The Last Time They Came: Rememberances of Chicago August, 1968

By Edward M. Bury, APR (aka The PRDude)

They’re already here.  They represent various factions and causes; most say they’ll be peaceful, others are bent on causing problems. They’re coming by car, bus, plane and bicycle.  One guy reportedly “hopped a freight train,” as it’s known, to get here.

I’m referring to the protestors and alleged anarchists who have set sights on my home city of Chicago to exercise their First Amendment rights to protest the gathering of world leaders for the NATO Summit May 20-21.

Chicago has hosted big events before. Hey, we’re Chicago.  We’re a world-class city.  In fact, we hosted the Democratic National Convention in 1968.  You’ve probably read what happened, or saw the black and white footage on television: Cops bashing hippie protestors — as well as newsmen and people in the wrong place at the time — across the head with billy clubs; the protestors chanting “The whole world is watching!”; Mayor Richard J. Daley defending the actions of his police force; and, my city’s reputation figuratively being bashed across its head in the eyes of the nation and much of the world.

I was 13 years old at the time, and I was there.  Sort of.  And I remember it clearly.  Two occurrences stand out.

The Hippies Invade Walton Street. Our modest home was is in what’s now a relatively fashionable hipster neighborhood recently dubbed Noble Square.  (Helps with the marketing needed to  sell condos and sushi, you know.)  We just called it “The Old Neighborhood.”  One afternoon during the Convention, a Jeep driven by two long-haired guys with Southern accents pulled up.  They were from North Carolina, or maybe Virginia. But on the 1300 block of West Walton Street in 1968 they might as well have been from Mars.

My buddies and I chatted with the two guys, and I recall they were friendly.  And peaceful. I vividly recall two neighborhood girls, probably mid to late teens at the time, climbing into the Jeep to protest, or cavort, I guess, with the scruffy visitors.  Apparently, this rubbed the older guys on the block, greasers true and true,  the wrong way; one yelled, “Hippies suck!” To which the hippie in the passenger seat responded to with the bent arm salute.

The moral: Don’t let hippies driving Jeeps come into your neighborhood to take away your girls.

Rescuing Mom From the Prudential Building.  Back in the day, my mother worked the evening shift at Prudential Insurance in the (where else?) Prudential Building at Randolph Street just east of Michigan Avenue.  The building, once Chicago’s tallest, commands a prominent location and was several blocks north of the hotels where members of the Democratic party in town to pick a presidential candidate were staying.

One evening during the convention, we got a call from my mom: “They’re sending everyone home now because of the protestors. ” So my dad and brother and I got in the Impala and drove the 15 or so minutes downtown to get my mom.  As we headed back west on Randolph Street, I recall hearing shouts and screams in the distance; then I saw a wave of blue-shirted policemen chasing a wave of hippies and protestors south.

The image remains indelible in my mind; it was the closest I got to the violence of that summer, and it encapsulated what went wrong.

Already there have been some arrests of protestors, Monday morning in the Prudential Building, in fact.  And Tuesday, protestors known as the Black Bloc marched on the South Side and hurled insults — not projectiles — at police, who have been gearing up to keep the peace.

I trust the police learned a lot from 1968 and have sound tactics and strategies in place should violence erupt.  Rest assured, I’ll be watching, as will the whole world.