“The whole world is watching. The whole world is watching.”
If you know American history, or if you remember it, “The whole world is watching!” is the unforgettable chant shouted by thousands of young Vietnam War protesters as they were gassed and beaten with batons by Chicago police at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in August.
A quick recount: Insipid Vice President Hubert Humphrey was about to be named the Democratic presidential nominee, to run against Republican Richard Nixon.
The background: President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated five years earlier. His younger brother, Bobby, who was running against Humphrey for the Democratic nomination, had been assassinated two months before the Chicago convention. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in April, four months earlier.
I was 21 years old and I remember the despair of losing the leaders who inspired us to find the best in ourselves. They stood up for civil rights, opposed the Vietnam War, and then they disappeared. Shot down and killed.

The weekend before the convention, some 2,000 young people gathered in Chicago’s Grant Park to protest. By the time the convention began, the crowd had grown to 10,000 people. The police came to disperse the demonstration, and they were brutal.

The fallout: According to The Guardian newspaper, “After four days and nights of violence, 668 people were arrested, 425 protesters were treated in temporary medical facilities, 200 were treated on the spot, 400 received first aid for a tear gas exposure and 110 went to hospital. A total of 192 police officers were injured. . .

“. . . Footage of police firing tear gas and beating protesters with their batons was shown on network television news. It looked like an oppressive fascist state and offered a vision of a nation seemingly tearing itself apart.

The children never stopped shouting, “The whole world is watching them,” even when the police tore them apart. It has been said that the extensive media coverage of the violence, beaming into American homes, has helped to reflect on the overreaction and savagery of the police. It seems that the accounts continue to play out in our policies and in our communities, 54 years later.

In the 1968 presidential election, Nixon appealed to a “silent majority”. He promised a nation of voters panicked by protests that he would impose law and order. He won. Six years later, on the verge of being dismissed, he resigned in disgrace. The North Vietnamese had driven America out of their country.

Echoes: Last week, as I watched the January 6 committee hearing, I thought about the importance of the media in investigating and exposing alleged crimes committed by our 45th President and his enablers. Without intense journalistic engagement on Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021, we would not know what happened that day. This time the demonstrators bore arms and erected a portable gallows. This time the protesters wanted to overturn a fair election. These American citizens storming the Capitol were attacking the police.

Videos taken inside the Capitol hideout during the insurrection reveal the chaos and fear of the moment, with legally elected members of Congress fearing for their lives not far from a crowd gone mad. As we go to press, we are hearing promises of further violence from Trump supporters who refuse to accept the peaceful transfer of power, the holy grail of our democracy. Various groups are threatening ongoing disruption if the Justice Department and Congress try to hold Trump accountable for the alleged crimes.

The lines connecting 1968 and 2022 are troubling. For me, connection is my instinct. This is once again completely false. The children were then on the march, demanding peace. Today, extremists are threatening war. We lived then, and we live now, in a time of civil unrest.

After 1968 we entered a relatively calmer period of political life. But then came Trump, who found common ground with an angry and violent segment of Americans. The new spin on the MAGA community, and Trump himself, is increasingly overt racism and anti-Semitism. What was never OK to say is slowly becoming OK in some radical groups. The swastika and the Nazi salute are again useful, on the sidelines.

In 1968, we were deeply hurt and disillusioned by the successive assassinations of our leaders. We dreamed of peace and equality. As young idealists, we couldn’t bear that this was how our dreams would die.

Today, the dynamic is more toxic. The demonstrators are those who have weapons. Their dream is absolute power. Their leader has degraded the office of the presidency and he just won’t go.

We are suspended in time, and the whole world is watching us.

Copyright 2022 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be contacted at [email protected]