Revisiting the End of the Sixties (6/98)

Midway through HBO’s recent series on the U.S. quest to reach the moon, an installment titled "1968" proposes that the six-day orbital flight by astronauts Borman, Lovell, and Anders in December was about all that rescued the year from disaster. At a distance of three decades, that time of rebellion and polarization was epitomized by stock footage of riots, assassinations, and war. But in celebrating the space program, this docu-drama missed the bigger picture.

Opening a Senate investigation of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in early March 1968, Senator J. William Fulbright described what was taking place across the country as a "spiritual rebellion" of the young against a betrayal of national values. The Resolution itself, passed in 1964, had given President Johnson a blank check to wage war against Vietnam, based on a trumped-up military incident. Subsequently, over half a million troops were mobilized to prevent a North Vietnamese victory, using fears of Communism and falling dominoes to rationalize what soon became a major invasion. By 1968, the operative logic was that it might be necessary to destroy the divided Asian nation in order to save it.

Back in the U.S., anti-war and "stop the draft" protests were on the rise. Even members of the Johnson administration and media establishment were having second thoughts. On returning from Vietnam, Walter Cronkite, the nation’s TV "uncle," announced that the only "rational way out" was to negotiate a settlement. Meanwhile, the president’s "wise men" advised that a change of policy was unavoidable.

But other forces were also at work. Responding to campus and New Left activism, the FBI concluded that a counter-intelligence program was needed to "expose, disrupt, and otherwise neutralize" the growing anti-war movement. Suggested tactics included instigating personal conflicts and animosities, spreading rumors that movement leaders were Bureau informants, arresting activists on marijuana charges, using "misinformation" to "confuse and disrupt," sending damaging anonymous letters to parents and officials, and exploiting "cooperative press contacts." If anyone was bringing the war back home, it was the FBI.

In mid-March, Eugene McCarthy, an ardent opponent of the war, won an astonishing 42 percent of the Democratic primary vote for president in New Hampshire. Four days later, Robert Kennedy entered the race, and by the end of the month Johnson had announced he wouldn’t seek re-election. But on the same day that Kennedy made his move, U.S. soldiers lined up hundreds of old men, women, and children in the South Vietnamese village of Mai Lai and shot them, one of several massacres that remained secret until the end of the decade. Just as the U.S. was finding a way out, it seemed, it was losing its soul.

"Everywhere we talk liberty and social reform," wrote the prescient muckraker I.F. Stone in the midst of growing chaos, "but we end up by allying ourselves with native oligarchies and military cliques — just as we have done in Vietnam. In the showdown, we reach for the gun." On April 4, a rifle rang out in Memphis, ending the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Afterwards, riots erupted in 125 cities, resulting in over 20,000 arrests and the mobilization of federal troops and the National Guard. Two months later, Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles, just after winning the California primary race. By July, there had been over 220 major demonstrations on campuses across the country.

Despite clear signs of deepening social conflict, however, the war overseas continued to escalate. In the first five months of the year, almost 10,000 soldiers died in Vietnam, more than in all of 1967. And at home, the violence and repression was just beginning.

Fear and Loathing in Our Town

Chicago in the waning days of the 60s would be the ideal backdrop for a period action-adventure movie. It surely has the elements. Imagine the trailer for such a summer blockbuster: "In a world at the brink of chaos," an announcer intones, "a powerful nation was divided against itself."

Then the action clip: "The whole world is watching," scream demonstrators outside the Democratic Convention. The Chicago police move in and TV networks beam their images around the world. And the comedy element: "A birthday cake was ruled out of order today in the trial of the Chicago Eight," announces a newsman outside a courtroom. Then, of course, the violence, which ultimately spills into the courtroom itself: "Look, they’re beating Bobbie," shouts Jerry Rubin. He gets an elbow in the face for trying to help Bobbie Seale, who is being strapped into a chair as it topples backward. Despite a gag over his mouth, the Black Panther leader’s muffled voice echoes across the room, still demanding his right to defend himself.

