by Sam Leff
Anthropologist specializing in American culture
September 9, 2009
At the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968, six months after his
landmark editorial on getting the U.S. out of Vietnam, Walter
Cronkite once more 'told it like it is': "The Democratic convention
is about to begin in a police state, there doesn't appear to be any
other way to describe it."
Some forty years after Walter called Chicago "a police state," like
it was, Tom Brokaw, A.O. Scott of the New York Times, and Columbia
journalism professor Andie Tucher told their own versions, like it wasn't.
The most blatant revision occurred in the rerun of the 2006 PBS
American Masters tribute to Walter, rebroadcast three days after
Cronkite's death. In her voiceover covering the police violence at
the Hilton on the night of Hubert Humphrey's inauguration, Andie
Tucher says, "Demonstrators were provoking, by some accounts, the
police in order to draw attention to their demands. When the police
fought back in a violent and brutal way -- with the connivance of
Chicago Mayor Daley, it turned into shocking and frightening TV that
I don't think even the demonstrators expected." The film cuts
directly to Cronkite at his convention anchor desk where he reports:
"CBS news producer Phil Scheffler was a witness to that violence, and
said it seemed to be unprovoked on the part of the demonstrators."
Watching this, my jaw dropped. Incredibly, in this "tribute" to
Walter's reporting, the crucial meaning of his story was being
revised and contradicted.
Like Tucher, Brokaw, in his bestseller Boom! Voices of the Sixties,
created his own version of "how it was." Rewriting the Sixties with
asides from his buddy Pat Buchanan, Brokaw also blames the Chicago
police-state violence on the anti-war protesters -- especially on
Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, whom Brokaw calls "cunning
provocateurs" carrying Vietcong flags.
Brokaw's misuse of the French provocateur, meaning "a secret agent
who incites suspected persons [protesters] to commit illegal acts"
(OED), had to have been intentional. Calling Abbie and Jerry
provocateurs was like calling Paul Revere Benedict Arnold. Abbie and
Jerry were patriotic Americans through and through, deeply identified
with their country and its 1776 revolution. Abbie and Jerry were
provokers par excellence. They threw dollar bills down on the New
York Stock Exchange floor, provoking a manic outbreak of greed from
the floor traders. Jerry Rubin provoked the witch-hunting House
Un-American Activities Committee [HUAC] by appearing in a
Revolutionary War uniform, an audacious piece of theater that landed
him on the pages of Time Magazine.
The antiwar movement was swarming with provocateurs, acting out the
police state's mission to sabotage legitimate protest and destroy
political activism. J. Edgar Hoover heavily relied upon provocateurs
in his infamous COINTELPRO program, used against the antiwar movement
and its "key activist leaders," with Abbie and Jerry at the top of
his list. Yet Brokaw fails to even mention the widespread programs of
real provocateurs employed by police agencies to sabotage the peace movement.
Close examination of Brokaw's interview with Judy Collins reveals his
attempt to rewrite Sixties history. Brokaw baits Judy to confuse her
serious political activism with her serious alcohol problem,
effectively editing out her major involvement with the Festival of
Life. Brokaw writes:
In the fall of 1969 during the trial of Chicago seven for inciting
violence and riots during the Democratic convention the year before,
defendant Abbie Hoffman asked Collins to be a character witness. She
took the stand and instead of testifying she began singing her hit
antiwar song "Where have all the flowers gone?" Judge Julius Hoffman
ordered her to stop. When she didn't, a court-martial put his hand
over her mouth. She only remembers the judge saying "'We do not sing
in court.' The rest of it is all a fog."
Were you stoned or drunk? I asked her. "No it was just a crazy
time." [Boom!, p. 251]
Far from being a mere "character witness" for Abbie the
"provocateur," Judy Collins had a seminal relationship to the Yippie
Festival of Life. She spoke and sang at the first Yippie press
conference, and gave important defense testimony at the conspiracy
trial. From the outset, Judy's prominence was a compelling attraction
for the music-oriented countercultural program planned for the
Festival of Life. Brokaw's demotion of Judy to a "character witness"
for Abbie is strongly contradicted by her trial testimony:
Mr. Kunstler: Now Miss Collins [on] March 17 of 1968 at
approximately noon...do you know where you were?
Judy Collins: I was at the Americana Hotel in New York City attending
a press conference to announce the formation of what we have now come
to know as the Yippie movement;
Mr. Kunstler: What did you say at the press conference?
Judy Collins: ....I said I wanted to see a celebration of life, not
of destruction. I said that my...profession and my life has become
part of a movement towards hopefully removing the causes for death,
the causes for war, the causes for the prevalence of violence in our
society... to make my voice heard, I said that I would indeed come to
Chicago and in that I would sing....
Mr. Kunstler: Did you...talk to Abbie Hoffman [one week before the
opening of the convention]?
Judy Collins: Yes in fact Abbie did call me to ask me again whether I
would participate in the Yippie Celebration of Life. He told me...
that the police were acting antagonistically toward peace
demonstrations. He wanted to warn me that I would be subject to that
same kind of provocation as an entertainer performing in a public
place without a permit.... I said Abbie you must continue to try in
every way possible to get those permits.... I don't want to...do
anything except sing for people in a legal situation....
