Vietnam and the 1968 Democratic National Convention at Middle Age: Policing, Protest, and Urban America

Anti-war Vietnam

Though perhaps more famous for his role as recovering drug addict and Narcotics Anonymous mentor Walon from The Wire, Steve Earle first came to prominence as a dissident Nashville outsider/cult country star. Over the past three decades, Earle has been poking holes in both Southern stereotypes and tropes about masculinity while crafting a hard left critique of American history.

On the title track to his 1988 album, Copperhead Road, Earle plays the role of rural marijuana kingpin John Lee Pettimore, “same as my dad and his daddy before.” Pettimore hailed from a long line of bootleggers, Grandad would “buy a hundred pounds of yeast and some copper line/Everybody knew that he made moonshine,” Pettimore tells the audience. His grandfather and father would make runs down to Knoxville with “the weekly load/You could smell the whiskey burnin’ down Copperhead Road.”

Unlike his predecessor, Pettimore came of age in the era of Vietnam and, with few options open to him, signed up for the military: “I volunteered for the Army on my birthday/They draft the white trash first, ’round here anyway.” Two tours later, Pettimore returned home with a “brand new plan/ I take the seed from Colombia and Mexico. I plant it up the holler down the Copperhead Road.”

While Pettimore’s status as marijuana cultivator could be credited in part to his family history, no doubt his time in Vietnam played a role in exposing him to a new profit-making scheme similar to but still distinct from that of his father and grandfather.

Audiences have absorbed similar if more desperate, and perhaps unrealistic, examples in films such as 1987’s Lethal Weapon. Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs and Danny Glover’s Roger Murtaugh attempt to break up a heroin drug ring patched together by a collection of Vietnam veterans now living in Los Angeles. Exposed to the opium trade as soldiers, the movie’s villains returned home with connections and product. Clearly, the war had brought changes to the rural south and urban west.

Vietnam’s effect on the nation can hardly be reduced to marijuana cultivation and heroin distribution; clearly, its influence took numerous forms. In the next year or two, a 10-part, 18 and a half hour Ken Burns-directed documentary on the war promises to hit television screens across America. The documentary Last Days in Vietnam (2014) already appeared in theaters last September, reinvigorating what promises to be a long period of reflection regarding America’s time there. Judging from our recent history of debate regarding the conflict in Southeast Asia, one can assume that Burns’s series will draw equal amounts of praise and ire for whatever depiction it presents.


Anyone who visits Vietnam today knows the Vietnamese have moved on. They have new economic battles to fight with China and very little time to hash out old grievances with the U.S; a recent NPR story recounted how many Vietnamese actually look at the U.S. as an ally in resisting China’s regional influence. The United States, however, is a different story; for Americans the war remains a gash across the national memory and one that redirected the nation in countless ways.

While Earle’s Pettimore and Lethal Weapon’s illicit veteran drug ring embody less political examples, the war drove social movements that also impacted American life. The predominantly white New Left, as represented by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and Chicano and Black Power movements found some level of common cause in the anti-war movement, with the latter two putting forth pointed third world solidarity critiques. However, whatever commonalities the war in Vietnam created between the three, events in 1968 Chicago probably didn’t reflect any such unity, yet the Democratic Convention that year remains a watershed moment in post 1945 U.S. history and one that continues to be held up as indicative of the time.

Last year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the United States’ full commitment to war in Southeast Asia and this week the disastrous 1968 convention turns a middle aged 47. From Steve Earl’s rural, southern John Lee Pettimore to the shores of Los Angeles, policed by the fictional Riggs and Murtaugh, to the rough and tumble Midwestern environs of the very real Mayor Richard J. Daley and his Chicago, the nation has not been the same since.

