Chicago’s history is told through stories of protest

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Chicago police came at crowds with nightsticks and tear gas as they tried to break up protests during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August 1968. | Paul Sequeira / Chicago Daily News

Protest still matters.

Fifty years ago, on the night of Aug. 28, 1968, thousands of young activists headed for downtown Chicago during the Democratic National Convention to protest the Vietnam War.

Richard J. Daley, the convention host and America’s most powerful mayor, wasn’t having any disruption to his plans to crown Hubert Humphrey as his party’s presidential nominee.


Daley dispatched battalions of police officers, the National Guard and the U.S. Secret Service. Appeals for peace were greeted by nightsticks and tear gas. Protestors were brutally beaten as they tried to exercise their First Amendment rights.

The police riot was televised, triggering outrage around the nation. Chicago political maven Don Rose coined the famous phrase, “The whole world is watching.”

“If world history is often told as a history of wars, much of Chicago history can be told as a history of protests — labor, civil rights, anti-war and other campaigns against injustice,” Rose wrote in the 2012 run-up to protests at the NATO summit in Chicago.

The veteran political consultant was an organizer and press spokesman for the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, the chief organizing group of the 1968 convention demonstrations.

“In a sense, the city was born in bloody protest: the 1812 Fort Dearborn Massacre, when Native Americans rose up and attacked soldiers departing from a fort built on land that was incorporated as the City of Chicago 25 years later,” Rose wrote for

In 1886, violence erupted during labor protests at Haymarket Square. There were the 1919 race riots, and the Memorial Day massacre of 1937, “one of the most violent episodes in our labor history.”

A series of civil rights protests culminated in 1966 when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led 65,000 protestors to in a march for open housing.

The 1982 ChicagoFest boycott helped end Jane Byrne’s mayoral career and transformed political history.

A 2002 rally staged by Chicagoans Against the War in Iraq launched a keynote speaker named Barack Obama to the presidency.

The marchers of ’68 have been succeeded by Occupy, Black Lives Matters, #MeToo and more too numerous to name.

On Labor Day, anti-violence protestors plan to shut down the Kennedy Expressway as they march along the highway leading to O’Hare International Airport.

The bloviating naysayers argue that social protest is passé, “so 1960s.”  Marches are an annoying inconvenience to those who don’t participate and don’t care, they say.

“Both young and old and in-between should engage in protests of policies that are harmful to the earth and its people,” Marilyn Katz told me last week. The political and public policy strategist was the deputy head of security for the 1968 demonstrators, and has worked on other efforts, including the Iraq War rally.

There’s much to do to advance civil rights, women’s rights and voting rights, she said. And to fight “immoral wars in Vietnam, Iraq, or the immoral behaviors of governments.” And “to preserve one’s own humanity and find community — which is what is created and reinforced in every demonstration I’ve ever been a part of.”

The whole world is still watching.

On Aug. 28, exactly 50 years later, I will help lead a conversation with Rose, Katz and other celebrated protest veterans at a program sponsored by the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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