To the editors:
Just when I thought it was safe to stop revisiting the 1968 Democratic Convention, newsletter writer William Leahy's comments about Michael James and me appeared in Harold Henderson's "City File" of 9/9. The item contains both errors and truths that require a response.
Leahy claims that Michael and I have become the media's "only authorities on the 1960s and early '70s." We felt over-interviewed, but this image of conspiratorial monopoly ignores recent remarks by local activists from Don Rose to Bernardine Dohrn, and obscures how coverage really works.
Leahy's specific criticism also contains several errors.
He says that the Seed, the Chicago underground paper which I edited during 1968 and 1969 and worked on until 1971, "failed to cover the historic April, 1968, demonstration." This is false. Leahy is referring to the April 27 Peace March, a truly non-violent gathering that was crushed by police, presaging the events of August. But Vol. 2, No. 7 of the Seed contained no fewer than four articles and a two-page photo spread on the attack.
Leahy also errs in saying that I "told out-of-town demonstrators to stay away in August." The open letter I published warned that governmental violence would occur, said that there were many reasons to try to "disrupt the Death Gala," and then advised, "Don't come to Chicago if you expect a five-day Festival of Life, music and love." Its position--a pained stand based on everything from being honest with "brothers and sisters" who were being lured by promises of Woodstock-in-Chicago to being scared of potential beatings and arrest--was also taken by other papers and radical organizations. During the Convention, the Seed functioned as a movement center, for which we had our storefront window shot out.
Leahy dismisses Michael James, a key organizer of the amalgam of ex-student radicals and white working class kids known as Rising Up Angry, because "he now owns a cafe." True, the Heartland serves up healthy food, not class revolution. But it is simplistic to toss off a place where everything from the menu to endorsements of causes from Harold Washington's campaign to peace in Nicaragua differentiate it from the typical restaurant.
So perhaps one reason that Michael and I are often interviewed is that we're more accurate than certain media critics.
"Capitalists in Chicago want to choose their own revolutionaries," Leahy continues. This is rhetorical overkill, but closer to the mark. Most recent mainstream pieces about the Convention were retrospectives with touches of "Where Are They Now?" Most were on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand slide shows with clear pictures and fuzzy, even uncalled for, conclusions. They certainly did not advocate protest, validate demonstrators or analyze what activists can learn from the past. Their story lines ignored those who see radicalism as current events, not as something for the scrapbook.
Leahy guesses, correctly, that I'm not active on the Left. My story--hippie-rad editor turned journalism professor--and Michael's--he rocked a squadrol on Michigan Avenue, now he owns a business in Rogers Park--are typical enough to merit coverage. And non-threatening enough.
But there were other reasons for my being an interview subject. Work at the Seed, a paper Leahy himself recalls as "a wonderful publication." Organizational involvement in 1968, including the oft-quoted open letter and the rift that followed. Residence and media work in Chicago for most of the time since then, including a book on the underground press and the '60s. I'm in the clip files, and some reporters are my colleagues. I "give good quote" and know what a sound bite is. Mass media do anoint spokesmen. Andy Warhol was wrong; you can be famous for 15 minutes twice, 20 years apart.
Interestingly, I really became a "source du jour" after the public relations department at Northwestern disseminated an article Crain's Chicago Business asked me to do on Chicago's changes since the '68 Convention. More than one easy-way-out reporter used it as a directory instead of finding his own sources. This resulted in higher profiles for not only Michael James but for my old police surveillance officer, both of whom I'd interviewed. And for me.
Even if the Big Chill is real, analyses that intrinsically write off "capitalist media" also keep Left activists out of the papers. The Left has become far inferior to the Right in portraying story lines and events for mass consumption. For all our mistakes, we Yippies knew how to do that.
"To give them credit, neither man seems to have chosen the mantle of great leaders," Leahy says. Thanks for noting that lesson of the '60s. In replying to reporters, I repeatedly mentioned that grassroots activism is alive, and brought in folks with different perspectives than my own to be interviewed. Whether or not Leahy's correct to think that "there must be several hundred people in Chicago who know very much more about what went on in those days," I hope that there's broad representation when it comes time for the Days of Rage and Killing of Fred Hampton and Kent State stories to be told.