In many ways, the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention and the chaos that unfolded captured the ways the Vietnam War would radically alter policing, the media, and urban history. Moreover, the ’68 convention and the street battles that ensued between protesters, agent provocateurs, and Chicago law enforcement provide a useful lens for considering current controversies swirling around policing and the ways in which U.S. conflicts abroad have affected relations between the public and those sworn to protect the peace. While historians have long explored Chicago ’68 from the perspective of protesters, Mayor Daley, and Richard Nixon, until Frank Kusch’s economical Battle Ground Chicago: The Police and the 1968 Democratic National Convention (2008), no one had delved into the views of perhaps its most maligned actors, the Chicago police.

Whatever one thinks of the CPD, there can be great value in exploring the memories of those seen, correctly or incorrectly, as hostile to what some might consider “progressive” causes. Much as George Chauncey mined the archives of anti-vice (and what we would call today homophobic) reformers of the 1920s to uncover the contour of gay life in New York in his seminal work Gay New York, so too can one explore Battleground Chicago to better understand how ethnic whites and the Chicago police viewed events and the distance that existed between themselves, minorities, and the American left.


Chitown ’68: Battling Hippies and Protecting Culture

“The way we saw it – well, I’ll only speak for myself here – is that the whole country was going to hell faster than you could wipe your nose,” ex-CPD Eddie Kelso tells Kusch. “We had shit to clean up every night – and no one writes about that – human garbage with a mouth. And the press, they just wrote everything that these bastards said – and the biggest words that they used against us was ‘police brutality.’ My ass it was.”[1]

Kelso, like many others cops quoted in Battleground Chicago, saw their profession as the unfairly denigrated frontline against American decline. “We had a sense of community on the force. We were from similar backgrounds … Most of the guys were Catholic, god-fearing, who drank a little now and then and played some poker, but it never got out of hand,” argues Tom O’Malley. “We wanted to keep our neighborhoods safe, and you bet we tried to run the riff-raff out, or keep them in their own part of town. It was a great city in those days and we wanted to keep it that way. It was an American city.”[2] Time and again in Kusch’s 2008 work, officers express their belief that hippies, yippies, and black radicals of 1968 represented the downfall of Chicago and by extension, the nation.

A certain irony pervades such memories.   First, particularly in the case of cities like Chicago, the deindustrialization that followed the social tumult of the late 1960s did a great deal to undermine the sense of community and values that many of cops interviewed by Kusch express. Check out Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive: The Last Days of the American Working Class for just one example. Second, as noted by historians such as Todd Gitlin and Edward Morgan, the media had a disturbing tendency to highlight the most outlandish behavior of political radicals, giving those willing to take the wildest actions and make the most incendiary statements the mantle of movement leadership. “[T]he mass media were reflexively drawn to visual representation of the most bizarre and deviant” acts, writes Morgan.[3]

One might suggest that recent events between persons identifying themselves as representative of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the Bernie Sanders campaign demonstrates the continuance of this development. After all, can a handful of protesters truly represent such a sprawling movement? The various responses to what happened in Seattle suggest a greater complexity than most media outlets bother to mention.

Second, the very counterculture that so horrified Chicago cops and others would come to be a hallmark of 21st century urban economies. Richard Florida, Douglas Rushkov, David Brooks, and others have documented the commodification of “cool” or, in Florida’s case specifically, how “the creative class” often adhere to a generic ideal of bohemian culture, driving consumerism and growth in cities. In One Market Under God and The Commodification of Cool, Thomas Frank lamented the cooption of counterculture symbols and iconography as a means for consumers to associate themselves with alternative culture. Volkswagen commercials featuring the music of Nick Drake may sell cars but it obscures the fact that Drake struggled with depression his whole life and ultimately committed suicide in 1974. The song may be beautiful, but knowing that it functions as a means to increase automobile sales only drives home the effects of the process described above.

