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Pocketmags Digital Magazines
Pocketmags Digital Magazines

There’s a Riot Going On

1968 was a traumatic time, one defined by death, despair and demonstrations. Jon Savage dissects the key events that changed the world forever
Soviet tanks roll into Czechoslovakia to prevent the liberal reforms taking root there from spreading – one of many instances of authoritarianism clashing with activism in 1968

The high-resolution colour footage intercuts two marches: one of protestors, bearing slogans like “Bring the GIs home now” and chanting “Hell no, we won’t go”; the other of serried Chicago police ranks. Blank uniforms against a rag-tag army. They are bound to collide, and they meet on South Michigan Avenue, just to the west of Grant Park, where the police have been attempting to clear a demonstration by extreme force. The National Guard appears, followed by a Jeep. As national TV cameras rush past, the crowd chants, “The whole world is watching.”

It’s a bright summer day and the United States is igniting. Film director Haskell Wexler is shooting a feature – to be released the following year as Medium Cool – as a parable about the nature of mass media and its voyeurism. As an experienced cameraman, his nose for a story has brought him into the heart of the madness of this traumatic year. Inside the Democratic National Convention at Chicago’s International Amphitheatre, the mood is hot and raucous; on the streets, about a mile away, tensions are boiling over into random, vicious state violence. A police riot, no less.

A Chicago protester confronts the National Guard with an ode to police brutality during the Grant Park rally

Wexler captured both locations in his invaluable record of this key event in 20th-century American history, in what was already a dread year in the US. North Vietnam’s Tet Offensive of January 1968 was a serious reversal of Washington’s military self-image. The assassinations of Martin Luther King in April and Robert Kennedy in June tipped the nation into a spasm of violence. The brutal, ruthless suppression of student dissent in Chicago during that late August – reported and televised, like these other events, to a national audience – showed a country at war with its youth.

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About BBC History Revealed

At the dawn of the second century BC, two titans of the ancient world went to war: Macedon, the pre-eminent power of Ancient Greece, and Rome, then still an upstart republic. This is the complete story of a war that defined antiquity, where phalanx clashed with legion. Plus: Protest and turmoil ripples around the world in 1968; the split loyalties of Thomas More, the accident that made Frida Kahlo an artist, a glimpse inside the Titanic & more.