CHICAGO - “You killed the party,” the McCarthy kids chanted as Humphrey delegates entered the embattled Conrad Hilton Hotel during the early morning hours.
And back in the 20th floor suite at the Executive House, some key Indiana Democrats were wondering if the kids were right. There was gloom at both sites.
That’s what I wrote on Aug. 29, 1968, in covering the chaotic Democratic National Convention in Chicago. What happened in the streets, especially along South Michigan Avenue in front of the Hilton and in Grant Park across the way, was as significant as Vice President Hubert Humphrey winning the presidential nomination at the International Amphitheater on the southwest side. Maybe more significant.
Humphrey had far more than enough delegates to defeat Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who carried the hopes of opponents of the war in Vietnam. No surprise then that Humphrey won big on the first ballot. Startling, however, was the bloody battling in the streets as well as the rancor and disorder in the convention hall, all televised to the nation.
The McCarthy kids, the young “Clean for Gene” students, viewed McCarthy as the last hope. Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June, just as he seemed to be headed for the nomination and a chance to bring Democratic unity. Those clustered on the red-carpeted steps leading to the Hilton mezzanine were bitter, disillusioned - not just over defeat of McCarthy and a Vietnam “peace” plank, but also over how it was inflicted with harsh repression.
“You elected Nixon” they chanted at delegates returning to the Hilton. The hotel was Humphrey’s convention headquarters. He stayed there.
At the Executive House, where the Indiana delegation stayed, there also was gloom over the party-splitting rancor. The delegation backed Humphrey with 49 of its 63 votes.
It would have been different if Bobby Kennedy had lived. He won the Indiana presidential primary in May, drawing some of the largest and most enthusiastic crowds ever seen in the state for a political figure, before or since. He defeated both McCarthy and Indiana Gov. Roger Branigin, who was a stand-in for Humphrey. Many of the Hoosier delegates who voted for Humphrey were not enthused with that choice. They would have supported Kennedy.
Some in the Indiana delegation told of being victimized by or witnessing harsh police tactics. Too often the police didn’t differentiate on the streets between real troublemakers who were indeed there - the so-called Yippies and others taunting police, seeking disruption and even threatening to poison the Chicago water supply - and people on the streets who were braking no laws, including delegates headed to or from convention events, McCarthy kids working within the system rather than trying to destroy it and local residents.
The worst mistake by police came on the eve of the convention, Sunday, Aug. 25. That night, police drove crowds of Yippies, hippies and other assorted groups of protesters from Lincoln Park, their intended site of encampment, citing an often-ignored park curfew. Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, so concerned about the image of his city, wanted no stories about hippies sleeping after curfew in one of his parks. He directed police to take the harsh action that set in-motion the escalating conflict that was to follow.
Protesters, including those most radical and intent on disruption, were forced from the park and went streaming to the Loop, causing damage and mingling with delegates, the young McCarthy supporters and others who were breaking no laws. This led to what was described later in the Walker Report as “a police riot.” This report found that police didn’t differentiate between those who violated the law and those “who had broken no law, disobeyed no order, made no threat.”
If police were to use clubs, it would have been smarter to wield them to keep troublemakers in Lincoln Park, not to drive them out. It would have been easy for police to keep check on a crowd gathered in an open expanse of the park. Driving disorder to the Loop was the start of the terrible damage that week to the image of the mayor, the police, the city and the Democratic Party.   
Daley, defending his orders to police, famously said: “The policeman isn’t there to create disorder. The policeman is there to preserve disorder.”
The legendary mayor did have an unusual way with words. Yet, there is some accuracy in his reference to police preserving disorder. I saw that at the embattled Hilton. However, it is unfair to generalize about all Chicago cops. I saw many police officers who were professional, seeking to defuse rather than escalate tense situations and escorting convention participants away from trouble rather than just clubbing indiscriminately on the streets. They did so despite long shifts and being the targets of taunts and in some cases of cast stones and thrown bottles.
Cops of the other type were handling security at the front entrance to the Hilton as delegates returned after the presidential nomination balloting for Humphrey. Bloody conflicts with police had occurred in Grant Park right across from the hotel. A seething crowd, including those with injuries from clubbing, remained in the park. Michigan Avenue looked like a war zone. Illinois National Guard troops, bayonets fixed and machine guns mounted on jeeps, formed a line along the blockaded avenue.
Returning delegates were ushered in the front entrance. As the tenseness eased, some members of the crowd in Grant Park were allowed to wander without police objection along the sidewalk in front of the hotel.