Great movie stuff. The backdrop is a country wracked by assassinations, self-righteous backlash, political disintegration, and the impotence of liberals. The ironic theme song? Sinatra’s "My Kind of Town." And that great dialogue, especially the high-volume exchanges between Seale and Judge Julius Hoffman during the 1969 Chicago conspiracy trial, not to mention the cutting monologues of that other Hoffman — Abbie. And the riot scenes? Pure movie dynamite. There might even be a market for Chicago Eight action figures.

Yet, in the midst of that future blockbuster it was hard to sit back and enjoy it. Though the plot certainly did have touches of the Marx Brothers, it also bore a striking resemblance to scenes of the Nazi mobilization in Leni Riefenstahl’s "Triumph of the Will."

The "art house" or Broadway approach to the same subject might be a courtroom drama. In this scenario, a prosecutor — a bit like the narrator of Our Town — faces the audience and leads us through the events, opening windows to the past. After a montage opening, the actor, let’s say Tom Hanks, walks toward us out of a riot tableau, explaining how the nation lost its way.

"Daniel Walker was no radical," Hanks might say, as the backdrop shifts. "He’d been a trial lawyer for years when he took over the Chicago Crime Commission and produced the study called ‘Rights in Conflict.’ With the help of 212-person staff and the FBI — which may never forgive itself for allowing the report to go public — he studied still photos and film, and interviewed both witnesses and participants in the riots that captured the nation’s attention during the Democratic National Convention of 1968."

The drama’s premise is that if Walker’s research had been taken seriously, charges might have been filed against quite a few defendants not mentioned in the original indictments that followed the debacle in Chicago. Whether Bobbie Seale, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Dave Dellinger, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner, and Jerry Rubin actually crossed state lines with any clear intentions or not becomes academic in the face of Walker’s findings.

Hanks: Is it possible that the defendants conspired with the Chicago police force to incite a riot? Let’s ask Walker. Sir, can you describe the events that preceded the violence in August 1968?

Walker: During the week of the Democratic National Convention, the Chicago police were the targets of mounting provocation by both word and act. It took the form of obscene epithets, and of rocks, sticks, bathroom tiles, and even human feces hurled at police by demonstrators.

Hanks: Yuk. Well, stupid is as stupid does. But what about the police response?

Walker: Unrestrained and indiscriminate police violence on many occasions, particularly at night.

Hanks: That’s kind of vague. How about some details?

Walker: The violence was made all the more shocking by the fact that it was often inflicted upon persons who had broken no law, disobeyed no order, made no threat. These included peaceful demonstrators, onlookers, and large numbers of residents who were simply passing through, or happened to live in the areas where confrontations were occurring.

Hanks: Was the TV coverage accurate?

Walker: The Old Town near Lincoln Park was a scene of police ferocity exceeding that shown on television on Wednesday night. >From Sunday night through Tuesday night, incidents of intense and indiscriminate violence occurred in the streets after police had swept the park clear of demonstrators.

Hanks: Yada, yada. What did your report say?

Walker: Let’s take Tuesday, 1 a.m. "The deputy superintendent of police has been described by several observers as being very upset by individual policemen who beat demonstrators. He pulled his men off the demonstrators, shouting, ‘Stop, damn it, stop. For Christ’s sake, stop it.’"

Hanks: Anything else?

Walker: "An assistant U.S. attorney walking with the police in the Old Town area noted that many residents were hanging out of windows observing the action. Police yelled profanities at them, taunting them to come down where the police would beat them up. A derelict who appeared to be very intoxicated walked up to a policeman and mumbled something incoherent. The policeman pulled from his belt a tin container and sprayed its contents into the eyes of the derelict, who stumbled around and fell on his face."

Hanks: So, how would you sum it all up?

Walker: To read dispassionately the hundreds of statements describing at first hand the events of Sunday and Monday nights is to become convinced of the presence of what can only be called a police riot.

