In August 1968, I was thirteen and interested in only a few things: science, science fiction and making money. I was aware of politics – you couldn’t grow up in my house and not be but I wasn’t really engaged. Still, I knew who the Kennedys were and what had happened to them. Because our family attended the African Methodist Episcopal Church, I knew about the civil rights movement and the murder of Martin Luther King. But politics as a passion – I couldn’t imagine it.
I was staying with family friends in Diligent River. I was there for the three week long blueberry raking season. Leo Tibbets ran a crew, consisting mostly of his own six kids and a few others like me. He and his wife, Margaret, were great friends of my parents and were happy to take me on. Their house – which had electricity but no hot water or indoor toilets – was crowded anyway; what was one more body? The days were long – we were in the field from first light until last – and the work was hard but it was fun and I was looking forward to the six hundred dollars I would make and the things (mostly books and school clothes) I would buy with it.
At night, we played games or sang songs or watched the grainy black and white television in their small living room. And that was when I changed.
The Democratic National Convention was on in Chicago. Thousands had gathered to protest the Vietnam War. They didn’t bother with the Republicans – there was no hope there – but they thought the Democrats could be moved. Mayor Richard Daley – a vulgar, racist authoritarian (sound familiar) – was having none of that in ‘his’ city. He called out the police and the National Guard. No protesters allowed in Chicago in 1968. The protests escalated – and so did the violence, mostly perpetrated by the forces of law and order. What happened next was later described in a Federal investigation as a police riot. Protestors and journalists were bludgeoned and gassed and arrested. Meanwhile the television cameras showed masses of mostly peaceful protesters, chanting ‘The Whole World is Watching,’ in the face of baton wielding police.
Inside the convention, liberal Democrats criticized the police and the mayor for their tactics; they were met with vulgar and racist taunts – though no one was thrown out in the streets. The rest is history.
For a thirteen year old from Nova Scotia, the spectacle was galvanizing. I was filled with outrage at the injustice of it all. I became determined that I would never be bullied or terrorized or made to shut up. It helped to have parents who nurtured my freedom and intellectual curiosity and who challenged me to find and follow my moral compass. A year later I sat on my first constituency executive and ten years after that I ran for office. Chicago was my awakening.
Now, we have another protest in Chicago. Donald Trump claims his free speech is being violated, as if he hasn’t squelched free speech at every opportunity. As if he didn’t know that holding a rally in one of the biggest Democratic strongholds in America wouldn’t provoke protest. And then he runs away, blames other people and whines about hate in America. Mayor Richard Daley would have sneered in contempt at such a weakling.
The riots in Chicago in 1968 inspired in me a lifetime of fighting, in my own small way, for human rights, for social programs, for labour unions, for human progress and, yes, for a just society. What will the agitations (they hardly merit the word riot) of the Trump campaign inspire in America? Time will tell.
And that’s a little more than ten minutes.