Gilbert: The World Is Watching

Mar 14, 2016

It was August 1968, and Chicago was hosting the Democratic National Convention, an open convention without a clear nominee. I was a freshman in a suburban high school forty miles outside Chicago. My siblings and I took the commuter train into the city and walked around, from one campaign headquarters to another, not missing a chance to scoop up scores of campaign buttons for our collections. Late in the afternoon, we took the train back home, arriving in time for dinner.

That evening we watched on television the Chicago police outside the convention center weigh into anti-war protestors, wielding their billy clubs, cracking heads with, one might say, a vengeance - as the protesters chanted, “The whole world is watching.” Americans were shocked by what was widely referred to as a police riot.

Inside the convention hall, during a nominating speech Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff went off-script and, looking directly at Chicago Mayor Richard J. Dailey in the audience, condemned the “Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago." Invoking Nazism was not done lightly.

On the convention floor delegates were infuriated by the private security people’s ongoing aggressive behavior, and newsmen Dan Rather and Edwin Newman were roughed up in separate incidents by security. Picking himself up off the floor, Rather said to his colleague Walter Cronkite, “This is the kind of thing that has been going on outside the hall. This is the first time we’ve had it happen inside the hall... I'm sorry to be out of breath, but somebody belted me in the stomach during that.” Cronkite replied, “I think we’ve got a bunch of thugs here, Dan.”

These memories have been brought back by recent unfortunate political rhetoric and videos of protesters, usually African Americans, at different campaign events getting attacked and punched. In one incident an African American protester is “sucker-punched,” arrested, cuffed, and dragged away. There are videos from outside a campaign rally of an altercation violent and volatile enough for the campaign to cancel the rally. There are references to Nazism and the Klan, concerns about one or more candidate’s tendency to lean toward authoritarianism, which some members of the so-called GOP elite have been bold enough to label fascism, and amidst the political back and forth, countless examples of explicit ethnic and religious intolerance and racial dog-whistles worthy of George Wallace.

The fact that current events remind me of previous events and times in our country’s history is not reassuring. Again the whole world is watching. And again today, much is at stake for our nation -- its democracy, its character, and its soul.