All the answers above are from Walker’s report, and the incidents themselves occurred well before the influx of protesters who, according to Mayor Daley, incited violence later that week. Given this, how could the speeches of the defendants have provoked them? And if it was a police riot, who really provoked it? In this scenario, it’s the U.S. system of justice that is on trial. But let our narrator tell the story.

Hanks: Looking back, it becomes fairly clear that in 1968 the U.S. system of law enforcement broke down, dividing rather than protecting the nation. And the judicial system, with its vested interest in maintaining the current social structure, soon became an accomplice. But before we get into that, consider this: It’s a tape from the Chicago Police Department, recorded one early morning during the convention.

Police Operator: 1814, get a wagon over at 1436. We’ve got an injured hippie.

Officers in five police cars: That’s no emergency. … Let him take a bus. … Kick the (deleted). … Knock his teeth out. … Throw him in a wastepaper basket.

Hanks: There’s little doubt about the intent of those officers. Yet, they were never put on trial — until now.

The story line might then move on to the riot case and introduce some of the leading players. As a potential heavy, Judge Hoffman stands out. Few people on either side ever claimed that he followed accepted legal procedure — from his insulting opening remarks to the defense attorneys to his handling of their objections. A judge is allowed latitude on the assumption that his motives are pure and he suppresses his political biases. But allegiance to dominant cultural norms is too often overlooked. In this case, just such an allegiance lay at the heart of the judge’s persecution of the irreverent defendants.

Judge Hoffman would make a great character. Dripping contempt, he made it abundantly clear from the start that he viewed the Chicago Eight as offensive and threatening to the public good. Thus, when he heard that Bobbie Seale’s lawyer had just undergone gall bladder surgery and couldn’t participate, he refused to delay the proceedings despite a request to postpone. He repeatedly conducted snide conversations with the prosecutors about the qualifications of defense lawyer Bill Kunstler. And even though he was aware of tapes and other wiretapping evidence, he declined to order that the prosecution provide copies to the defense. Such actions, and many more, sent a clear message.

The defendants were activist leaders of several groups who shared the opinion that their country was on the wrong path. One rallying cry presented the agenda bluntly: "All power to the people." Responsive government, rather than rule by unaccountable elites, was what they — and many of us who joined them in rebellion — wanted. The demonstrations in Chicago represented a demand to be heard in decisions affecting millions of lives. Obviously, such temerity had to be punished.

Revealing the Whip Hand

"Keep clean for Gene" buttons were a familiar sight at the 1968 Democratic Convention. But the protesters maced and beaten outside the hall that week in August 1968 knew that McCarthy, the peace candidate, and his supporters inside were symbolically undergoing the same ritual. Barbed-wire fences around the amphitheater had led to the grim joke that delegates were all prisoners in "Stalag 68." Keeping clean obviously wouldn’t be enough.

Many demonstrators watched the convention on TV. (Was the medium also guilty of inciting riots by exposing a sham to millions?) And the tube soon revealed that even political leaders and media celebs weren’t safe when they challenged power. Take this tidbit from the CBS tape library:

Speaking over a shot of Mike Wallace on the convention floor, Walter Cronkite commented on the latest development, "Yes, I can see them carrying a man out bodily."   Then Wallace asked, "Sergeant at Arms, why are you doing this — who is the man?" For his curiosity, Wallace was pushed around by security people. His headset came off as he continued his coverage. "Now come the strong arms: The Chicago police, wearing hard hats."  Wielding billy clubs, the cops muscled their way onto the convention floor. "Oooh," groaned the newsman, obviously hurt.

Cronkite was shocked. "Yes, Mike, I saw you shoved down by those fellows. A duplication of the Dan Rather scene last night." Rather, who had been punched in the stomach by security men while accompanying the Georgia delegation, also chimed in. "It’s a roughhouse situation," he agreed. "This is by far the roughest scene of the convention so far."

By this time, the CBS news director was worried. "Where’s Mike?" he asked, as total pandemonium ensued. "Look for him on camera," he shouted. "Greenberg, where do you think Wallace is?"

"Under the anchor booth. That’s where he went out."

