by Ken Feltman
Society mends its wounds. And that’s invariably true in all the tragedies, in the comedies as well. And certainly in the histories.
– Charlton Heston
In Grant Park in late August of 1968, frightened police and National Guardsman could take no more of the incitement. The more radical of the protesters wanted the violence. They believed it would generate sympathy and help their cause. They used the background of the Democratic convention to take their message to the world.
The authorities were helpless to deny the demonstrators their wish. Outside Chicago in the weeks leading up to the convention, people may not have been aware that the protest leaders were promising to poison the city’s drinking water, which news accounts suggested would be surprisingly easy to do. Some protesters told tales of thin knives that they would use to kill policemen and ordinary citizens. Stores along Michigan Avenue and State Street were publicly labeled as targets for firebombs and looting. Office buildings were listed, address by address, as arson possibilities. Schools, hospitals and churches were singled out for armed attacks and firebombing. Chicagoans were on edge, frightened. That night in Grant Park, their peacekeepers reflected that fright.
The chaos that followed defined Grant Park for me after that night. When I went for a sail out of Grant Park Harbor, I always looked back at the park and thought about what I had witnessed there on that August evening. When I drove down Michigan Avenue or Lake Shore Drive, I glanced at the park and remembered. Chicago, Mayor Daley, the Democrats and the police and guardsman took the blame. The pot-provoked rabble won the public relations battle.
Hubert Humphrey was nominated by the Democrats but the images of the night sticks striking young protesters doomed his candidacy and Richard Nixon was elected president. This was eight years after Nixon lost to John Kennedy, and six years after Nixon lost the election for governor of California and told the media that they would no longer have “Nixon to kick around.” This was four years after Lyndon Johnson buried the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater.
Four decades later, another crowd gathered in Grant Park. This time, I was not there but a friend was and the elation and melancholy came through in his voice as he told me about his feelings in Grant Park: His pride, his sense of having overcome a seemingly impossible barrier. Shedding tears of joy and hope, this strong man was filled with the awareness – for the first time – that his children could experience all of the American dream.
I hope that he is right and that we can say with assurance: Yes, they can.