In this way, the 1960s served as a clear cultural pivot socially and politically, but also a case study in the power of capitalism to defang threatening social movements via commodification. In ensuing years since the 1960s, iconic figures and images became little more than selling points or commodities. Figures like Che Guevara, silk-screened onto countless t-shirts, no longer represent rebellion, but rather have been transformed into “a mass produced commodity itself or the seductive hook to draw one into consumption,” notes Morgan.[4] Anyone who watched the Mad Men series finale understands how corporatization and commoditization of the counterculture ethos combined to sell the most prosaic of products, Coca Cola. As urbanist Richard Florida notes, playing “alternative” music in the workplace helps workers forget that “all they’re doing is grinding away at a desk in Babylon.”[5]

One can see this process repeat and accelerate in the twenty first century’s first two decades. For example in his recent work Neo-Bohemia, sociologist Richard Lloyd spends 241 pages explaining how Chicago’s “bohemian” Wicker Park serves as the intersection of the new global economy built on advertising, financing, technological innovation and the selling of culture. The growing importance of a new class of educated professionals servicing these industries,” and the “virtue of marginality” that has long defined bohemians (beats in the 1950s, hippies in the 1960s and hipsters today) now helps drive economic growth. “[T]he new bohemia of the late twentieth century and early twenty- first centuries plays a necessarily novel role in enhancing the interests of postindustrial capitalist enterprises,” argues Lloyd.[6] As the Clash wryly noted decades earlier, “they got Burton suits, ha ha you think its funny, turning rebellion into money.” In the end, the police should have feared growing corporations, cultural commodification, and vanishing industry more than such easily identifiable figures like hippies or Black Power advocates.


Police and the Media

In all this, the media’s focus on political radicals and the counterculture casts a discernible influence. The run up to the ’68 convention demonstrates this tendency and the very real effect television and print journalism exerted on policing. Led by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, the Yippies harvested the fears of Mayor Daley and the CPD with their threats to put LSD into the Chicago water, “slash tires along the freeway,” set greased pigs upon unsuspecting motorists, and seduce the wives of convention delegates; in other words, a general effort to create mayhem that set Chicago law enforcement and the city’s municipal leadership on edge. “We will burn Chicago to the ground. We will *[*(&] on the beaches; we demand the politics of ecstasy; acid for all; abandon the Creeping Meatball Yippie!” proclaimed Hoffman.   Even without such radical statements, the promise of thousands of New Left protesters descending on the city in an era of political assassination already sparked anxiety among officers. “Police meanwhile, are reading [Yippie] literature and that of the New Left movement in general – and they don’t like what they read,” wrote the Chicago Sun Times. Needless to say, the CPD, Mayor Daley, and the Chicago authorities were not steeped in situationalist theory and thereby accepted it all as gospel.[7]

Of course, the police might have used the press for info, but the relationship between journalists and the CPD was strained to say the least. “We used to take the press on raids with us, on book joint raids, and gaming raids,” remembered Officer Joe Pecoraro. “I had a captain who let one of these guys break a door down; but people change, the press changed, the Vietnam war changed everything.”[8]

26 Aug 1968, Chicago, Illinois, USA --- The sign over the archway leading to the International Amphitheater welcomes delegates to the Democratic Convention, but from the sea of police helmets in the foreground, it looks like only police are attending. (Sign says
26 Aug 1968, Chicago, Illinois, USA — The sign over the archway leading to the International Amphitheater welcomes delegates to the Democratic Convention — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

During the convention, numerous reporters found themselves on the receiving end of CPD batons. While the police deny any formal conspiracy targeting the media, more than a few officers expressed no small amount of resentment toward journalists. “They [the media] hated us, that’s for sure. I hated those bastards – they were commies,” argued officer Randall Bakker, “they had no idea what we were up against.” Officer Mel Latanzio concurred: “There was no love lost … yeah, they got their bonnets beaten a little, but if you want to play the game, ya gotta play the game. We had been getting bad press long before the convention, especially for what was going on in the black neighborhoods, so what the hell.” If no concerted conspiracy existed to target the press, some police took great pleasure in cracking skulls. “They were in the fucking way; any time I saw press credentials. I swung,” admitted one officer.[9]

While the CPD has long endured criticism by academics, journalists, and the left for its actions during the convention, numerous sources including Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor’s American Pharaoh and Kusch’s Battleground Chicago note that Daley enjoyed indisputable support from the American public regarding his handling of protesters. In the face of public support, even Walter Cronkite would soon bow to Daley’s popularity.