While Wallace was being arrested, downtown Chicago was exploding. But the chaos wasn’t the work of New Left conspirators. It was another sign of a society in deep crisis. Shortly afterward, I.F. Stone wrote, "To wander in Lincoln Park among the hippies and yippies, to drop in on the headquarters of the New Left demonstrators, to talk at random with the youths in Grant Park and the streets, was to feel that in revulsion against the war the best of a generation was being lost."

Many who went to Chicago that summer emerged either broken or radicalized. For them, the power structure had crossed a basic boundary, moving dangerously close to fascism. Even after McCarthy’s headquarters was raided, the democratic candidate for president, Hubert Humphrey, couldn’t bring himself to criticize Mayor Daley’s Gestapo tactics. Meanwhile, the party’s plank on the war offered little solace, supporting the logic of its most hawkish elements. In short, the war was destroying the country, just as the U.S. military was destroying Vietnam.

In the months that followed the Democratic Convention, activists preached liberation with even greater zeal. But the obstacles were also increasing, including a crescendo of busts aimed at leaders of the expanding movement. The FBI’s counter-intelligence program was starting to take hold. Several pretexts were used for the arrests, among them dope, assault, obstruction of justice, and the anti-riot act. There were also lesser charges, such as "Failure to fasten the seat belt on a Rochester-Buffalo flight" — filed against Abbie Hoffman, vandalizing a representation of Smokey the Bear, and disrespect for the flag by hanging it as a curtain — even though advertisers were using the same design to sell canned tomatoes and deodorant. Apparently, it was all a matter of "intent": using the flag to sell products was patriotic, but hanging it across a window was a disrespectful, un-American act.

In November, Richard Nixon profited from the polarization and disillusionment, winning the presidential election in one of the closest votes ever. During his campaign, he had promised to end the war "and win the peace." Once in office, he quickly reversed himself, expanding it into Cambodia with over a year of secret bombings. Meanwhile, his attorney general, Richard Kleindienst, called anti-war activists "ideological criminals," giving a strong endorsement to the organized repression already underway.

In September 1969, shortly after the largest peaceful demonstration in history — Woodstock — the action shifted back to "law and order" land again. The government had no intention of allowing the 1968 riots to be remembered as a time when protectors of democracy became brutal aggressors. If only someone else could be found guilty of inciting the riots, went the logic, the police — and by extension the state itself — might be vindicated. Thus, the conviction of demonstration leaders became a way for the government to reclaim its legitimacy.

Eight activists were indicted. Though they disagreed about many things, they all understood that the trial was just persecution in disguise. And they aimed, in self-defense, to illustrate the inequities of the judicial system, exposing its flaws by any means at hand, including mockery and exaggeration. Some of their moves were contrived — perhaps Seale’s request to defend himself and certainly Abbie Hoffman’s cartwheel into court on the opening day. But these were merely forms of confrontation — legal "psych-outs."

The strategy certainly succeeded. Judge Hoffman soon showed his true colors.

JUDGE HAS SEALE CHAINED AT TRIAL OF CHICAGO EIGHT — newspaper headline, October 28, 1969

It was a scene tailor made for stage or screen. At the time, I was working for a daily paper in Vermont. But I could easily imagine how it must have looked to the Black Panther Party members sitting in the court that day. Already thinking about the dramatic possibilities, I summed it up in a fictional monologue based on the real events.

The narrator/prosecutor, played in our 1998 mini-series by Tom Hanks, calls a witness to the stand. A member of the Black Panthers, he’s one of the brothers who attended the trial until Seale was retired from action. "We admit his testimony may be prejudiced," explains Hanks, "but it does provide some important insights that you, the jury, ought to consider before passing judgment on who really brought the war back home."

"Bobbie’s saying, ‘Be cool,’" says the witness, "but he don’t look too cool himself. That little old man laid it on him, not waiting for Garry [attorney Charles R. Garry] and makin’ him take Kunstler. He don’t want that cat, man, the cat don’t know where we’re at."

