10/14/2009 06:53 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Anniversary: Chicago '68

"The whole world is watching," they chanted; "the whole world is watching!" Perhaps not the whole world - but America was, reclining post-prandially in front of the TV, and what it saw was ugly: Chicago police, robotic in baby-blue helmets and gas masks, yanking kids out of the crowd and walloping them senseless with billy clubs. Not just long-hairs, either, or kooks, or ethnics - there were clean-cut white college boys and girls left beaten and bloody on the street. Even that nice young newsman Mike Wallace was roughed up. What on earth was going on?

Two things: the Democratic Convention and a pre-planned piece of theater. The conventional politics revolved around Hubert Humphrey, LBJ's vice-president and anointed successor, a decent Midwestern progressive tainted by association with the disastrous war in Vietnam. The left wing of the party was unhappy at having Humphrey rammed down their throats, but President Johnson was a master at assembling necessary votes; Mayor Richard J. Daley, Boss of Chicago, would deliver Illinois on condition that the convention came to his town. He spent $500,000 on sprucing up the venue and promised that nothing would happen.

In 1968, that was quite a promise: in January, the North Vietnamese launched the Tet offensive - 16,000 US troops would be killed that year; in April, Martin Luther King was assassinated, sparking country-wide riots in which 46 people died; students occupied the Columbia University campus until ejected by police; in May, a civil rights camp on the Mall in Washington was violently broken up; student riots nearly brought down the French government; in June, Robert Kennedy was shot; in August, the Republican convention in Miami was marred by three deaths when police believed they were being attacked by snipers and returned fire. Nobody knew what would happen next.

One person had an idea, though: Abbie Hoffman. A complex man with a manic capacity for connection and a hidden core of depression, he was older than the average hippie, one of those people over thirty one was not supposed to trust. Well-meaning political protest didn' rate with him - this was playing the Man's game with a losing hand. No one got anywhere by being predictably outraged, or issuing 50-page manifestos; that was boring. "People that are into a very literal bag, like that heavy word scene, you know, don't understand the use of communication in this country and the use of media." Hoffman wanted to make revolution as attractive as advertising: "we're using the tools of Madison Ave. But that's because Madison Ave. is effective in what it does." If the rhetoric of ads and politics could trade places, revolution would become sexy and capitalism collapse. So Hoffman and his friends invented the idea of Yippies, people whose every action was an ad for counter-culture: "Yippies, sex-loving, dope-loving, commie, beatnik, hippie, freako, weirdos. That's groovy, man, that's a whole life style, that's a whole thing to be, man. I mean you want to get in on that." For Hoffman, the way to bring down the "Party of Death" was theater - guerilla theater - and he planned to open in Chicago. As a teaser, he said the Yippies would dose the city's water supply with LSD.

Mayor Daley was not without his dramatic side, either; his audience was his voters and he knew their tastes. One thirteen-year-old Chicagoan told a New York Times reporter, "they better not come down here - we'll get scissors and cut all their hair off." Daley would get no applause for accommodating dissent; he denied licenses for even the smallest march, enforced (for once) the curfew on remaining in city parks after 11 p.m., put 11,500 policemen on the streets in 12-hour shifts, and called in 5,000 National Guardsmen, 1,000 FBI agents, and 6,000 infantrymen from the 101st Airborne armed with flame-throwers and bazookas (although he kept these last in the suburbs; a true artist knows not to overdo it). The policemen themselves expected the worst from radical hippies and liberal media alike: "They were trouble. We read about them, and they spoke of causing trouble in our city for the convention. Poisoning things, having sex on the streets, and hurting delegates. It was all bad, and we could hear it coming down the pike - and smell it, too."

All things converged to one night: tonight, forty-one years ago. The earnest protesters had largely stayed away, dissuaded by Daley's intransigence. There were probably 4,000 people milling around Lincoln Park, drumming, getting high, practicing karate moves, chanting "Om" with Allen Ginsberg. William S. Burroughs was there, recording things obsessively on a portable tape recorder; Jean Genet looked on, baffled but engaged. The show seemed a damp squib - but the police found the fuse and lit it, letting off the pointless tension of the preceding weeks in an explosion of violence. They beat up everybody: yippies, hippies, priests, newsmen, even some straight-arrow kids who had come to jeer. They smashed cameras, jostled delegates, and gave the world a new concept: the "police riot." Abbie Hoffman finally got his media moment, although not in the way he had planned.

And all for what? Nobody died; nobody lost his job. Humphrey was nominated, only to lose to Nixon. The war was eventually ended, not through youthful idealism, but by the cynical realpolitik of America's Metternich, Henry Kissinger. Daley held onto Chicago; his son runs it now. The student leaders aged, some to become entrepreneurs, others professors at minor colleges; one married Jane Fonda. And Abbie Hoffman, finding life less and less like the pleasures of advertising, eventually committed suicide. The world, having watched, changed channels.

If you enjoy such tales of human fallibility, you will find a new one every day on my sister site, Bozo Sapiens. See you there.