When Cronkite pointed out that many of those beaten by cops had been journalists, Daley made no excuses. “Many of them are hippies themselves. They’re part of this movement,” he told Cronkite. “Some of them are revolutionaries and they want these things to happen.” How did the dean of American TV journalism react? Perlstein puts it simply: “Cronkite sat and took it.” Journalists might have been angry with Daley, furious over being treated like the unwashed masses and political radicals but as Godfrey Hodgson noted at the time, the media had no choice but accept that they occupied a far less distinguished position in the American consciousness than they had thought. “Bosses and cops, everyone knew were hated,” he wrote, “it seemed that newspapers and television [journalists] were hated even more.”[10]

Yet for the CPD rank and file the reality of the moment left them between a rock and a hard place. The war brought protest and it was the police who had to control said dissent. However, anti-war activists and others argued that the police prolonged “the war machine” by limiting public gatherings that sought to undermine support for the conflict in Southeast Asia. “Criticized for a foreign policy out of their control, those in the rank and file felt they were caught between their commanders’ demands to preserve law and order and those who blamed them for acting as the instruments of the government, “ writes Kusch.[11] Indeed, hizzoner Mayor Richard J. Daley had set the tone for the CPD in April, well before the ’68 convention, when riots consumed the city after the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination. Angry over the dissent and disorder, Daley reprimanded his then-commissioner James B. Conlisk for not ordering cops to shoot to kill. “In my opinion, there should have been orders to shoot arsonists to kill, and to shoot looters in order that they be detained,” Daley told reporters. “An arsonist is a murderer and should be shot on the spot.”[12]

Nor did every cop on the beat appreciate the mayor’s harsh pronouncements. More than one officer in Kusch’s book blames Daley’s “saber rattling” for making the ’68 convention that much more difficult. “We all looked like assholes,” Officer Walter Jorgenson remembered. “I mean no one looked good coming out of Chicago that summer. It was the convention from hell . . . I think that Old Daley was looking for a butt to kick after the King riots, and the convention was a chance to do just that and make us the whipping boy.”[13]

The anti-war protesters that descended on Chicago for the convention proved rabid in their opposition, and their behavior in moments paralleled that of the CPD. Todd Gitlin among others has noted that segments of the New Left hungered for confrontation and violence. “Part of the New Left wanted a riot then, but the street fighters could not by themselves have brought it about,” he noted. “For that, they needed the police. The sleeping dogs sat bolt upright, howled, bared their teeth and bit.”[14] Unsurprisingly, several Chicago cops agreed. “They were ugly, dirty little shits who would hit you when you turned your back, and then they ran like pussies yelling ‘police brutality’,” Steve Nowakowski told Kusch. “I think that many, if not all, of those bastards were fixin’ for a fight.”[15]


Numerous police officers claimed they made a show of it all. Sure, they were angry, scared, and cared little for protesters, but they weren’t animals. For example, during the convention week, Chicago police frequently “unarrested protesters.” Only 668 official arrests were ever logged, though many more protesters found themselves in the back of paddy wagons. “So much of what took place that week was an act,” remembered one officer. “We had a job to do, and that was to disperse the crowds and keep them away from the Hilton and the Sheraton, and that’s what we did – we carted them up, drove them out of the Loop and dropped them off.”[16] Whether such memories operate to salve consciences, paper over real abuses, or something in between, for all the billy clubs to the head and bloody noses, no one died in Chicago. In contrast, four years later in Los Angeles during the 1970 Chicano Moratorium march, famed Chicano activist and Los Angeles Times journalist Ruben Salazar died as result of a carelessly fired tear gas canister by LAPD.