"We gotta live, and Bobbie wants to live. But it ain’t gonna be understood in this court. We’re invisible, down. That constitution, Bill of Rights, those laws ain’t for us. Laws don’t change people’s heads. And we’re still where we were, so we gotta do our show — let The Man know we’re here, in the streets. You dig, break a window, take the money an’ run. Maybe we get busted, but we’re alive. We’re not ‘colored,’ we’re not ‘negroes,’ we’re Black.

"So Bobbie, he’s being colored for a month in that court, and he’s invisible. So when the pigs — those undercover fuzz The Man calls to testify — come on about his raps before the riot, he gets up. Those white hands are scribbling down what he says for the early papers, so he says, ‘Racist. Fascist.’ He believes it, but it’s for the press, man. And he knows what’s gonna happen.

"Dig that day when Abbie and the other whites try to bring in a birthday cake. It says on top, ‘Free Bobbie and Huey.’ 

"Right on. But the judge plays his gavel scene, havin’ birthdays is out of order here. So Bobbie’s gotta say, ‘They’ve arrested a cake, but they can’t arrest the revolution.’ Now the judge is shouting, and we’re saluting. But Bobbie cools it: ‘OK, brothers,’ he says, ‘just sit in the courtroom and listen and don’t say anything.’

"Hoffman says, ‘I give the orders here.’ And Bobbie says, ‘They don’t take orders from a racist judge.’ On the line! But they wasted Bobbie, with chains and gags, after all those years of ‘progress,’ right?

"Bobbie said once, ‘For 400 years we’ve been persecuted, murdered, shot.’ It ain’t ended yet. And they proved it. And we still ain’t livin’, so somebody’s gonna die. It’s gonna happen ’cause at least that way we put it where everybody can see. Dig? I mean, I’d rather shing-a-ling with the devil than tell my kids I left their future with The Man."    

The motives of Seale and his followers were crystal clear. But consider the judge, who used the most stringent measures possible to restrict a black defendant when racial tensions across the country were spiraling out of control. It was a transparent attempt to say to the nation — and especially to the Panthers, who had chosen to obey their own leader rather than a white judge whom they viewed as racist — that Bobbie Seale and anyone like him could be handled. That is, bound and gagged.

Yet, in revealing his whip hand the judge prejudiced the whole country. Seale had acted out, emotionally, and in violation of courtroom etiquette. But his minor error was quickly eclipsed by the mind-boggling miscarriage of justice condoned as "law and order." Chicago’s Mayor Daley, who once told his officers, "Shoot to maim or cripple anyone looting," expressed the same vigilante ethic. It was soon to sweep the country.

Questioning Authority

Change is often based on the martyr system: that is, a single committed and ultimately persecuted individual makes an heroic sacrifice that spurs the "silent majority" to action. But as the 1960s wound down, there were few heroes left. At the edge of a new decade that would only deepen the disillusionment, millions of young people were primed for some new and inspiring examples to follow.

Black Panther leader Bobbie Seale’s inquisition-style treatment during the Chicago "conspiracy" trial in 1969 confirmed the worst nightmares of many African Americans. His codefendants, especially Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, who defied middle-class morality and ignored legal niceties with outrageous political theatrics, were already counterculture legends. Busted ten times in a single year, Hoffman was targeted mainly for threatening the establishment with cutting insights and often hysterical eloquence. This "non-leader" of the yippies was also a salable property, however, paid by Random House to sit in an office for five days and write down whatever occurred to him. Why? Because millions of young people were buying what Abbie had to say.

The appeal of this yippie anti-hero came through loud and clear in his books. Revolution for the Hell of It not only chronicled the march on the Pentagon, a money-burning session at the stock exchange, and the Chicago riot; it also provided "free advice" — how to make a revolution without spending a cent. The follow-up, Woodstock Nation, was an epic monologue on Chicago, the Woodstock festival, yippie philosophy, and the growing pains of the new society he envisioned. A classic manifesto for the emerging counterculture, its irreverent tone left many "straight" readers in the dark. But millions got the message. On the back cover, bringing home the anti-capitalist message in a phrase, was the advice: Steal this book.

