Pandemonium in Chicago

Convention riots spur votes for law and order

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Outside the1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

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Only two months before the 1968 election, a campaign simmering with anger and despair reached a boiling point. As the delegates gathered for the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, demonstrations swelled around the convention hall. Helmeted police responded with clubs and tear gas, which lingered in the streets.

And the TV cameras rolled. The violent images captured the tensions that gripped the country at the end of an agonizing year—and channeled them directly into the political process. "These were frightening things for a lot of people," says James Patterson, Brown University historian. "The disorderly image they left in people's minds surely increased the Republicans' ability to point to something that needed to change."

On the ground, the common denominator was disgust: One group of protesters released a pig into the streets as their candidate. After several years of urban riots, the city's mayor, Richard Daley, was also disgusted. He sent more than 20,000 police and national guardsmen to maintain law and order.

A federal commission later referred to what happened as a "police riot." Protesters shouted insults at the tough Chicago cops, who struck back with rage. Little attempt was made to spare peaceful protesters, journalists, or tourists. With the cameras rolling, the crowds chanted, "The whole world is watching!"

Into this abyss stepped Richard Nixon, the newly nominated Republican candidate. The delegates in Chicago, ignoring the protesters, lined up behind Hubert Humphrey, the handpicked successor of Lyndon Johnson—blamed by many voters for the war and unrest. Nixon emphasized his commitment to "law and order," reaching out to those who found the tumult in Chicago unacceptable. The move worked. Nixon saw a huge bump in the polls. Humphrey never caught him. Republicans would occupy the White House for 20 of the next 24 years.