Monday, 3 September 2018

ECHOES OF RIOTS, ECHOES OF AUGUST (1968)

The essay that follows is a sort of companion piece to one I wrote in March, 'Hey, Hey LBJ, What Did You Do 50 Years Ago Today', to which you can link here. There is, I think, much more to be said about those tumultuous years in the late Sixties, not only about how and why they succeeded or failed, or how they have been misinterpreted, but also about what they have to say to us who lived through them, and what they might say to young people today. I'm sure more essays will follow, but for now, here's a memory of that summer...

At no point in my life did it ever occur to me to congratulate myself for living through August 1968, but somehow I have now I managed to 'survive', to use the more self-sensitive 21st century term, its fiftieth anniversary. Anniversary remembrance is symbolic, triggered by nothing more than mathematical convenience (years ending in zeroes) which appeals to our senses of order. But August 1968 was not about order, but chaos. As Chicago Mayor Richard Daley explained, on 29 August, after his cops had run riot through protestors at the Democratic Party's Presidential Convention, “the policeman isn't there to create disorder, (he) is there to preserve disorder”.

The Chicago convention riots may have been the high-water mark of political counter-culture in an America (the cultural high would come a year later), which was built around by two great political issues: civil rights at home and the war in Vietnam abroad. The latter was driving a new spike through the liberal political establishment which had already begun to re-order itself in the wake of President Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts in 1964 and '65. Disaffected racist Southern 'Dixiecrats' still rallied to LBJ's waging of the war. But at the start of 1968 the Viet Cong's Tet Offensive suggested to America that LBJ wasn't 'winning' the war, and in February trusted news-anchor Walter Cronkite returned from Vietnam confirming that was the case. “If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost America,” Johnson said. 

In March, on my seventeenth birthday, anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy came close to defeating incumbent President Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. On the last day of the month, Johnson realised his candidacy would divide his party, and announced he would not stand for re-election. My teenaged self, thinking I was now part of a triumphant revolution, celebrated. But the celebrations were premature, and short-lived.

Four days later, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, and riots in cities across the country left 46 people dead. Protest increased. Columbia University students occupied campus buildings; but that paled in the face of French students sparking a general strike joined by some 22 million workers. Meanwhile, Robert F. Kennedy was trying to unify the opposition to LBJ's designated successor, Hubert H. Humphrey, whom many McCarthy supporters treated as an opportunist carpet-bagger. Yet in the same way King had, just before his murder, specifically linked the issue of civil rights to American conduct in Vietnam, so RFK seemed to be rallying King's constituency to anti-war coalition. Then, on 4 June, as he celebrated winning the California primary, he too was assassinated. Riots didn't follow immediately, but it's not unfair to see those in Chicago as a delayed by-product of that assassination, bringing white kids out on the streets the same way Rev. King's killing had brought out the black population in the cities.

August began with Nixon winning the Republican nomination, and new Defense Secretary Clark Clifford raising the number of US soldiers in Vietnam to its peak, 541,000. We watched again as European dissent get more real than ours; Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to put an end to the Prague Spring. Surely there was something more we could do.

Thousands flocked to disrupt the Democratic convention, to stem the Humphrey tide that would ensure Johnson's war continued. But this was America; concrete action and coalition-building was subsumed into political theatre which played better on television news. Inside the convention, the winning of primaries proved to be less important than the wishes of the party bosses who ran the smoky rooms; the big party chief was John Bailey, from Connecticut, who'd given my grandad his marching orders for one term in the state legislature. Frustration overwhelmed those outside the convention hall, and then Daley unleashed the police. The cops, taking out their own frustration against what they saw as spoiled long-hairs untrue to their country, made the fatal mistake of including the reporters covering their attack among its targets.

Inside the hall, Senator Abraham Ribicoff, a Bailey protege from Connecticut, stood up and excoriated a lack of democratic process which led to “Gestapo tactics being used in the streets of Chicago”. Ribicoff was also Jewish, like my mother, so we watched him with a special pride. He had responded with great grace to a letter I'd written him when I was 12, asking about appointments to the Naval Academy. That was a much different me, I remember thinking, just as Mayor Daley was caught on camera cupping his hand round his mouth and shouted at Ribicoff. We lip-read what he screamed, which wasn't difficult. At least the 'you Jew bastard' part.

Protest had failed. August was over. Immediately after the Chicago riots, I was off to university to play football. My music was changing, with LP records and FM radio. I went off to college with the Spingfield's final album, with The Band's first, with Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield's Super Session. Those old compilations of two hits and filler which kept pop music profitable were yesterday's news, though Otis Redding's History, James Brown Live At The Apollo and Aretha Now had made the cut. John Coltrane's Impressions had somehow cracked my consciousness, which was ripe for being expanded. My hair, under the football helmet, grew. Eventually I managed to jump onto the running board of the sexual revolution. In was September 1968. Surely whoever won the Presidency would hear the collective cries of so many of us seeking an end to racial discrimination, an end to the folly of the Vietnam war.

History can tell you how that turned out. The trial of the Chicago Eight protest leaders would become America's greatest example of political theatre of the absurd. Nixon narrowly defeated Humphrey, helped by his 'October Surprise' which sabotaged LBJ's peace talks with North Vietnam in Paris. The Democrats would make new rules, increasing the importance of their presidential primaries, which would lead to George McGovern, who had led the Kennedy delegates after Bobby's killing, to the nomination. Nixon would defeat him in a landslide, despite the clues provided by the early Watergate reports. The Vietnam war would continue until it was lost; Nixon would continue until he was lost, and resign. The Dixiecrats would defect full scale to the Republicans, and a few years later Ronald Reagan would begin the shift of America's political paradigm to the right, as prophesied from jail by Nixon's campaign manager and Attorney General, John Mitchell.

It was still a great time to protest, especially within the protective walls of a small liberal arts college. Especially because even there you found chaos, division between black and white, left and right, straight and hip. It was obvious this would not be a French-style movement for change. It was also a safe time to lose oneself to the cultural revolution, but after Woodstock the following August, that too began to crumble into what became known as the 'me' generation. By 1970 even students, at Jackson State and Kent State, were being killed. Lives were there to be got on with. Some of us would be lucky enough to try to continue to protest. Eventually I even voted for a presidential candidate who won. It took decades. But back in August 1968 (was it really 50 years ago?) I would have told you change was in the air. Almost everything still seemed possible, especially if you were 17.

1 comment :

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