Hip to Abbie’s drawing power at the time, Random House rushed publication in 1969 within a month of its completion. They were underwriting his gospel — the raucous reflections of a self-proclaimed revolutionary — right before his expected martyrdom. Aware that his celebrity wouldn’t last long, he seized the chance. A book contract, press conferences, and even the Tonight Show were simply means of propelling the movement.

So, what did he tell the citizens of Woodstock Nation, those who attended its first convention and the millions more who were ready to pledge allegiance. "The law-and-order apes and this senile dinosaur we call a government have flipped out. Preventive detention, the no- knock clause in the new drug laws, appointment of Burger and Haynesworth to the Supreme Court [the latter was later rejected by the Senate for financial impropriety and his racist court record], and the extensive use of wire-tapping by the Justice Department are all part of a wave of repression.

"Over 300 Black Panthers are now in jail as a result of a nationwide plot to destroy their organization. White radicals are being arrested. Underground newspapers are being harassed. G.I.’s who speak out are receiving harsh sentences. Last summer in Chicago, it was clubs and tear gas; in Berkeley this spring it was shotguns and buckshot. The hard rain’s already falling and it isn’t just the politicos that are getting wet."

Reprinted in the book, that rap was part of a longer statement Abbie handed out at the historic weekend of "peace, love, and music." It rang true for many in his imagined "nation." Chicago had forced a giant step from discontent to open rebellion. "The revolution is about coming together in a struggle for change," Abbie wrote. "It is about the destruction of a system based on bosses and competition and the building of a new community based on people and cooperation." And he didn’t want people to just talk about change, but "go out and do it."

Strangely enough, the basic message had much in common with the rhetoric of Hoffman’s opposite number, Barry Goldwater. In 1964, the ultra-conservative GOP candidate for president had announced that "extremism in defense of liberty is no vice." To which Hoffman added, "The style of our struggle might look strange, but the spirit is time- honored — Victory or Death."

A world-class political performance artist who set the pace for a generation, he was ultimately driven underground, emerging only decades later as an environmental activist.

Drawing the Line

Another prime candidate for martyrdom as the 60s ended was Eldridge Cleaver, the movement huckster so eager to follow Malcolm X and Huey Newton into legend. But Cleaver was a hero not so much because of what he did, but as a result of what had been done to him. A product of ghettos and the California penal system, convicted on a marijuana rap at 18 and assault with intent to kill at 22, Cleaver spent most of the years between 1954 and 1966 in state prisons. At 32 he became, in his own words, a "full-time revolutionary in the struggle for Black liberation in America."

In 1968, Cleaver was ordered back to prison for violating parole, based on his involvement in an Oakland gunfight. At that point, he was running for president on the Peace and Freedom line, and was the Black Panther’s minister of information. His book, Soul On Ice, was a best-seller among blacks and white sympathizers. Primed for martyrdom, he delivered a last speech before vanishing into exile. The scene would certainly be another high point in a docu-drama on the era.

Picture this: Cleaver is delivering his sermon from a podium as bodyguards, muscled and tightly coiled, patrol the aisles of a hall packed with young black — and a few white — faces. "I didn’t leave anything in that penitentiary except half of my mind and half of my soul, that that’s dead there," he proclaims. "Everything they get from now on, they have to take."

The audience begins to shout back, as if they’re at a concert or in a black church. The guards circulate, watchful eyes trained on anyone who makes a sudden move. They remember well the assassination of Malcolm X. But Cleaver is determined to stay a live martyr.

He’s fiery eyed and defiant in his turtle neck. "I believe that our time has come," he tells the crowd. "A point has been reached where a line just has to be drawn, because the power structure of this country has been thoroughly exposed. There is no right on their side. We know that they’re moving against people for political purposes. There’s a favorite line of mine. It says that there is a point where fortune ends and cowardice begins. Everybody is scared of the pigs, of the power structure. They come in with their clubs and their guns, and they will exterminate you, if that’s what it takes to carry out the will of their bosses.

