It is impossible to mention political conventions without someone bringing up the Chicago 1968 Democratic Convention. Not only was it marked by violence in the streets and disruptions on the convention floor, all televised, but it also represents to many people what the 1960s in America were all about. Despite the shiny "flower-power" package the decade has since been wrapped in, it was really a time of tension, shifting social and racial lines, and tremendous change, often accompanied by or accomplished through violence. And it was all right there on the streets of Chicago -- protesters versus police, blacks versus whites, working class versus middle class, anti-war versus the status quo.
What really happened in Chicago? It was a mixture of elements that were destined to explode. The first element was Mayor Daley, an old-fashioned politician who lured the convention to his city as a form of tribute to his political power. He believed in control and authority. The second element was the Yippies, a group of protesters formed specifically for the '68 convention. Yippie leaders knew they would be on TV, and they sought to incorporate the youth culture of the '60s into a reform movement that confronted what they saw as a corrupt political institution. The third element was the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam, or Mobe. This group was seeking a more fundamental change -- not reform, but revolution, through violent confrontation if necessary. The final element was the Democratic Convention itself, where Hubert Humphrey, who supported continuing the Vietnam War, defeated the anti-war faction of Eugene McCarthy.
It was no surprise that violence erupted in the streets. Almost 10,000 protesters were met by at least twice as many police, soldiers, National Guardsmen, and Secret Service agents. A giant cordon prevented anyone from getting within blocks of the convention site, and city officials denied parade permits to most protest groups. They protested regardless, and many of the police officers used force, tear gas, and riot gear to quell the disturbance.
Violence was not restricted to the streets -- McCarthy supporters claimed pro-McCarthy delegates were physically thrown out of the convention by security guards, and television reporters were jostled and shoved during live broadcasts as the dispute erupted.
Perhaps the most infamous political convention was the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago (see below), but there have been other important events at conventions. In 1888, abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass became the first black person to receive a vote at a political convention -- a single vote at the Republican convention.
In 1908, Democrats added legislation to their platform that would separate the interests of corporations from those of Republicans. They felt that corporations and the Republicans were too closely allied, a theme that remains relevant almost 100 years later.
In 1940, two unique events occurred at political conventions. First, Franklin D. Roosevelt was nominated for a third term as president. After some debate over his choice of vice president, he accepted. Second, the Republicans held the first ever televised convention that year.
The 2000 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles was marked by extensive protests in support of numerous causes. Pro-union, gay rights, anti-corporate welfare, pro-environmental and other movements made their voices heard a good distance from the convention site, due to the heavy presence of security fences and police officers. A performance by the politically active rock group Rage Against the Machine was interrupted by police, who used pepper spray and fired rubber bullets at fleeing spectators.
In the next section, we'll take a look at how political conventions got started in the first place.