Chicago 1968: the DNC

August 26-29, the Democratic Party was scheduled to meet in Chicago to nominate its presidential candidates at the Democratic National Convention (DNC). Along with countless Democrats, left-wing and anti-war activists would descend upon the city, faced with 12,000 police officers, 6,000 National Guard members, and 6,000 Army troops assembled by Mayor Daley. As alternative weekly newspaper The Chicago Seed put it: “If you're coming to Chicago, be sure to wear some armor in your hair.”

The DNC also roiled Chicago’s gay activist community too. Raids of gay bars had become more common and more severe during the summer of 1968, and Mattachine Midwest president Jim Bradford wrote of the need for men and women “willing to stick their necks out, walk the picket line, go on radio and television, and even get arrested if need be to bring real equality to the homosexual in Chicago and the Middle West.”

Chicago Anti-War Protests 1968

On August 20, two days after the NACHO conference ended and five days before the start of the DNC, Chicago police raided Sam’s and the Annex, two large gay bars on the city’s North Side, arresting 17 patrons and bar employees. As Jim Flint, then a bartender at Sam’s, recalled, “During the Convention we paid off the night before and got raided and closed anyhow.”

Outraged, and having just hosted the NACHO convention (at The Trip bar, itself having been shut down earlier that year from a police raid), Mattachine Midwest members wrote an open letter to Chicago Police Superintendent James B. Conlisk, declaring, “unfounded arrests, trumped-up charges, entrapment and constant surveillance of homosexuals and their social institutions must stop.”

Violence and unrest grew in the week leading up to the DNC. Planned protests of the convention began that weekend following the police shooting of 17-year-old Jerome Johnson.

On August 25, after the 11:00 p.m. curfew, a group of homosexuals gathered in the park for a peaceful chant led by poet Allen Ginsberg. The police chased them out of the park. This would be just the beginning of a marathon of police brutality during the convention, breaking up marches and rallies with tear gas and nightsticks. Across the US people watched protesters on their TVs chanting “the whole world is watching.”

Allen Ginsberg Democratic National Convention

Allen Ginsberg in the park