Mr. Kunstler: Did you go to Chicago...?
Judy Collins: No. I did not...because the permits were not granted
Mr. Kunstler: [If there was there] anything... planned, or generated,
or that might cause... violent activity, you wouldn't want anything
to do with it, would you?
Judy Collins: There was nothing violent about anything that went on
in the preparation of our side for this convention. We were provoked.
Brokaw's most telling rewriting of history is revealed by what he
omits. In 650 pages about "the Sixties," he devotes but one paragraph
to the pivotal 1964 presidential election. In that historically
crucial election, Lyndon Johnson ran as America's peace candidate,
proclaiming "We seek no wider war in Vietnam," thereby winning with
the largest margin in American history - 16 million votes. More than
anything else, it was Johnson's betrayal of his peace mandate and
massive Vietnam escalation that set off the 60's cultural revolution
and led to the chaos of the 1968 Democratic convention.
Brokaw's Boom! strangely ignores the 1964 election and the betrayal
that gave birth to a whole generation of angry, disillusioned young
people. Instead, he places the entire blame for Vietnam on John
Kennedy and the so-called "Domino Theory," disregarding a wealth of
evidence that JFK was planning to leave Vietnam rather than escalate
-- an intention which Kennedy reveals in his last interview with
Walter two months before his assassination [also found in the
American Masters Cronkite tribute].
The media distortion of this era of American history was reinforced
by the New York Times when movie critic A.O. Scott concluded his pan
of the convention documentary Chicago 10 [for which I was a
consultant] by writing:
The joyous prankish spirit evident among the [Yippie] protesters
turned sour and nihilistic; the Festival of Life envisioned in 1968
gave way a year later to Days of Rage [New York Times, February 29, 2008].
Scott's false history was so malicious it was hard to read, let alone
digest. The music-oriented "Festival of Life" the Yippies envisioned
for Chicago in 1968 "gave way" exactly a year later, not to the "Days
of Rage," but to the iconic, generation-defining Woodstock love-in.
The violent "Days of Rage" occurred amidst the Chicago Conspiracy
trial in October 1969 and stemmed from 200 crazed Weatherman (SDS)
radicals whose political agendas were very different from the Yippies'.
Reporting in a lengthy "Sixties film" wrap-up several months later,
Scott wrote: "August brings the Democratic convention in Chicago,
overwhelmed by antiwar demonstrations and a police riot" and "In the
fall, Soviet tanks arrived to smash the human face of Czech
socialism" [4/27/08]. Once again Scott mangles history. Peace
advocates who were in Chicago clearly remember that the Soviet tanks
arrived" at the very same time that the Chicago police, Illinois
National Guard, and the American army -- all told, 24,000 strong --
arrived in Chicago to smash the human face of the antiwar movement.
As the media-wise Yippies saw it, the Russian police state planned
their repression to coincide with that of the American police state.
While "the whole world was watching" police violence in Chicago,
media attention to Moscow's fascism in Prague would be significantly
diluted. Ever responsive to the political moment, Yippies in Chicago
created placards announcing Welcome to Prague and Czechcago, and even
mounted a demonstration against the putsch at the Russian Visa Travel
Center. But the press ignored the pointed Yippie action. The fact
that the Youth International Party was equally opposed to the
American and Russian police states did not fit the establishment
script of the Yippies and antiwar protesters as Vietcong
flag-carrying communist sympathizers.
A few weeks after Chicago Abbie Hoffman held a press conference
announcing plans to infiltrate 5,000 Yippies into Prague to "support
the struggle against the Russian pigs." FBI files show J. Edgar
Hoover sending out an urgent coded teletype warning seven top
government offices, from the White House on down, of "Yippie plans to
attack the Russians!"
Scott misses the strategic Soviet global village manipulations of
that historic week in August 1968 as well as the inclusive "Youth
International" global village political responses to them. The
Yippies "who [supposedly] turned sour and nihilistic" were, in fact,
globally engaged with the "velvet" youth revolution against police
state brutality, and were themselves a courageous model for it.
The police state that the meticulously objective Cronkite described
at the Chicago Convention marked the climax of the traumatic American
contradictions of the Sixties: Johnson's Vietnam betrayal, the
assassinations of charismatic peace advocates Robert Kennedy and
Martin Luther King Jr., and the state-sponsored violence, both overt
and covert, unleashed by warmongering forces bent on stamping out the
democratic opportunity for the people to vote for peace.
The real explanation of why the truths about America's mutation to a
police state in the Sixties are being falsified forty years later is
that these truths are uncomfortable for a media establishment that
backed a rerun of Vietnam in Iraq, and obediently furthered the Bush
administration's lies about Iraq as they had Johnson's and Nixon's
about Vietnam. The net effect of Brokaw, Scott, and Tucher's
distortions ultimately aid and abet the establishment's justification
for waging wars the American people do not want, wars that habitually
depend upon the media's fudging the truth, even when it means
rewriting history to make America's patriotic truth-tellers seem like
traitorous agents provocateur.