Activists retrace 1968 protests in Chicago: ‘It’s hard to imagine that we are still doing this 50 years later’

About 100 marchers took part in a rally Saturday to recall the 50th anniversary of the tumultuous Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968.
(Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)

Dickelle Fonda was a college student in New York in 1968 protesting the Vietnam War when chaos erupted in Chicago as activists descended on the Democratic National Convention.

On Saturday, she and more than 100 other activists retraced the steps of those protesters while drawing attention to war, racism and poverty that is still taking place abroad and in Chicago. The rally to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the contentious protests started at Daley Plaza, snaked around City Hall and ended in front of the Gen. John Alexander Logan Monument at Grant Park, which was one of the sites of the 1968 protests.

“It’s hard to imagine that we are still doing this 50 years later,” said Fonda, who now lives in Evanston, just north of Chicago. “For me, I don’t know if it will make a difference or if I’ll be able to change it in my lifetime. I haven’t in 50 years. But I cannot not do it; does that make sense? I cannot not do it. So we keep coming back.”


In 1968, activists descended on Chicago to protest the Vietnam War and were met with a heavy police presence that included the National Guard. Then-Mayor Richard J. Daley told reporters, “Gentlemen, let’s get the thing straight once and for all. The policeman isn’t there to create disorder, the policeman is there to preserve disorder!” But Chicago officials and police would later be criticized for law enforcement’s response to the protests.

Saturday’s rally was much more peaceful than the protests in 1968, and it ended with a group photo in front of the Logan monument. Chicago police officers on bicycles surrounded the group as they marched through the Loop, chanting against police, war and politicians, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Tourists on sidewalks stopped to take photos of the crowd. Two men joined the group in a chant against Chicago police while another man yelled, “Don’t believe him” as one of the organizers spoke.

Andy Thayer, a rally organizer, said the demonstration was meant to draw attention to efforts still needed to end U.S. involvement in wars. He said activists learned bitter lessons from the 1968 protests that were later used by movements that helped end the war in Vietnam and establish abortion rights, and also were used by the Black Panthers.

“The lesson learned was that people could not depend on any major party,” Thayer said before the rally. “The movements after that actually began relying on their own strength and their own people rather than hoping to get salvation from someone higher.”

At Daley Plaza, speakers talked about issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and civilian oversight of investigations of abuse by Chicago police officers. Natasha Erskine, a member of Chicago Veterans for Peace, urged the crowd to focus on “demilitarizing” Chicago public schools, arguing that students need more counselors instead of resource officers.

“We need to evolve past the old mindset that young people need discipline over mentorship, over innovation and over progressive ideas of what it looks like for our young folks to be in a school,” Erskine said. “They should be in a safe haven.”


Among those in the crowd were Madeleine Cooley, 77, and her husband, Ron Cooley, 79, who didn’t attend the protests in 1968 because they were busy tending to their two young children. The couple worried about the Vietnam War, though, and knew people who were drafted to fight overseas.

The Downers Grove couple have spent the decades since then marching against war and writing to lawmakers. Madeleine Cooley said she remembers writing to politicians about gun reform when her daughter was in college in the 1980s. And though they aren’t sure how much effect they have had, they don’t have any plans to stop marching for change.

“You know what,” Madeleine Cooley said. “You have to do something.”

Malagon writes for the Chicago Tribune.