DOWNTOWN – Like so many others, Stan Skoko was outraged by what he’d seen of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where TV cameras captured images of officers beating protesters with nightsticks, kicking them and throwing them into police wagons as tear gas floated over Michigan Avenue.
So Skoko, a commissioner in Clackamas County, Oregon, near Portland, fired off a note on his office letterhead to Mayor Richard J. Daley. But unlike the withering criticism from reporters and TV anchors covering the street clashes, Skoko wanted to let the mayor know he and the Chicago police had done a great job.
“Congratulations on the manner in which you handled the ridiculous demonstrations by certain persons of questionable intelligence in your City during the recent Democratic Convention,” Skoko wrote. “My only criticism of your action is you were too lenient.”
Fifty years ago this week, violence outside the convention and infighting within it captured the country’s attention, becoming an enduring sign of the political and cultural battles of the era, even for those of us who were born later.
But from the vantage point of 2018, it’s quite clear those divisions didn’t end with the 1960s. Neither did the practice of politicians exploiting public anxieties for their own gain and undercutting the civil rights of minorities and dissenters, to the applause of many citizens. Reactionary politics and attacks on the truth itself are again disturbingly common.
Last week, I paid a visit to the special collections library at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which houses a rich archive of papers from Daley’s decadeslong political career. Among boxes of records from 1968 are scores of letters from people like Skoko, who cheered the mayor’s crackdown and blamed the whole convention debacle on biased or fictionalized reporting from the media.
The facts of what happened are more complicated.
Most protesters in Chicago that week were peaceful, though some provoked officers by screaming epithets or throwing “rocks, sticks, bathroom tiles and even human feces,” according to the official federal report on the convention melees, released late in 1968.
But, the report concluded: “The nature of the response was unrestrained and indiscriminate police violence on many occasions, particularly at night. That 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. … Newsmen and photographers were singled out for assault.”
Still, in the days and weeks after the convention, supporters of Daley and the police rallied to their defense, as the letters to City Hall show.
“The seven members of my family are in complete agreement with the actions of the Chicago Police Department,” South Side resident James Boyle wrote the mayor. “The mouthings of the New York television bunch made me sick. There must be some way to refute the propaganda that they broadcast during and after the confrontation of our police and the out of town hooligans.”
Lest the mayor think he was merely angling for a patronage job, Boyle added, “Neither I, nor my wife, are city workers, or are in any way dependent upon the Democratic organization for our livelihood.”
In fact, many of Daley’s fans noted that they weren’t Democrats at all.
“Just a note from a Republican to tell you I support you 1000% in your great effort to maintain law and order in our city,” Illinois state Rep. Henry Hyde wrote on Aug. 29, 1968 — three decades before he would lead the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in the U.S. House of Representatives. “God bless you and our courageous policemen!”
Col. C.G. Dietrich of San Francisco told the mayor: “Your treatment of the yippies, hippies, junkies, hoodlums, bums, and other scum during the recent convention was perfect. … I noted with delight that the police devoted some richly deserved attention to the prime provocateurs — the press.”
A number of Southerners also commended Daley, some sharing their views that black and Jewish people were behind both the disorder in Chicago and the civil rights movement in their home states.
“I have seen an affidavit stating that ‘Beatniks’ were paid fifteen dollars per day, food and lodging,” wrote E. L. Culbreth, a North Carolina lawyer. He added that protesters were also offered all the interracial sex they wanted — though he used a racial slur — “to don priestly clothes and join the march from Selma to Montgomery.”
Letters praising Daley poured into City Hall from all over — from a rancher in Wyoming; federal judges in Nebraska and Pennsylvania; Local 471 of the Milk Drivers & Dairy Employees Union in Minneapolis; the mayors of the Texas cities of Centerville and Amarillo; and the leader of the Shannon Rovers Irish Pipe Band of Chicago. The head of the musicians blasted the media and promised the mayor, “We will do whatever we can as individuals and as a band to keep Chicago where it should be.”
A number of clergy also gave their blessing to the mayor and the police, including a Catholic priest at St. Nicholas Church in north suburban Evanston.
“The mayor showed the patience of Christ in his dealing with an ungrateful people,” wrote the priest, Father Kenneth, whose last name was illegible in the letter.
At the time, Daley claimed he received tens of thousands of letters, the vast majority of them from supporters. I only came across a few from critics in the UIC archives. One was sent by a convention delegate from Washington, D.C., who predicted the mayor’s tactics would be rejected at the polls.
“The Democratic party can ill afford to be ‘soft on fascism’ under Mayor Daley’s personal notion of ‘law and order,’” wrote the delegate, Channing Phillips.
Sure enough, the Democrats, divided internally over Vietnam, protesters and varying notions of “law and order,” lost the presidential election that fall as well as seats in Congress.
Daley remained in power until his death in 1976, the archetype of the old-school political strongman who ruled as he saw fit.
In a statement to the media after the convention, a copy of which is also in the archives, Daley created his own narrative about how he handled the protests, blasting the “terrorists” he accused of trying to “paralyze” Chicago.
“In the heat of emotion and riot some policemen may have overreacted,” Daley said, “but to judge the entire police force by the alleged action of a few would be just as unfair as to judge our entire younger generation by the actions of this mob.”
Five decades later, both in Chicago and around the country, we’re engaged in a new season of protests, debates over police reform, and looming elections — while political leaders try to shape their own versions of truth.
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