Throwback Thursday: Preparing for the 1968 Democratic National Convention

Riding to the End

Get used to losing things. And finding them again. It will happen. You lose freedoms, you gain freedoms, lose your life and get a new lease on life. And yes, there always is a lease. You have to pay the rent. That or smoke a bowl with Beelzebub and make a deal. Either way, you’ll get scorched, coming or going. I lived the high life throughout the 1960s, swinging like a chimpanzee stoned on the vines of those times. Taking chances, giving chances. The ‘60s, yeah, I lost them and I found them. The decade of love and hate. The ‘60s. We were riding it to the end. We had nothing to lose.

Never Again

When Lyndon Johnson stepped away from politics and the presidency, refusing to run for the 1968 presidential election because of the resistance he encountered related to the Vietnam War and the draft it engendered, he threw the Democratic Party into chaos. Be careful what you wish for. Nixon was lurking in the corners, ready to take over. Many Democrats and Independents didn’t like Hubert Humphrey, who ultimately became the candidate for the Democrats, because they felt he was Johnson’s stooge, that he would continue to escalate the war. They instead voted for Nixon. That was, of course, a mistake. In hindsight, a big one. Nixon, and all the baggage that he trailed behind him like a cesspool stink, was elected. We’re still living with his legacy. Like WWI, when the victors repartitioned the Middle East. We’re still dealing with that colossal blunder, too, and will be for a long time to come. “Never again?” you ask. Look at what today’s electorate has wrought, even though Hillary Clinton won by three million votes.

Fresh Garbage

My good friend Sven, along with our dealer and friend, Haggis Altoona, are squashed together on the front bench seat (the only seat) of my ‘55 Ford pickup I call Trusty. We’re rolling toward Chicago, weaving in and out of rush-hour traffic on I-80 just outside of Joliet, where the Illinois State Penitentiary (now known as the Joliet Correctional Center) lies like a cancerous tumor by the side of the road, ready to ensnare us in its spidery web. We have enough pot in the truck to put us all away for 30 years. Dawn’s hot, rosy glow gives me a headache. It’s seven in the morning. We have our stash under the front seat, but we’re drinking martinis that Haggis has expertly mixed on the lid of the glove compartment. Of course, we’re already stoned. I had just plugged in an eight-track album of the psychedelic rock band, Spirit. The song, Fresh Garbage, comes on in full blast, eight-track stuttering stereo, and as I listen to the lyrics it seems prescient and well-placed, because I feel we are living in a fresh garbage world of politics and war and racism, not to mention the dire state of ecology. The EPA has yet to be established. Nixon, of all people, helped create it in 1970. One of the few good things he did. Incredibly, Trump and his swamp monsters want to take it down. Take us backwards, turn the swamp into a cesspool of fresh garbage.

Keep At It

Like the good SDS members that we are, we are on our way to the Democratic National Convention to join in on the protest of the Vietnam War. Protesting Johnson and Humphrey and the whole apparatus of the Democratic Party that supported the war. Yes, Democratic. They were the ones in power, and had been since JFK was elected. They had been promoting and prolonging this idiotic war we all found offensive and immoral. A war we believed had to come to a crashing halt. We were going to put an end to it. The art of protests. If one is joined by another, and then another, the voices will grow. This chorus of voices can change outcomes, sway public opinion and change the way our so-called leaders think, until they are forced to switch course. Of course, that didn’t happen — not right away. It took years to end the war, finally, on April 30, 1975. Still, the protests proved you could change course. You have to be able to hold out. Not quit. Keep at it. Things will change.

On Our Way

After a sleepless Sunday morning in a rundown motel off I-80 south of Chicago, we set out at three o’clock for the International Amphitheatrethat was located next to the stockyards. Site of the convention. Here, the epicenter of the protests would unfold. We parked the truck about a mile away. Couldn’t get any nearer. My driver’s side door was broken, and the only way you could open it was by rolling the window down, which unlocked the door mechanism, thus opening the door. Consequently, I had to leave the window down so I could stick my hand in and turn to window handle to open the door back up again. I wasn’t worried about anyone breaking into a beat-up ‘55 Ford pickup truck that was on its last legs. We also had nothing worth stealing. We took our pot with us. Left the liquor back at our motel for immediate consumption when we returned.

The Sweet Smell of Pot

We wended our way down the streets and alleyways toward the convention center. The stink of the stockyards hovered over us, a miasma mixed with a tinge of brown-colored air and, the closer we got, the stronger the stench became. But then, magically, the smells of pot began to brew in the air, swirling and settling around us like a comforting blanket. We knew there would be police and National Guard everywhere, but we didn’t give a damn. We were mad as hell and weren’t going to take it any more. We lit up with the others around us. I began to feel less fearful of the billy clubs I knew were coming. The anger was rising like pot smoke. I could feel it in the air, everywhere. We were now encountering more protesters and, like the stink in the air, the closer we got to the Amphitheatre, the more crowded it became, until we were swallowed alive by a choppy sea of humanity. The Hippies, the Yippies, Students for a Democratic Society, the Young Lords, the Black Panthers. We were all there, ready to roar against the war.

The International Amphitheatre

A massive, low-slung building hulking in the heat and stink of the stockyards came into view as we rounded a corner. The International Amphitheatre. The sight of the convention. Pot smoke was thick in the air. I was getting stoned without smoking, just breathing. The stink of the stockyards had now completely disappeared under the cloud of pot. Crowds, thick and moving like water rolling on a breeze, were gathered in the streets. We were swept along in the wave, a tidal force of roiling change coming to roost on shore.

Riding to the End

The next four or five days would prove to be more than I reckoned or hoped for. Something was, indeed, happening — something I didn’t expect to happen, something in the air. A groundswell of pent-up rage and anger was welling up to the surface, ready to overcome all the misery 1968 had generated. We were losing the old ways and gaining new ones. We were a phoenix rising out of the destruction. The next four days were hurtling toward us like a locomotive losing its brakes, barreling downhill at high speed and coming off its tracks. We were riding it the to the end.

Next Up: Four Days in Chicago, August, 1968