Ironically, Daley hated the Vietnam War. Admittedly, like most Americans, Richard J. paid little attention to war in its early years. However, when young Chicagoans began returning home in coffins, he soon developed an opinion. Aide to Lyndon Johnson Lawrence O’Brien remembered one meeting with the Chicago mayor in which Daley expressed concern over the war. “He said this was a growing disaster and this was going to be a devastating blow to the Democratic Party,” O’Brien told interviewers years later. When President Johnson asked Daley about the war, the mayor laid it out fairly simply: “Well Mr. President, when you ‘ve got a losing hand in poker, you throw in your cards.” What about prestige, asked Johnson. “You put your prestige in your back pocket and walk away.”[17]

All that said, Daley hated disorder, filth, and chaos; when the New Left and its more radical elements threatened to bring these things to Chicago for the convention, his response seems fairly predictable in retrospect. Daley leaned on the commissioner who then leaned on his subordinates who then goaded the average cop on the beat into action.


Changing City Policing and Urban Planning

In a recent podcast, novelist Don Winslow noted that two wars had essentially ramped up the militarization of America’s police: the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. Winslow paraphrased one American police chief who had told him that over the past decade or so, they had taken away funding for community policing and instead sent him tanks. The none too left Economist more or less made the same argument in 2014; the article’s title, “Cops or Soldiers” pretty much encapsulates the issues at hand. The combination of the decades-long War on Drugs and the more recent War on Terror accelerated processes begun even before Vietnam.

As historian Jennifer Light has pointed out, “techniques and technologies originally developed for military users in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, thus became the focus of efforts to better plan and manage U.S. cities in the 1960s and 1970s.”[18] Though WWII might have ushered in such practices, the Cold War and particularly anti-war protest from Vietnam amplified these developments. “Innovations originally designed to combat America’s foreign elements overseas and at home became the weapons of choice in battles to solve urban problems and maintain security in the nation’s cities,” she argues.[19] The violence of the ’68 convention in this context seems little more than the less violent flipside of warfare in the Vietnam countryside; militarized SWAT team raids in twenty first century America result in great part as an amalgam of War on Drugs funding and tactics used to fight insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Light’s arguments overlap with those of Jeremy Suri, who has argued persuasively that America (along with France, China, and the USSR) turned its military and security apparatus inward in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, focusing more on internal threats than external ones. In this framework, even Nixon’s post-Vietnam détente proved to be a wolf-like policy dressed in wonkish sheep’s clothing. In reality, Tricky Dick’s foreign policy “breakthrough” actually fed conservative forces, providing China, the USSR, and US a means to illustrate success to their citizens while refocusing their security concerns toward internal dissent.[20]

In this context, “urban blight” emerged as the new enemy and the “urban crisis” actually a security crisis.[21] Writers like Samuel Yelte viewed many of LBJ’s Great Society programs as little more than “’pacification programs’ for the American Ghetto.” Civil rights activists, Black Power and Chicano Movement advocates, and the unwashed anti-war protesters conflicted with the social order imperatives of the increasing influential military approach to urban problems.[22] Daley and the CPD were simply the logical conclusion of a larger shift.

That programs migrated from the Vietnam War to an urban America that was rapidly transforming into demographically and politically black, brown, and yellow landscapes made such approaches that much more palatable to the public at large and help to explain Daley and the CPD’s approval ratings. Moreover, white anti-war protesters with their long hair and counterculture leanings could be neatly categorized as “other.” As one black woman told New York Times journalists the police beat the hell out of protesters “because they don’t consider them to be white. They think those hippies are another race or something.”[23] Then again, one needs to be careful with such arguments. White hippies could always cut their hair and don formal wear, thereby returning to the fold. Blacks, Latinos, and Asians could do little to about their race and remained subject to varying amounts of discrimination and police brutality. What happened to Fred Hampton and other Chicago Black Panthers, execution at the hands of authorities, demonstrates this difference.


