Getting Arrested at the Democratic National Convention

The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago stands as the most turbulent and disturbing DNC in American history. Get the inside story from one delegate who found himself arrested by the Chicago PD.

Hubert Humphrey giving a speech in 1968
By Kheel Center [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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Hillary’s upcoming shindig is likely to seem sedate in comparison to the zaniness of last week’s spectacle in Cleveland. But, if anything, this is a turnaround from tradition. Historically, the Democrats have been the raucous ones.

Just look at the 1968 Chicago convention. For context, recall that President Lyndon Johnson, amidst abysmally low ratings due to the unpopularity of the Vietnam War, had announced in spring that he would not run for a second term. That decision opened up the Democratic field to JFK’s brother Robert Kennedy and antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy, as well as the more centrist Hubert Humphrey, the incumbent vice president.

In the months before the convention, both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. There was the palpable sense that America was coming apart at the seams. On the convention floor, the bitterness boiled over into shouting and shoving matches, but ultimately Humphrey and the status quo prevailed.

If this angered the antiwar delegates to the convention, it drove the 10,000 protesters outside into a pure and dangerous frenzy. Throughout the week, protesters were in open conflict with Chicago Mayor Daley’s security detail of 11,900 Chicago police — reinforced by more than 10,000 Army troops, National Guardsmen, and Secret Service agents.

Murray Kempton, a columnist for the New York Post and editor of The New Republic, was in Chicago to serve as a delegate for the liberal Senator Eugene McCarthy and also to write about the proceedings for the Post. After watching his candidate lose, he stepped outside to bear witness to the rioting in the streets, where he quickly found himself arrested along with hundreds of others.

The Decline and Fall of the Democratic Party

By Murray Kempton

Excerpted from an article originally published on November 2, 1968 

We had arrived at 18th and Michigan, where the [national] guard and the police waited to say we could not go farther. The delegates had all found us and efficiently lined up behind Rev. Richard Neuhaus and me, since, for reasons obscure but connected with the failure of its beginning, ours was known as the Neuhaus-Kempton group. Such then was my last caucus; and, when Dick Gregory [the former comedian turned antiwar activist] went forward to get himself arrested and the Rev. Mr. Neuhaus to treat with the police, not knowing the procedure for getting arrested in Chicago as well as Gregory, I found myself stranded as its leader. Gregory’s blacks were juking in front of us; and [pacifist David] Dellinger’s strayed grays were no doubt preparing some manifestation behind us; and there fell upon me the sickening dread that at least two of our repertory companies were about to start their productions while ours, the amateur one, could not even think of its script.

Then Neuhaus returned at last, welcomed as no servant of the Lord often is, and said we should advance to confront the guard. There was nothing to do but get arrested, which took an unconscionably long time, during which we sat down symbolically, and then got up, because Gregory’s pards felt that it was about time to go into their performance and that we ought to stand and afford them free passage. A National Guard lieutenant colonel finally read his office over me, and I was moved, correctly but not cordially, into the wagon. Its bag was a mixed one of delegates and stray young people; riding over, the young called out “Free Vietnam” to the invisible streets outside. “Free assembly,” I ridiculously croaked.

In my usual job, you come to think of policemen as very much the same; when you are under arrest, they turn out to have quite extraordinary range. I should say that I met three nice cops for every nasty one; what surprised me was how far our permissive society has gone even with cops: A pleasant one feels free to be unusually pleasant and a mean one feels free to be unusually mean, neither of which tones is exactly what the book must command for treatment of that offender against society who is also its ward.

“Give me everything you’ve got with a sharp point,” the one who searched said. “One of you peace lovers put out an officer’s eye with a pin once. Do you know that?” He found a token that somebody had slipped me a long day ago and that I had put in my pocket without even looking at. It turned out to have the likeness of Martin Luther King on it; and he threw it to the floor. “Martin Luther Coon,” he said, grinding it with his shoe; “you all come from the same bag.” To my shame I did not make reply and only shuffled along, which is why it is so necessary never to be surprised. Yet, after this caricature, the trip to the Dark Tower, while tedious, had illogical moments of good manners. “What is a distinguished-looking man like you doing being arrested?” one of the booking detectives asked. I had no answer; the question, kindly meant, could only make me understand that I was getting old.

But, after a while, these desultory excursions into the study of policemen were driven away by the revelation of the other persons who had been arrested that night. The journey crept along in the company of The Professor of Physics at Stevens Institute and The Personnel Director of the Perth Amboy Hospital, The Telephone Company Lawyer, and then it would end in the waiting outside Riot Court, the Dark Tower itself, with the finding there of Harris Wofford, the President of A New York State University, of The Man from The New York Times, and The Rockefeller Man from Kentucky.

What could have brought them here in police custody? I knew why I was here; I had taken a contract. But what brought them, these safe men who had never before been arrested and probably never would be arrested again? It must be the indefinite suspension of their assurance of the virtue and redemption of America. The means of grace and the hope of glory had been taken away, because, after all, America had been their real God. And this night, otherwise inconsequential in our dreadful recent history, was The Night They Knew It.

But I could almost feel each of them, in his private heart, tending all afternoon toward this least dignified of places as the only one where they could be sure of being alone with their dignity. For them to have been in public that night would have been to rail or make bad jokes there; they had gone to the patrol wagon for privacy.

We stood about and talked among ourselves as men unused to arrest probably do; Dellinger’s stray young grays, who had been there before and would be again, slept on the floor. I felt quite tender about them, because I had noticed that although they sometimes carry signs bearing the device of some four-letter word or other when they are on-camera, they do not write dirty words on the walls of detention rooms. Do they, among other reasons, go to jail for privacy too?

There is very little to the rest. We went on talking; The Man from the Times came out from the Dark Tower and said this was a rough judge; he had been told to stop slouching. (I cherish The Man from the Times, but, in fairness to the judiciary, he does slouch.) My name was called; I entered the Dark Tower. And there, as usual with me, the first sight, instead of the Beast, was the warm bright greeting of William Fitts Ryan, my congressman; the convention was over and he had generously come down to be my lawyer. Bill Ryan unsheathed his congressional identification card and gave rein to his imagination for hyperbolic explanations of the distinction of his client; the judge struggled to the summit of whatever foothills of grace are afforded by night courts, and I was set loose.

For a complete inside look on the 1968 Democratic National Convention, read the full text to Murray Kempton’s “The Decline and Fall of the Democratic Party.”

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  2. Thanks Joseph. I actually had not gotten out the Bob Dylan issue yet to read it, but was going to tonight—after night one of the DNC Convention, of course!

    Since it’s now available online however, I’ll probably be reading it here after all. It is pretty long, so reading it in sections (with breaks) will be fine.

  3. Hi Bob,

    I fixed the link to the full article. Sorry about that.


  4. This article is again very timely this week from both a historical and comparison standpoint of a Democratic Party that has about as much in common with itself as 2016 does with 1968 otherwise.

    My computer isn’t letting me access the full Murray Kempton feature here, but fortunately I have this issue here at home and will read it “the old fashioned way.”


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