A group of young toughs, matching the worst stereotype of a motorcycle gang, were clustered near the hotel entrance. They were shouting “Wallace” taunts at the crowd in Grant Park.
They also had a function, with police blessing. As unsuspecting youths with long hair and presumed to be from the protest ranks meandered past the Hilton entrance, members of the gang of toughs would beat them up. Police standing by at the entrance watched, declining in this case to enforce law and order.
At one point, some gang members raced after a small group of presumed protesters who had shown no sign of provocation. The toughs soon were back, grinning and boasting about how, “I got me a hippie.”
One youth, beaten, knocked down and kicked, went away in agony, almost certainly with a broken nose. An enjoyable sport, it seemed, for the gang and the amused police. A television cameraman made the mistake of walking along Michigan Avenue near the Hilton entrance. A tough ran toward him, left his feet in some kind of commando-style assault seen in movies, kicked the cameraman in the back and knocked him and the camera to the pavement. One Chicago policeman stepped between the sprawled cameraman and his assailant, preventing further violence. The assailant, cheered by his companions, was permitted to swagger back, their hero. A second policeman raced directly to the cameraman, shoved him as he struggled to his feet and ordered: “Get the hell out of here!”
Two personal stories always come to mind in the many times I have driven or walked by the Hilton in the years since 1968.
One involves those young McCarthy supporters - crying or chanting or both - on the steps leading to the mezzanine. A high school kid from Chicago, allowed by his parents to participate in what they mistakenly thought would be an experience in democracy, was one of those in tears. He was terrified when he came up to me and Bob Flynn, an Evansville political writer, pleading for help. He was convinced that he was trapped in the hotel by Chicago police, who would come to injure and arrest him as soon as the lobby was clear of the few remaining news reporters and delegates. He had tried to leave, and police ordered him back in the lobby. We calmed him with assurances that, really, he was free to go. Only the front entrance was blocked. He could leave by the 8th Street side doors. Thus, he escaped from a trap that had existed only because he believed that it did.
Others were “trapped” as well in what they perceived to be real. Protesters in Grant Park believed rumors that police had slaughtered dozens of peaceful demonstrators and it all was being covered up by the “establishment” news media. There were police reacting to widespread rumors that dozens of fellow officers had been blinded, crippled or shot by snipers. No demonstrators were killed. No police officers were blinded, crippled or shot. But what was shown later to be the truth didn’t lessen the reaction of each side to the belief at the time that the worst had happened.
A second personal observation involves one of the most persuasive speeches I have ever heard. It was one where I didn’t dare to take notes. Yet, I remember it well a half-century later.
I went around the National Guard line and into Grant Park after the conflict had subsided. Kind of scary. News reporters were in favor with neither side. Protesters thought reporters were covering up police atrocities and snitching on protest actions. Police thought reporters were intent on finding cases of improper police conduct and hurting Chicago’s image. Kind of dumb, maybe, to go into the park. But covering that convention had to include what was happening outside the convention hall. While I wasn’t dumb enough to wear a tie or take out a notebook, I knew I stuck out as not one of the protesters.
The persuasive speech was by Julian Bond, a young black civil rights leader whose name was placed in nomination for vice president at the convention, even though he was too young then to qualify under the Constitution. Bond was somebody that the angry, milling protesters would listen to, even if they would have preferred a call for revenge rather than his call for calm.
“Don’t lash out blindly at blue uniforms or brown uniforms,” Bond urged. “You don’t know the people in those uniforms,” he said. “You may lash out at somebody in a uniform who dislikes the war just as much as you do.”
He pointed out that not everybody in the blue uniforms had swung clubs at protesters’ heads. He warned that renewed conflict would only lead to more injuries. No applause. No shouts of disagreement. Also, however, those in that area who had seemed ready to renew conflict by throwing objects at the police and National Guard troops did not throw anything.
As far as I know, no other reporter heard Bond’s impromptu remarks. Nobody else ever wrote about it. I couldn’t talk to him then and never did later.
I’m glad that I wrote a column in 2015 in which I recalled Bond’s speech. He died later that year. But he did see the column and sent a nice “thank you” email. In his kind remarks, he asked: “How did you manage to reconstruct it after all these years?”
Recalling it was easy. It’s something you can’t forget. Nor can anyone who as there forget that 1968 Democratic National Convention.
“You elected Nixon,” the young McCarthy supporters chanted at the returning delegates. Well, the nation elected Nixon. Humphrey came close but never close enough to win after that chaos in Chicago a half-century ago.

Colwell has covered Indiana politics over five decades for the South Bend Tribune.