‘The whole world is watching’: how the 1968 Chicago police riot shocked America. By David Taylor and Sam Morris

First posted August 20, 2018

By the summer of 1968, Americans were dying at a rate of more than 1,000 per month in the bloodiest year of the Vietnam war

Where the National Guard once stood in formation with bayonets fixed, a line of stands for rental bikes now stretches away along South Michigan Avenue. Where protestors against the Vietnam War once massed, chanting “the whole world is watching”, sun shines on formal flower beds filled with purple hostas and golden lilies. Across the street, the facade of the Hilton Chicago looms, four towers of brick rising above war-like stone carvings of figures carrying shields and axes. There are few clues, but 50 years ago, this spot was a crucible of violence, which exposed fault lines in a divided and traumatised nation.

A tumultuous season of assassinations, riots and war, 1968 was the year that changed America, in ways that still unfold today. And part of that momentous drama played out on summer nights in Chicago when blood ran in the streets and police orchestrated a riot as anti-war protesters tried to march upon the Democratic National Convention calling for an end to the Vietnam war. After four days and nights of violence, 668 people had been arrested, 425 demonstrators were treated at temporary medical facilities, 200 were treated on the spot, 400 given first aid for tear gas exposure and 110 went to hospital. A total of 192 police officers were injured.

Images of police firing teargas and beating demonstrators with their nightsticks played on network television news. It looked like an oppressive fascist state and offered a view of a nation apparently tearing itself apart. Rick Perlstein, the author of Nixonland, speaking at an event at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism to mark the Chicago ’68 anniversary, cited an NBC news producer who thought the footage he had produced was “a crystalline theatre of moral witness, evil being visited upon innocents”. But not all saw it like that – a Gallup poll showed 56% of Americans backed the police actions against the demonstrators. Charles Kaiser, the author of 1968 in America, said: “The biggest impact was on the older generation because they were so completely freaked out by it, this spectacle of anarchy was really terrifying. 

“The combination of the two assassinations [Rev Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F Kennedy], the extremely violent and numerous riots after Martin Luther King was killed, the spectacle of upper middle class white college students fighting with policemen in Chicago, I think there is an argument to be made that the images of police riots in Chicago were as useful to Richard Nixon’s campaign as anything else that happened in the whole year. “They contribute in a big way to this whole sense that everything is out of control and therefore the man who is preaching law and order becomes very attractive.”

In 1969, President Nixon would hail a “silent majority” and urge them to support him, claiming patriotism for conservatives and condemning the “bitter hatred” of young Americans as he derided a minority who tried to impose their view on the nation “by mounting demonstrations in the street”. Some of those fault lines, and that language, still echo 50 years later… 

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