Waiting for the next revolution: What “The Chicago 10” taught me about modern America

I was 17 and skeptical when I saw the movie poster for Chicago 10 at the Missouri History Museum where I work. The exaggerated cartoon figures seemed almost comical and when my boss tried to tell me that was I was about to see was like none of the other documentaries we had screened I was decidedly doubtful. Then it began. Then it changed me.

It was in fact, like nothing I had ever seen. It was a partially animated documentary based on the infamous court transcripts of the equally infamous Chicago 8, a trial so infamous that I had never heard of it. The Yippie Party had been omitted from my history textbooks. I had no idea that for three days in 1968 Chicago became a police state. So when I saw the video of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin dance across the screen, when I saw the mob “take the hill” and one man plant the Vietnam flag on a statue only to be beaten by police, and when I saw Bobby Seale gagged and bound, demanding his right to be heard, my pulse raced and my all of my perceptions, about the sixties legacies had to be reconstructed.

As protesters shouted, “The whole world is watching” I watched. When the tear gas and the beatings began, I saw the smallest battle of Vietnam play out outside the Hilton Hotel in downtown Chicago. It was vulgar. It was terrifying. It was radical. And I wished I could’ve been a part of it. I couldn’t keep from feeling a grudging admiration for the radical young men and women who were willing to be beaten if it brought peace. I wanted to join the movement.

The convention was the democrat’s nightmare incarnate. It exposed the cracks in the party’s foundation that had been becoming more and more prominent as LBJ’s war progressed. It was probably the most derisive moment within the Democratic Party in recent history.  It was a plea to start anew and it was a battle; the Yippies’ Last Stand, against a violent society that allowed Vietnam to happen. It was “The Second American Revolution” that heralded Nixon’s presidency.

Yet, the way they protested was actually quite ingenious. Everything they did had a purpose. They created what they called, the Yippie myth and made outlandish claims such as they’d poison Lake Michigan with LSD (clearly impossible) and they would burn Chicago to the ground, claims that were almost as outlandish as the lies coming from Vietnam. They were careful to preach for peace and their recruiting tool was simple, Chicago was a human be-in, they would be-in Chicago’s parks for the convention and that would be enough.

The Chicago 8 used the trial for publicity, to expose the court system as corrupted. They were charged with conspiracy so they answered the phones calling themselves “the conspiracy.” It was all a challenge to authority. It forced Chicago and America to show its totalitarianism thereby proving what the Yippies ultimately wanted to say: Violence was ingrained deep enough in our society it could be exercised on peaceful protesters. They were not just fighting for Vietnam; they wanted to “create a society where Vietnam could never have been possible.”

I admired the radicals. Their demonization seemed like a double standard. The media and politicians could demonize protesters but wouldn’t dare attack Kennedy’s personal life. Their propaganda was extreme, and their language was vulgar but they had to be extreme, they had to be the polar opposite of war.

It wasn’t just their message that was intriguing. It was their speeches and actions. I will never forget hearing Abbie Hoffman respond to reporters when they asked him what his price would be to call off “the revolution.” His answer was “my life.” I’ll never get over the chants of the “whole world is watching” from the convention that preceded the violence. And I’ll always have an image of Bobby Seale being bound and gagged in his chair still struggling to demand his right to defend himself.

During Hoffman’s testimony he called himself an orphan of America.  I could relate. There are undeniable parallels between our society today and the turbulence of 1968. Just like Vietnam, I live in a world where Americans have been lied to about war. I live in a world that was shocked by 9/11 similarly to the shock of JFK’s assassination. The sixties were the epoch of assassinations. Today, guns are taken up against children in our schools. The destruction of the Voting Rights Act has pulled us into the past. Modern America is closer to sixties than it ever has been before. As a millennial. I can look back at the era of turbulence and relate it to my life.

But unlike the protesters in Chicago, the youth in America is refusing to stand up. Our technology is no longer used as a tool for activism but as a distraction that lets us isolate ourselves from the issues. Unlike the rich meaning of rebellious protest music from the sixties, today’s popular music feels soulless, and meaningless. We live in a world where all the components are there to create a movement, and to create change, but no one is willing to take a stand. No one wants to stand up for the greater good.

Now I realize that the Chicago 10 made me awaken to my reality. It’s a reality that desperately needs change. The world of the protesters at the Chicago Democratic National Convention and my own are so similar, so why do I feel so far away from the era of change?  We are making the same mistakes today but have forgotten our spirit of activism.

And I am an orphan of America. Here. Ready. Waiting for a movement.