Sunday, August 24 1968 is one of the landmark dates in the history of the 60s.
Not a date like 9/11 or November 23 1963; most people don’t remember this date precisely, but they do remember this event. And even more what happened later that evening outside the Democratic National Headquarters at the Conrad Hilton. The violence of that confrontation lives on in memory as one of the most disturbing encounters between protestors and law enforcement that this country has ever known.
But the party happened first, 10 miles north of the Hilton, on a peaceful sunny day, in Lincoln Park, which is largely famous for its zoo.
Jim, Tom, and I hitchhiked down from Milwaukee, where we were in the final stages of Peace Corps training, ultimately headed for Northeastern Brazil, the poorest region of that country. The training process itself had an oddness to it that I think was one reason we were to eager to take a break for a day. To qualify for service as a Peace Corps volunteer, you had to avoid a process they called de-selection. The not so subtle Peace Corps psychologist would enter a training session, crook his finger at someone, and they’d be gone, whisked away, not qualified for service. De-selection. Classic 60s bureaucratic jargon. No explanations ever given about how the process worked.
The three of us, remembering Arlo Guthrie’s classic Alice’s Restaurant narrative, identified ourselves as occupants of the Group W bench and wondered when we’d be next (as it turned out, we were never subjected to the crooked finger). So we were more than circumspect about our destination that day but keen to sample the gathering in Lincoln Park, Chicago which we saw as a welcome escape from all that anxiety and a chance to check in with the real world, and in particular the counterculture, which was in full bloom.
It was brilliant, sunlit day. We got dropped off somewhere around the Rogers Park neighborhood and improvised our way through Chicago’s transit system down to the southern end of Lincoln Park, where the gathering was on in full force. To get a permit, the Yippies and co-organizers had billed the event as a Festival of Life, and in compliance with city ordinance, had agreed to the presence of a number of Chicago’s finest, who patrolled the event in their blues.
What we saw:
• Surprisingly, some very mellow cops. Not sure how that happened but they were VERY much at ease, and especially attentive to the female celebrants, clad or mostly covered in their counterculture garb.
• Acres of hippies and yippies, over 2,000 of them, in full festive mode floating back and forth, many blissed out even though there was an undercurrent of tension as the crowd anticipated the evening march on the Conrad Hilton in the Loop. Completely unaware of course of what lay in wait.
• Allen Ginsberg, in full lotus position, chanting Om, with the intention of bringing down the Pentagon. (In retrospect, that doesn’t seem to be the best use of Om but at the time is seemed um Right Om.
• Louis Abolafia, standing on top of a milk crate, proclaiming his candidacy for the United State presidency with the motto What have I got to hide. True to his word, he stood completely naked, not a stitch of tie die on him.
• Vendors of just about just about everything a good hippie could want, from tie died clothing to paraphernalia dedicated to substance consumption of the milder sort.
• Inevitably in a gathering that size, you run into someone you know. In this case, the son of a respected University of Chicago professor, and brother of a classmate. Hair and beard well advanced, 7 inches longer than the last time we’d seen each other. We talked quickly about the merits of tuning in, turning on, and dropping out, it was not an uncommon topic at the time, and then moved on.
Ultimately, the afternoon merged into early evening, our ride back to Milwaukee would be leaving soon and getting to the pick up place required yet another adventure on the Chicago Transit system. And given that our ride was actually a member of the training staff and being perhaps somewhat fearful of de-selection, we didn’t want to be late.
As we were leaving, we saw Pigasus, the porcine Yippie mascot of the gathering, being hoisted up into action and sensed the mood begin to shift from celebration to confrontation as the movement toward the Loop began. The innocent, celebratory part of the day was over. What followed is another chapter.