Over the past couple decades, the 1968 Convention has hounded the CPD, with every instance of brutality framed by it. In Boss, the late great Mike Royko took numerous shots at the police, accusing them of racism, corruption, and heavy handedness over the years. Beginning in the 1970s and continuing in to the 1990s, Detective John Burge, a man who himself conducted torture in Vietnam during the war, imported techniques learned abroad into his interrogation methods with suspects in Chicago through his “midnight group.” For more than two decades, over 100 black men were “subjected to beatings, suffocation, electrocution and other abuse in order to force their confessions,” noted the Huffington Post this past May. The city recently settled with victims for $5.5 million. Friend of this blog Matthew Clark suffered severe injuries at the hands of undercover police officers several years ago, only recently settling for much less than he and his fellow victim deserved. Years of City Hall foot dragging and police harassment made any truly equitable settlement impossible. (You can read about the case in their Vice article from earlier this year).

“Well the D.E.A.’s got a chopper in the air /I wake up screaming like I’m back over there,” Earle’s Pettimore tells listeners. Haunted by his experience in the war, the narrator sees the Nixon-created D.E.A.—another War on Drugs development—as a persistent reminder of not only his economic insecurity but also his psychological trauma. Judging from their interviews, veterans of the CPD have few regrets or emotional struggle regarding their actions in ’68, though several acknowledge that the anxiety brought on by the convention and the violence that ensued left them drinking alone in dark basements. Whether one agrees with their views, it is how they saw things. For working class white ethnics who had benefitted from their position in society but to a far lesser extent than their Protestant, more Anglo counterparts, the cultural, and economic and political changes of the late 1960s and early 1970s brought only stress and discomfort. However, one views the CPD’s response to protesters, it nonetheless symbolized broader forces in American society.

Battleground Chicago might be an imperfect book that sometimes fails to contextualize the economic and political currents the buffeted white ethnics and others in the 1960s. However, the story that lies therein provides a window into a pivotal moment in U.S. urban history and gives voice to those, who however maligned, rightly or wrongly, represented the outlook of America in that moment and one could argue in the wake of responses to Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, and #BlackLivesMatter continues to persist among pockets of the nation.

[1] Frank Kusch, Battleground Chicago: The Police and the 1968 Democratic National Convention, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 26.

[2] Kusch, Battleground Chicago, 12.

[3] Edward P. Morgan, What Really happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy, (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2010), 155.

[4] Morgan, What Really happened to the 1960, 264.

[5] Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How it’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life, (New York: Perseus Books, 2002), 200.

[6] Richard Lloyd, Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City, (New York: Rutledge, 2006), 15, 53, 17.

[7] Kusch, Battleground Chicago, 47 – 48.

[8] Frank Kusch, Battleground Chicago, 147.

[9] Kusch, Battleground Chicago, 77.

[10] Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, (New York: Scribner, 2008), 337.

[11] Kusch, Battleground Chicago, 25.

[12] Frank Kusch, Battleground Chicago: The Police and the 1968 Democratic National Convention, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 35.

[13] Kusch, Battleground Chicago, 138.

[14] Kusch, Battleground Chicago, 54.

[15] Kusch, Battleground Chicago, 151.

[16] Kusch, Battleground Chicago, 141.

[17] Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor, American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley, His Battle for Chicago and the Nation, (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2000), 445-446.

[18] Jennifer Light, From Warfare to Welfare: Defense Intellectuals and Urban Problems in Cold War America, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2003), 4.

[19] Light, From Warfare to Welfare, 6.

[20] Jeremy Suri, Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Détente, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).

[21] Light, From Warfare to Welfare, 71.

[22] Light, From Warfare to Welfare, 176, 181.

[23] Frank Kusch, Battleground Chicago, 153.