"The whole world is watching. The whole world is watching.”
If you know American history, or you remember it, “The whole world is watching!” is the unforgettable chant shouted by thousands of young Vietnam War protesters as they were tear-gassed and beaten with clubs by the Chicago police during the 1968 Democratic National Convention that August.
A quick recount: The stodgy Vice President Hubert Humphrey was about to be named the Democrats’ presidential candidate, to run against Republican Richard Nixon.
The background: President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated five years earlier. His younger brother, Bobby, running against Humphrey for the Democratic nomination, had been assassinated two months before the Chicago convention. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in April, four months earlier.
I was 21, and I remember the despair of losing the leaders who inspired us to find our best selves. They championed civil rights, opposed the Vietnam War, and then they were gone. Shot and killed.
The weekend before the convention, some 2,000 young people gathered in Chicago’s Grant Park to protest. By the time the convention began, the crowd had swelled to 10,000. The police came to break up the protest, and they were brutal.
The fallout: According to the Guardian newspaper, “After four days and nights of violence, 668 people had been arrested, 425 demonstrators were treated at temporary medical facilities, 200 were treated on the spot, 400 given first aid for tear gas exposure and 110 went to hospital. A total of 192 police officers were injured . . .
“. . . Images of police firing teargas and beating demonstrators with their nightsticks played on network television news. It looked like an oppressive fascist state and offered a view of a nation apparently tearing itself apart.”
The kids never stopped shouting, “The whole world is watching,” even as police tore into them. It has been said that the extensive media coverage of the violence, beamed into American homes, helped propel a reckoning over the savage police overreaction. It seems that reckoning is still playing out in our politics and in our communities, 54 years later.
In the ’68 presidential election, Nixon appealed to a “silent majority.” He promised a nation of voters freaked out by the demonstrations that he would impose law and order. He won. Six years later, about to be impeached, he resigned in disgrace. The North Vietnamese had driven America out of their country.
The echoes: Last week, as I watched the Jan. 6 committee hearing, I thought about how vital the media has been in investigating and reporting the alleged crimes committed by our 45th president and his enablers. Without an intense commitment by reporters at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, we would not know what happened that day. This time the protesters carried the weapons, and erected a portable gallows. This time the protesters wanted to overthrow a righteous election. These American citizens storming the Capitol were attacking the police.
The videos taken inside the Capitol’s hiding place during the insurrection reveal the chaos and the fright of the moment, with legally elected members of Congress fearing for their lives not far from a crowd gone berserk. As we go to press, we hear promises of further violence from Trump supporters who refuse to accept the peaceful transfer of power, the holy grail of our democracy. Various groups threaten ongoing disorder if the Department of Justice and Congress try to hold Trump accountable for alleged crimes.
The lines connecting 1968 and 2022 are unsettling. For me, the connection is my gut. It feels all wrong all over again. Kids were on the march then, demanding peace. Extremists today are threatening war. We lived then, and we live now, in a time of civil unrest.
After ’68, we edged into a relatively calmer passage of political life. But then along came Trump, who found common ground with a segment of angry and violent Americans. The new twist in the MAGA community, and from Trump himself, is the increasingly overt racism and antisemitism. What was never OK to say is slowly becoming OK in certain radical groups. The swastika and the Nazi salute are useful again, on the fringe.
In 1968 we were deeply hurt and disillusioned by the successive assassinations of our leaders. We dreamt of peace and equality. As young idealists, we couldn’t bear that this was how our dreams would die.
Today, the dynamic is more toxic. The protesters are the ones with weapons. Their dream is absolute power. Their leader has debased the office of the presidency and he just won’t go.
We are suspended in time, and the whole world is watching.
Copyright 2022 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.