recalling the first major political event that I covered, or even attended (many antiwar marches in D.C. were to come), exactly 42 years ago this week. Yes, it was the infamous Democratic convention in Chicago, when the conflict in the streets, and on the convention floor, turned bloody.

I never made it inside the convention hall -- but I did grab a front row seat for what "went down" in the streets, as we used to say.

The week culminated on the night of August 28, 1968, in the crushing of Sen. Eugene McCarthy's anti-Vietnam crusade inside the convention hall and the cracking of peacenik skulls by Mayor Richard Daley's police in the streets. Together, this doomed Hubert Humphrey to defeat in November at the hands of Richard Nixon. McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy had gained most of the votes during the primaries, but HHH still got the nod at the convention.

I'd been a political-campaign junkie all my life. At the age of eight, I paraded in front of my boyhood home in Niagara Falls, N.Y., waving an "I Like Ike" sign, and in 1960 took Nixon's side in a big school debate (I lost that vote, 22-3). In 1968 I got to cover my first presidential campaign when one of McCarthy's nephews came to town, before the state primary, and I interviewed him for the Niagara Falls Gazette, where I worked as a summer reporter during college. I had been chairman of the McCarthy campaign at my school and lived and died with his campaign that spring.

My Chicago assignment for the Gazette: I was to hang out with the young McCarthyites and the anti-war protesters. To get to Chicago I took my first ride on a jetliner.

To make a long story short: After two nights of skirmishes in the streets, on the climactic night of August 28, 1968, I ended up a dozen floors from ground level at the Conrad Hilton Hotel in downtown Chicago. I was in McCarthy headquarters watching the antiwar plank get voted down by the Dems, as reporters got pushed around by cops on the convention floor. Then McCarthy (and George McGovern, who had carried the ball for the forces of the assassinated Robert F. Kennedy) got ready for his inevitable rejection at the hands of the delegates.

Suddenly the TV screens were filled with images of protesters getting beaten up near a major intersection on Michigan Avenue near Grant Park. Almost as one, in a surreal moment, we realized that, hey, that was just a few dozen yards directly below us. With the windows on the street side of the huge room tightly closed we couldn't hear the screams or even smell the tear gas -- that is, until we pulled back the curtains and cracked open the glass.

Then we could see police savagely attacking protesters with nightsticks at the intersection directly below. What would later be labeled a "police riot" by a federal panel was in full swing, so to speak.

Within minutes, I screwed up my courage and headed for the streets. By that time, the peak violence had passed, but cops were still pushing reporters and other innocent bystanders through plate glass windows at the front of the hotel. I held back a bit in the lobby, where someone had set off a stink bomb.

Finally, I crossed to Grant Park where the angry protest crowd gathered, with armed soldiers and jeeps covered with barb wire and carrying machines guns formed a line along the street. We feared they could move forward and try to push out of the park at any moment (and many were ready to resist). Yet there I stayed all night, as the crowd and chants of "pig" directed at the cops increased.

Many in the crowd wore bandages and had fresh blood on their faces. Phil Ochs arrived and sang, along with other notables, including some of the peacenik delegates, plus Dick Gregory.

In the morning some of the protesters filled the lobby of the Hilton, and when delegates exited for the final day of the shattered convention, we chanted, "You killed the party! You killed the party!" That night, or the next night, police raided McCarthy headquarters upstairs and arrested a bunch of people.

When I returned to Niagara Falls that Friday, I wrote a column for that Sunday's paper. I described the eerie feeling of sitting in Grant Park, thousands around me yelling at the soldiers and the media, "The whole world is watching!" -- and knowing that, for once, in my young life, it was true.

UPDATE: From the Comments section: "Somebody in that Hilton Hotel room made notes about the violence in the streets and faxed those to us in the McCarthy convention headquarters. We xeroxed (maybe it was mimeo, in those days) those notes and distributed them to the delegates on the floor. Daley had orchestrated a telephone strike in the city, so there was limited phone access and no live TV. This was the only way to get info to the foor. The next day, when we came into our convention headquarters, our copy machine had been removed. That was a closed convention. -- Don Green"

Greg Mitchell's political campaign books include "The Campaign of the Century," "Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady," and "Why Obama Won." He writes the popular Media Fix blog for The Nation