Who Do You Call When the Police Riot? (1968 Democratic Convention)

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A Brief History

On August 28, 1968, the profession of policing in the United States reached one of its lowest points when the Chicago Police Department under the direction of dictatorial Mayor Richard Daley moved to violently put down protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention (August 26-29, 1968), resulting in what has been described as a “police riot.”

Digging Deeper

The background to the 1968 Democratic Convention had been a turbulent year in the United States, a year characterized by civil unrest over racial issues and protests over the War in Vietnam, both resulting in riots and protests that were violently put down at times by the police.  Senator Robert F. Kennedy (June 5, 1968) and Civil Rights activist Martin L. King, Jr. (April 4, 1968) had both been assassinated, leaving many liberals highly upset with the state of the country.  Civil unrest had reached levels not seen in the US since the Civil War.  Mayor Daley was not the type of Democratic mayor one would expect today.  He was rough and tough on crime and no particular friend to racial equality and integration.  He ruled Chicago with an iron fist.

Richard J. Daley.  Photograph by Abbie Rowe (White House photographer).

The Democratic Party had control of the legislative and executive branches of government, including the Presidency (Lyndon Johnson) and both the Senate and the House of Representatives.  If things were wrong with the country, it was natural to assume the party in charge was responsible for those problems.  How to go forward and deal with issues facing the country created divides among Democrats greater than the divides between Democrats and Republicans.  The Democratic Party at the time was still transitioning from having a conservative wing (mainly in the South) to becoming a more liberal party across the board, and the transition was not at all smooth.  The Party was divided over how to continue or not continue the Vietnam War, and how energetically and radically to address racial issues.  An often-overlooked factor in American politics at the time was the influence of the Soviet Union in fomenting unrest in the United States by funding and encouraging anti-war protestors and anti-White as well as anti-Black sentiment.  (Does this sound familiar?  Russia is doing this today, using social media to divide Americans.)

Into this volatile situation, the Democratic Party was holding its 1968 convention in Chicago to nominate a candidate for President and set the Democratic platform.  Some states had rival groups of delegates attempting to represent their state party, creating confusion and confrontation.  Many diverse groups sought to influence those decisions or at least have their gripes aired by staging protests outside the convention.  Aside from the anti-war protestors and Civil Rights activists, there were also “counter-culture” types such as the Yippies (Youth International Party) that sought to fundamentally change the country or the world, or who knows what?  The mood of the convention was confrontational from the start, with police and “security” officials poised to accept nothing by way of disruption or deviation from the prescribed behavior mandated by Daley and his cohorts.  CBS newsman Dan Rather was roughly handled by security, causing esteemed newsman Walter Cronkite to refer to security as “thugs.”

Yippie! button on display at the Chicago History Museum.  Photograph by victorgrigas.

Mayor Daley expected trouble, and he was ready!  Having equipped his police with riot gear and chemical Mace, he swore to maintain “Law and Order.”  Police shifts were extended and massive amounts of police were allocated to potential trouble areas.  Anti-drug operations were halted to allow those officers to reinforce the regular uniformed guys.  Arrangements had been made ahead of time to have the National Guard on hand at the start of the convention, standing by in their armories waiting to be called.  In an effort to stop protests from happening, the city refused to grant permits to organizations seeking them to stage protests.  A police shooting of a 17 year old boy of Native American heritage for violating curfew on August 22, 1968, had inflamed tensions between the police and the poor  community.

As the Yippies tried to stage a music festival and other protesters tried to make themselves heard, the police reaction was stern and unforgiving.  Miscommunication between Yippies and the police made matters worse, as the Yippies mistakenly thought the cops were denying them their electric amplifiers.  When the outnumbered police were surrounded in what seemed to be a threatening way, the police called for back-up and went on the offensive.  Five arrests were made when the Yippies released a live pig to taunt the cops.  The riot was on, and the police were not tolerating any defiance or disobedience.  Captured by television cameras, the actions of Daley’s police and National Guardsmen shocked the nation, as the mobs were Maced and beaten.  About 500 protesters were injured, and another 100+ were sent to hospitals for treatment.  The city claimed 152 police officers had been injured, although some of the injuries were quite minor.  About 650 people were arrested.  Both sides had falsely (or perhaps mistakenly) reported the number of participants on the other side (police and protesters) and both sides exaggerated the amount of violence perpetrated by the other side.  As riot police whapped protesters with nightsticks, the crowd chanted, “The whole world is watching.”  It was.

The 1968 Democratic Convention lasted from August 23 to August 28, 1968, and stands as an enduring black eye on the reputation of the City of Chicago and especially Mayor Daley.  Many Americans thought the police were well within their rights and acted appropriately to put down the protests, while many more Americans were appalled by the unrestrained actions of the police.  The world looked on sadly as the United States suffered a loss of prestige due to the inability of the government to deal effectively with protests.  An investigation into the chaotic events in Chicago of August of 1968, called the “Walker Report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence” named the police as responsible for the violence and called the event a “police riot.”  The Democratic Party was embarrassed and chagrined, and the Democratic nominee for President, the current Vice President, Hubert H. Humphrey, lost the Presidential election to Richard Nixon, in part because of the fiasco in Chicago.

Who do you call when the police are the rioters?  (Please type in “riots” or “riot” in the search function of this website for many more articles about riots.)  Question for students (and subscribers):  What other incidents have been called a “police riot?” Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Charles River Editors. The 1968 Democratic National Convention: The History of America’s Most Controversial Political Convention. Charles River Editors, 2016.

Farber, David. Chicago ’68. University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Kurlansky, Mark. 1968: The Year That Rocked the World. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2005.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Bill Abbott of a Chicago police helmet and billy-club circa 1968 (photographed 2012), is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.  This image was originally posted to Flickr by wbaiv at https://flickr.com/photos/9998127@N06/8225906183. It was reviewed on  by FlickreviewR and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-sa-2.0.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.