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Once I was a protester at the ’68 Democratic convention — now I celebrate freedom

A demonstrator in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention is led by Chicago Police down Michigan Avenue. | AP Photo/File

This year marks the 50th anniversary of my “baptism” as a free American.

It was the summer of 1968, and we had just finished stocking shelves at Jewel at Evergreen Plaza. My buddy and co-worker John and I loosened our skinny red ties, walked outside, and headed west on 95th Street toward home.

We clattered down the steps to my parents’ knotty pine rec room, borrowed two cans of my brother’s Strohs, and turned on the portable TV.


The 12-inch screen showed a paddy wagon downtown where the Democratic Convention was being held. Three policemen were dragging a girl, one by her hair, and stuffing her into the wagon. The camera panned to a frenzied crowd waving signs and chanting, “Hell no, we won’t go,” referencing Vietnam.

A short, bull-shouldered policeman, holding a billy club with two hands, jammed it like a spear into the kidney of tall teenager with curly brown hair. The screen switched to a smiling Sen. Eugene McCarthy addressing a crowd earlier, promising that if he were elected president there would be dancing instead of rioting, to celebrate the end of a pointless war.

John and I weren’t crazy about politics. We were crazy about the Blackhawks, cheeseburgers at Red’s drive-in, and about Cathy Ryan and Marianne Dunne, cashiers at our Jewel, though we had yet to inform them.

But I had just gotten my draft card, and already two boys from our small suburb had been killed in Vietnam. Kids our own age on TV were raising their hands and shouting slogans. We opened another Strohs, watched some more, and made a unanimous decision to walk back to 95th and Western and hitchhike downtown.

A salesman gave us a ride, dropping us at the Dan Ryan exit ramp just off Chinatown, which, even for a Wednesday, seemed pretty deserted.

We walked up State Street to Grant Park, which was partly surrounded by the National Guard. But the throngs seen on TV had dwindled. Individuals and couples sat on the grass, eating, smoking, drinking, like what you might see on weekends, except for a smell like burning bleach from tear gas cartridges the police had fired earlier in the day.

A protester in his 20’s approached.

“We need marshals,” he said. “Abbie Hoffman wants volunteer marshals to protect the protesters from the pigs.”

His name was Milton, and not what we expected in a hippie or yippie. Just a regular guy with wire-rimmed eyeglasses.

“We’re in,” said John, and we followed Milton to a gathering around a trash can: college kids in short sleeves, a girl with a red-white-and-blue bonnet, four Latino teenagers with “South Side Boxing” on their jackets.

We followed Milton to the sidewalk and positioned ourselves opposite the National Guard, following instructions to stand arms-length from the soldiers, forming a line of “peace and compassion” against violence.

The serviceman across from me held an M1 rifle diagonally across his chest. Many guys I knew had tried to get into the Guard to escape Vietnam, and it just as easily could have been John or me holding the rifle.

I wondered whether it was loaded.

But I wasn’t afraid, for it seemed inconceivable that an American soldier would shoot another American. (The killings at Kent State University had yet to happen.) And I was emboldened by my new title, still had a buzz from the Strohs, and was standing up for something, in the city where I was born.

“How’s it goin’?” I said.

The guardsman didn’t blink. I saw his chest expand, and his hand flex on the stock of the rifle. Finally, his green eyes flickered, making brief contact with mine, before staring straight ahead again.

The soldiers formed a picket line between us and the Conrad Hilton, where convention delegates were staying. Ten floors up, a white light in a window turned off and on, then off and on again. Scattered cheers and applause erupted all around.

An hour passed, and the park seemed emptier. Finally, the guardsmen pulled back, and our job was over. Protesters melted back into the park. But John and I were scheduled to work Thursday, and we asked directions to the train station. It was 1 a.m.

Years later, we smiled about our roles as so-called marshals at the ’68 Convention.

Though our brief participation had been of little or no import, the protests in Chicago, along with demonstrations throughout the country, had a lot to do with shifting opinion against the war, hastening its end, and saving lives beyond the 58,220 Americans killed.

John and I were able to finish college, launch careers and start families. And we both love our country as fiercely today as we did in ’68.

John became a police officer, later a detective, and he supports the sitting president.

I became a teacher and a freelance writer of cultural, educational and political commentary, much of it critical of the current administration.

But in this Independence Day essay, I want to celebrate our freedom.

For there are few other places where citizens can publicly protest the government without fear of being imprisoned or fired. Where one can challenge an administration’s lies, whether about Vietnam or Russian election interference, without fear of persecution or retaliation.

Where two friends, who don’t always agree, can return home on the Rock Island train, their clothes reeking of tear gas, and lead long, peaceful, ordinary lives.

Only in America.

Emeritus English professor David McGrath is author of THE TERRITORY.

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