"I see a very critical situation, a chaotic situation where there is pain, there’s suffering. There’s death, and I see no justification for waiting until tomorrow to say what you could say tonight. I see no justification in waiting until other people get ready. I see no justification for not moving, even if I have to move by myself."

Soon afterward he fled to Algeria, from which he later engineered a jail break for Timothy Leary.

The Impossible Dream

Cleaver and Hoffman certainly weren’t flawless, and the revolutions they envisioned never did come to pass. But for awhile, they and other radicals inspired a generation that was just then coming of age. From Berkeley to Prague, in Mexico City and Paris, a hunger for change was in the air. According to historian Eric Hobsbawm, "If there was a single moment in the golden years after 1945 which corresponds to the simultaneous upheaval of which the revolutionaries had dreamed after 1917, it was surely 1968, when students rebelled from the USA and Mexico in the West to socialist Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, largely stimulated by the extraordinary outbreak of May 1968 in Paris, epicentre of a Continent-wide student uprising."

Something had changed, and the world would never be the same. In France, student strikes sparked a nationwide revolt that demolished the liberal myths of permanent stability in advanced societies. In Czechoslovakia, reformers defied Soviet power during the revolt known as Prague Spring. In Brazil, Chile, and Mexico, student uprisings were challenging authoritarian rule. But the backlash was fierce and deadly, as Soviet tanks canceled reform in the East Bloc, soldiers opened fire on hundreds of students in Mexico City, and legalized repression came to the US.

By the end of the 60s, the list of martyrs included Che Guevara, executed in Bolivia after a misguided attempt to export the Cuban revolution; Andreas Papandreou, the Greek reformer overthrown in a military coup that put CIA agent George Papadopoulos in power; Kwame Nkrumah, the brilliant anti-imperialist president of Ghana whose socialist leanings sparked another CIA-backed military takeover; and Fred Hampton, the Chicago Black Panther leader who was shot in his bed on December 4, 1969, as part of the FBI’s obsessive crusade to destroy militant black groups. As the new decade began, the Chicago defendants were cleared on the conspiracy charges but found guilty of crossing state lines to incite a riot. In Tom Hayden’s words, they’d become "scapegoats for all that [the government] wanted to prevent happening in the 1970s." But the convictions were reversed by higher courts, and history ultimately absolved them.

Some radicals, like Jerry Rubin, eventually disavowed their youthful rebellion. The former yippie re-emerged in the late 70s as a New Age huckster. Others moved into the mainstream, trying to provoke change from the inside. Hayden, who for awhile charted an eventual run for president, settled into a career as a California politician; John Froines became a progressive bureaucrat, starting with his mid-70s job as Vermont’s Occupational Health and Safety administrator. A few, like Dave Dellinger, who settled down in the Green Mountains, stuck with the movement through thick and thin. In 1969, facing 32 contempt of court charges, he had defied Judge Hoffman’s pressure to be "like good Germans supporting the evils of our decade," or "good Jews, going politely and quietly to the concentration camps while you and the court suppress freedom and truth." In 1998, he’s still at the barricades, inspiring the peace and environmental activists of today.

Thirty years after the world watched Chicago, its legacy still haunts many of those who lived through it — and millions more who came of age afterward. Even in a time when the triumph of capitalism looks universal, we still remember, at least vaguely, what it signified: the state can rarely be trusted, there’s more to power than economics and brute force, and questioning authority is always a possibility. Also this: Any mistakes made by the rebels of ’68 were ultimately minor when compared with the dirty tricks used against them.

If we ever do get a halfway decent film about that time, it will likely appeal to our weakness for nostalgia. You know, Forrest Gump meets Woodstock Nation. But 1968 wasn’t a box of chocolates. Though we didn’t know what we were going to get, the plot certainly wasn’t just sweet melodrama, aimless rebellion, and trivial pursuits. And the impacts were at least as profound and long-lasting as one more journey from the earth to the moon.

Greg Guma is the editor of Toward Freedom. To contact him, email him at: