June 3, 2020

Dispatches from Hell

I didn't intentionally set out to watch the 1968 Democratic National Convention on YouTube because of the riots that ripped through the Twin Cities last week and spread around the country from here. Incidentally, we're doing fine; we're far enough away from the troublespots that nothing dramatic happened, although many of the stores and gas stations were boarded up over the weekend, just in case. But much of the violence occurred in the part of Minneapolis where I grew up watching the TV shows I write about here. No, I didn't have the foresight for that.

In my case, it's what comes from finding myself unexpectedly unemployed (again!), this time due to virus-related layoffs. It's all there, the convention coverage; you might remember a couple of weeks ago I mentioned that there's a YouTube channel for just about everything, and that turns out to include classic television news. Virtually all of the CBS coverage is there, as well as much of NBC's, and the drone of speeches, the shouts of delegates, and the playing of bands makes a pleasant background while cruising internet job boards and filling out applications.

I had to stop and watch, though, when it came to the police riot.

Some background: that picture at the top is from Wednesday night, the third night of the convention. To say that it had been a contentious convention so far would be an understatement; Tuesday, the second day, had been plagued by acrimonious debates over the seating of rival state delegations (those supported by the establishment and selected by party bosses vs. delegations that were more integrated, and more anti-war). The session ran past midnight, and is probably best-known for Dan Rather getting socked by security people during a brawl on the convention floor.

Wednesday afternoon had been taken up by the highly-anticipated (and feared) debate on the Vietnam War, with the pro-war forces (supporters of LBJ's Vietnam policy) winning a narrow victory over the anti-war proposals (favored by candidates Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern, and many of the delegates previously pledged to the late Robert Kennedy). It was a noisy, bruising debate, with much cheering and booing from each side, and a lot of bitterness afterward; mass protests in and outside the International Amphitheater where the convention was being held were a distinct possibility.

In a sense, though, this was just fanning the flames of a fire that had been smoldering for some time. Over 10,000 anti-war protesters representing various groups had descended on the city of Chicago prior to the debate; Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley countered with 6,000 armed National Guard troops, in addition to the 11,000 city policemen working 12-hour shifts. When you put that many people in a relatively confined space (downtown, near Grant Park), something was bound to happen, and on Wednesday night—the night of the voting for the presidential nomination—it did.

It happened during the nominating speeches for president. Vice President Hubert Humphrey had wrapped things up by then, with McCarthy and McGovern candidates (and those touting a draft for Edward Kennedy) passionate but outnumbered. Following the nominating speech for McCarthy, given by Iowa Governor Harold Hughes, networks switched to taped coverage of the violence that had broken out between demonstrators and the police. (The coverage was taped due to a communications strike that prevented live remote coverage, a strike that some thought had been encouraged by Daley in an effort to limit media access to anything outside the controlled environment of the convention hall.) This footage comes from NBC, and while it's about nine minutes long, I think you'll find it worth watching:

It's shocking footage, and meant to be. I'm not going to go into a great deal of it here; I've already addressed it before, and at some length, in this piece, so there's no need to do it again. Word of the rioting spread to the convention floor, where it was called out by Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff in his nominating speech for George McGovern.

Of course, none of this happened in a vacuum. There were the Watts riots in 1965, and the entire nation was rocked by rioting in 1967 and 1968. Chicago was not an isolated incident; it was, I suppose, inevitable.

I'm not trying to be political here, and this isn't going to be a commentary. My principle point here is that television played a major role in bringing the violence into the nation's living rooms, and that it serves as a primary source for anyone who cares about how history can help explain events and put them in proper perspective. I lived in Minneapolis during the 1967 and 1968 riots; I'd already seen it all, and perhaps worse. I remember that, just as it was over the weekend, there was a curfew, there were National Guardsmen, there were fires and clashes on the streets and areas we were told to avoid for the duration. As such, I wasn't as shocked as some here were, especially younger reporters. (I think my friend Marc Ryan would understand.)

All that doesn't mean I wasn't shocked, though, and dismayed. You like to think things have improved since then, but what it does go to show is that history seldom changes, it just recycles. Then as now, there were accusations of police brutality; then as now, there were charges of outsiders and rabble-rousers; then as now, buildings were torched, people were injured, property was destroyed; then as now, we saw it all unfold before our eyes on television. It was depressing then, and it's depressing now.

Things might not be as bad now as they were back in 1968; we've always had notoriously short memories, and today they barely stretch back more than a few months. We're on that road, though; if we just step on the accelerator a bit, we should be there in no time. TV  

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