INTERVIEW: Yesterday Into Today: Protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention: An Insider's Look

By Sarah Bobson (originally posted at The Independent)

The Youth International Party, or Yippies as they called themselves, wanted to make something happen at the 1968 Democratic National Convention held in Chicago August 25-29. So they decided to organize what they called a Festival of Life full of music and political theater, to counter what they called the Convention of Death.

Berkeley resident and former Yippie Judy Gumbo remembers those days. We recently sat down in her beautiful co-housing home studded with framed 60s posters and chatted about her experiences in connection with the convention. The following comes not only from that interview, but also from information at Gumbo's website

Gumbo is a warm, ingratiating woman, a grandmother now. And yet, that pretty young woman pictured in photographs with Yippie founders Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, or with celebrity sympathizer Marlon Brando, or with demonstrators in protest marches, still seems to reside inside her, especially when she revisits the turbulent events surrounding the Convention.

As we began our discussions about the convention and the protesting anti-war groups, she was quick to draw the distinction between what she referred to as mainstream peace movement groups such as the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), who staged marches, speeches, and rallies, and the counterculture Yippies, who, like the MOBE and SDS, also wanted to wake up the American people to President Lyndon Johnson's stepped-up military campaign in Vietnam, although the Yippies wanted to do it in a theatrical and dramatic way.

In preparing for the Yippies' Festival of Life day, both Hoffman and Rubin, children of the media and devotees of communications philosopher Marshall McLuhan and his seminal book The Media is the Massage, felt they had to make the event dramatic, not only to draw media attention but also to make a lasting impression on people. What better way to do that than to stage something outrageous and weird. Thus was born the idea to run a pig as the presidential candidate of the Youth International Party. To Hoffman and other Yippie founders, including Gumbo's boyfriend Stew Albert, Hoffman's wife Anita, Rubin and his girlfriend Nancy Kurshan, journalist Paul Krassner (editor and publisher of the Realist), and folk singer Phil Ochs, a pig seemed to be the logical symbol for the Yippies anti-establishment festival. During the 60s and 70s, antiwar protesters and members of the counterculture showed their opposition to police brutality used against the American people by referring derogatorily to members of law enforcement as pigs. The Yippies' decision to use a live pig, however, led to a huge internal debate, as Judy points out with her wry sense of humor in her present-tense narrative, "The Battle of Chicago," which originally appeared online in Counterpunch in 2008.

"Abbie, Anita and Paul want a tiny cute pig. Jerry gets incensed. It violates his sense of effective Yippie marketing: to adequately represent the candidates and all they stand for, the Yippie pig needs to be big, fat, ugly and mean. Jerry calls a meeting and, disregarding Stew's advice to let it be, reads a statement out loud to Abbie, Anita and Paul, denouncing Abbie as a media-hungry 'ego tripper.' Jerry even threatens to hand his statement out as a leaflet in Lincoln Park, if Abbie doesn't relent about the size of the Yippie pig. This is what a serious ideological split in the Yippies comes down to – the girth and poundage of our presidential candidate." In the end, the faction led by Rubin decided to get the largest, smelliest, most repulsive hog they could find. On the Friday before the convention was to officially begin, they all piled into a truck and Ochs drove Gumbo, Albert, and a Yippie tai chi expert named Wolf Lowenthal to a farm on the outskirts of town. Here they met a farmer who agreed to sell the pig but told them they would have to get into the pigpen and catch the 200-pound beast themselves.

"I'll never forget how hysterically funny that was," Gumbo says, "all of us falling, slipping and sliding, covered in mud and pig poop. Phil, being more fastidious, declines to participate, but he's the one who pays the farmer ($25). Somehow we manage to load Pigasus into our truck (she was very stubborn, not the activity of a presidential candidate, Gumbo points out in the interview) and take her back to Chicago for a press conference at the Civic Center the next day. On our way back, with occasional oinking in the background, Jerry advocates in his forceful, Jerry, ad-man way that the Yippies demand Pigasus get treated as a legitimate candidate, with secret service protection and foreign policy briefings." That night, although Pigasus the presidential candidate did not get secret service protection, she did get some sort of protection. Wolf, the tai chi expert, stood guard, ready to use his martial arts training if necessary to protect the candidate, who, rather ignominiously, had to spend the night in the truck parked on a Chicago residential street. Early Sunday, the day of the Yippies' Festival of Life," Gumbo says she heard the whump-whump-whump of a helicopter hovering over the park and Hoffman heard over a walkie talkie that the police were entering the park. Then, in a frozen moment of time, Gumbo remembers looking over at Albert, her boyfriend, a surfer boy in looks who a few years later would become her husband of 30 years, and seeing blood running from his forehead down through his long blond curls.

"'You're bleeding,' I tell Stew. As if he didn't know that. Isn't it amazing the stupid things you say in a crisis?"

Volunteer medics took Albert to the hospital in what Gumbo describes as a multi-purpose vehicle designated with a red cross. She wanted to ride along with her boyfriend but she says there was no room. "There were too many journalists in there covering the story." Had the Yippies expected violence? No, says Gumbo, who blames the police for initiating it. "Let me be absolutely clear," she said during the interview. "The violence came from the Chicago police. Stew's was the first bloodshed in Chicago. The cops attacked everybody. It was indiscriminate. A member of the British Parliament was beaten. A reporter was beaten." Gumbo says a subsequent report, submitted by David Walker, Director of the Chicago Study Team, to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, verified the police violence. Nevertheless, Gumbo offers a caveat. She points out that the Yippies did say provocative things, among them that they were going to put LSD into Chicago's drinking water. She believes that Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's response to those provocations, to send in a contingent of cops and to call for the help of the National Guard, all of which outnumbered the protesters roughly two to one, may also have spilled over from earlier measures he took to contain anticipated riots following Martin Luther King's assassination on April 4th of that year. Before the convention got underway, it became apparent to the Yippies, MOBE, and SDS that the large number of protesters they had hoped would come from all over the country, somewhere in the tens of thousands, would not materialize. Word had spread that Daley intended to clamp down on demonstrators. The bands had been scared off, and only MC-5, a hard rock band out of Ann Arbor, showed up. Nevertheless, Gumbo and her fellow Yippies, "pure of heart and pure of soul," as she describes it, still believed they would be allowed to demonstrate peacefully.

Next Month: In Part II, read about Allen Ginsburg and Phil Ochs and their experiences with the National Guard and tear gas.