With next week’s Democratic Convention promising to hit all-time highs of boredom and pointlessness, the attention of the media legion will naturally be turning to recollections of and comparisons to that other Chicago Democratic Convention, you know, that one in 1968. In some ways this is as it should be. It’s no coincidence that Clinton and Company are coming to Chicago in a year without any significant intraparty battling. Chicago is where the Democrats came apart as a ruling party, where they opened the door to George Wallace, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan, where they provided an instant language and credibility for the legion of small-town cranks who populate the nation’s statehouses, always looking for a way to slam-dunk the social reforms that make up the party’s primary legacy. So with dissidence at a preternatural low and a good part of that legacy having been conveniently abandoned by their leader, the Democrats are here to put old ghosts to rest for good.
They are, of course, taking an enormous chance in coming here, virtually daring crackpots from all over the country to show up and do their worst to disrupt the processes of government before the watching eyes of the whole world. For Bill Clinton, who is ordinarily averse to risk of any kind, then, this must be a mission of enormous significance, part of his duty as the boomer president to bandage our national wounds. Not that Clinton himself was part of the “up against the wall” set, of course: there’s an enormous gap between his counterculture, represented by the burbling pleasantries of Fleetwood Mac, and that of the demonstrators of ’68, who listened to the MC5 in Lincoln Park before joining battle with the police. But this is a distinction lost on Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, and the rest of the GOP’s bloodthirsty culture warriors, who rode to power in 1994 by portraying Clinton’s every move as dictated by 60s “political correctness.” It is their blurring of the fine distinctions of the 60s that has forced the Democrats back to Chicago, their propaganda that will dictate the soporific spectacle that we will no doubt endure. And it is their Manichaean terms, their simple vision of liberal treason and conservative virtue, that will make this one of the most successful Democratic conventions ever; it will allow Bill Clinton to assume the mantle of cultural peacemaker once sought by his hero, Richard Nixon, and to leave Chicago crowned as nothing less than the redeemer of his generation.
For Mayor Daley and the city fathers the significance of the convention is direct and uncomplicated. In a time when cities live and die by convention dollars, they are out to clear Chicago’s reputation as the greatest convention city of them all. For Daley personally there is the added urgency of rescuing the honor of the family business. Thus with his massive campaign to prettify the parts of the city that will be visible to delegates, Daley is aiming, as Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin put it, “to burnish a family name…tarnished 28 years ago by police brutality.”
The Democrats are here, then, less to make the choices political parties ordinarily make at a convention than to engage in a delicate act of historical conciliation. And in typical Clinton style, they aim to accomplish this by symbolically embracing their old enemies. All summer Chicagoans have been amused by a little trickle of testimonials and apologies from ex-radicals now in the employ of the city. As everyone knows by now, Mayor Daley and Tom Hayden, who will be attending the convention as a delegate, have discussed “gestures of healing,” including a monument to the antiwar movement. Media coverage of the convention will no doubt be richly ennobled by numerous feel-good featurettes showing former militants weeping and hugging with the men of power. In fact the event is shaping up to be the political equivalent of Woodstock II, complete with corporate sponsors and fabled celebrity guests. A few nights ago I listened as a squad of revelers from Alabama and Louisiana swapped pertinent tales of youthful revolt: one had been at Altamont; another wondered whether the Hells Angels would be here for the convention; a third recounted seeing the annoying Wavy Gravy on the street that day; a fourth topped them all by claiming to have glimpsed none other than the late Timothy Leary at Blue Chicago. While the Republican version of ’68 stresses the sheer innate badness of liberals, the Democratic fable will be more commemorative: the 60s were a fine time to be children of privilege, what with the whole world watching and all, but we’re adults now. And if you still happen to have a taste for demonstrating, well, the Democrats have a place for you, too.
That place is in the “protest pits,” to which the city is enthusiastically–and with conspicuous, accountant-certified impartiality–inviting anyone who feels the urge to make trouble. As an explicit reference to ’68, one of the pits is to be located at the intersection of Michigan and Balbo, a spot forever enshrined in the city’s history as the place where opponents of the Vietnam war quite randomly took their worst beating from the police. In just about every way short of opening a new Yippie-themed Lettuce Entertain You restaurant, the city next week is going to be a monument to the glorious passions of the youth of ’68, now pragmatic “New Democrats” planted firmly in the national saddle, busily undoing their parents’ beloved New Deal.
One of the many odd facts about the ’68 riots is that in a number of photographs of the battle the word “Haymarket,” spelled out in glowing letters, appears through the tear-gas haze as a sort of cosmic invocation of the ur-riot of 1886. The Haymarket Lounge was a swanky steakhouse and bar in the Hilton hotel where, in one of the convention’s most horrible incidents, Chicago police decided to push a group of newsmen and bystanders through the plate-glass windows. The lounge, which a Hilton spokesperson was glad to inform me was not, in fact, a riot-theme restaurant, is gone now, though the hotel is planning to open a small historical exhibit including displays on its role in the ’68 riots.
If one had to choose a Chicago riot as a vantage point from which to make the sort of contemporary political observations that are the convention watcher’s stock-in-trade, one can’t help but think that the Haymarket affair would offer much more fertile ground than the events of ’68. After all, the Vietnam war is long over, its “lessons” fully learned by defense policy makers, while industrial relations have decayed to a point where they are only marginally superior to those of 1886. Virtually every social commentator these days–except for those associated with the two political parties, naturally–is talking about Robber Barons Redux, finally noticing that recent social policy has reconcentrated wealth into the hands of those who had it back in the 1880s. Even the eight-hour day, the once-sacred cause that was the immediate issue of the Haymarket gathering, is disappearing before the inexorable onslaught of cybercapitalism, as surely as the buffalo vanished before the railroads.
The Haymarket tragedy began at Randolph and Desplaines on the night of May 3, 1886, when persons unknown threw a bomb just as policemen moved in to break up a mass meeting at which various anarchists were speaking. A bloody melee ensued in which a number of civilians and policemen were killed. Duly outraged, the newspapers and public officials of Chicago demanded revenge against anarchists, and eight leaders of the city’s anarchist groups (some of whom had not attended the rally at all) were rounded up and quickly convicted without benefit of any conclusive evidence connecting them with the bombing. Their crime, rather, was criticizing the state and thus inciting the mysterious bomber. Four of them were hanged in 1887; they are buried around a fabled monument in Forest Home cemetery west of the city.
The policemen killed at Haymarket were commemorated in 1889 with another monument, this one depicting a helmeted officer, hand upraised in forbearance, over the inscription: “In the name of the people of Illinois, I command peace.” The monument is part of the logo of the Chicago Patrolmen’s Association and was for years a well-known city landmark. But it has endured a singularly unfortunate history. In 1900 it was defaced and moved to Randolph and Ogden in Union Park. In 1927 it was somehow hit by a streetcar that jumped its tracks, after which it was repaired and moved again, further into the park. In 1958 it was brought back to Haymarket Square at Randolph and Desplaines.
In the aftermath of ’68, the monument to the fallen police of 1886 became a battleground between young revolutionaries and the elder Daley, who was frustrated with a youth movement he could neither understand nor suppress. A little more than a year after the riot at the Democratic Convention, the Weathermen held a “Days of Rage” protest in Chicago featuring speeches at the Haymarket monument and running battles with cops on the Gold Coast. The day before the action began, another unknown bomber dynamited the monument. Restored and returned to its pedestal, it was bombed again exactly one year later. Daley responded by putting a 24-hour guard on the statue and then moving it in 1972 to the unquestionably secure environment of police headquarters. In 1976 it was moved again to an atrium in the police training center on West Jackson, where it stands today, largely inaccessible to the public. The monument’s pedestal, though, remained at the original site of the Haymarket melee–that is, until a few weeks ago.
Which brings us to what may well be the oddest fact about the ’96 convention: in its haste to clean up the memories of one riot, the administration of the younger Daley has literally obliterated reminders of another. As one of the main arteries leading from the Loop to the United Center, Randolph Street, where the monument stood, has undergone a substantial facelift: dilapidated buildings have been cleaned up, giant concrete planters have been plunked down along the sides of the street, new streetlights have been erected. And the Haymarket pedestal–still damaged from the bombings, devoid of its statue, covered with graffiti, and transformed waggishly into a ready-made shrine for the Virgin Mary–has been razed. It had become, in the words of a city spokesman, a “public nuisance.”
It is deeply ironic that, of all things, it should be the remnant of a monument to the police that the city has obliterated. Doubly ironic since this was the spot where the elder Daley made a symbolic stand against the young revolutionaries. A more obvious (albeit much costlier) choice would have been to beautify Randolph Street by rebuilding the Haymarket monument, remounting the bronze statue on a reconstructed pedestal, where its stern visage and upraised arm could reassure conventioneers of their hosts’ unsleeping vigilance against bomb throwers and rioters of all kinds.
Clearly, though, the city fathers are in no mood to erect another highly visible memorial to law and order; nor are they interested in evening the monument score for the anarchists known worldwide as the “Haymarket martyrs.” The idea is simply to forget the whole thing, like we have forgotten the Republic Steel massacre of 1937, the Pullman strike of 1894, and the Chicago-convention rhetoric of William Jennings Bryan and Franklin Roosevelt–to transform the anarchists into what a fairly new plaque on Desplaines Street calls “activists,” to change the SDS into a club of lifestyle heroes, their excellent sartorial innovations duly acknowledged and their beef with society easily resolved with a few presidential hugs and an hour in the protest pit.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Collage by Victor Thompson; Haymarket Monument photo by Mike Tappin; Haymarket martyrs courtesy Chicago Historical Society.