THE SIEGE OF CHICAGO
Do I Remember the ’68 DNC Riots? Dude, I Played Them
The writer was the lead guitarist of MC5, which played for the protesters in Lincoln Park. He once thought that five decades later, we’d be farther along.
Fifty years ago, on August 25th, my band the MC5 and I rolled up to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, plugged our amps into an outlet borrowed from the nearest hot dog vendor, and proceeded to rock the lawn in Lincoln Park, scene of the 1968 riots. I was 20 years old.
That day began like many outdoor concerts I played back then, with the exception of the tension in the air. I was happy to be there and looking forward to rocking the crowd. It was an overcast but not unpleasant summer day. As we were setting up, the vibe took a turn for the worse when fights erupted in the crowd. Well, not really fights—a kid would get punched out by a couple of guys with short hair in fatigue jackets. After two or three of these, I knew they were agents provocateurs.
When we started our set the kids were sitting on the ground and their faces were grim. Not the usual happy, smiling rock concert expressions. I had consumed some hashish brownies before we played and was pleasantly stoned as we blasted through our tunes. The music was enough to change the vibe and everyone was enjoying the event. We rocked. The rotor sound from the Chicago police helicopter that lowered itself right over us blended in perfectly with our 100-watt Marshall amps, much to my delight.
We finished our show without incident but then the shit started hitting the fan. The crowd wasn’t focused on us any longer and turned to the police who had been provoking them with violence all day. It was on. The cops made sweeps through the crowd busting heads with nightsticks. Back and forth, back and forth. We packed our gear up and headed back to Detroit.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: You can see long-lost and now found footage of MC5 playing at the Chicago demonstrations here.]
Fifty years is a lot of years. Down here at the human level, it feels like a long time. Not only in years past and mileage accrued, but also measured in changes sustained. Progress made and lost. These 50 years have brought striking political and cultural upheaval across our little blue orb in ways that have been both thrilling and unimaginable.
If you had asked me back then what things would be like 50 years into the future, I would have radically overshot the mark. With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, it’s abundantly clear that I, along with many of my generation, were youthfully naïve.
I remember thinking that if we do make it through the next 20 or 30 years without reducing the planet to a nuclear cinder, we would be past the worst crises in human history and actually carry on to a beautiful, utopian, creative existence. If we made it that far we would have such gratitude that we would surely turn to solve the big-ticket challenges: disease, hunger, racism, and injustice.
But I grew to become deeply cynical about making it through that next quarter century. Over time, the dream faded into the background while I, along with millions of other Americans, fell victim to the single biggest failure of American domestic policy: the war on drugs. I collapsed into the trap the politicians of both parties skillfully constructed over the post-Watergate years.
From the 1920s to the late 1960s, prison populations and crime levels were stable, but then the “law and order” meme was unleashed by Richard Nixon and, by the 1990s, prison populations in America skyrocketed. We have 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners here in the United States; an appalling distinction that makes us number one. With 2.3 million prisoners, we win! U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A.
Standing there in Lincoln Park, defiantly, guitar-as-weapon in hand, I had faith that our action was going to hold power. What I didn’t know was how quickly the music would be enveloped by violence. Most events in Chicago that week have been well documented and, occasionally, I read mention of the MC5 as the only band to perform there.
Given the monumental issues that emerged during that week of hyper violence by Chicago police that shocked the nation on nightly network news broadcasts—Vietnam, the draft, civil rights—a radical rock band showing up to play was likely a negligible fact at the time. “The whole world is watching…” was the protesters’ cry. Today, the world is still watching, and I’m still sure of one thing: that those in authority learned one lesson very well: control the news.
Fifty years down, and things are looking increasingly dark for our country. Evidenced in the fact that we have yet another criminal operation in the White House subverting the American dream for its own profit, a fact that brings it all back home. People are being hurt and will continue to be hurt even worse as this aberration of a presidency runs its course.
Five decades later we are enduring a terrible distraction to the ongoing business of civilization building, but I still have faith. I have faith in the youth of America and in people of good conscience and in the fundamental sense of fairness, decency, and honesty we share. As skeptical as I may be, I will fight my cynicism.
Clearly we’ll have to work for a better future, but even at 70 years old, I see that the opportunity is there for the taking. I’m still going with the future being a brighter day, but ask me in another 50 years.
Wayne Kramer, leader of Detroit’s incendiary rock band the MC5, worked for racial and economic equality during the Vietnam War and was a target of the FBI’s counter-intelligence program. After serving a federal prison term, he released ten solo albums and was named by Rolling Stone as one of the top 100 guitarists of all time. He’s the author of the memoir The Hard Stuff.