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Downtown Chicago, Then and Now

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Watching the amazing images of President-elect Barack Obama addressing that huge crowd in Chicago's Grant Park on Tuesday night, my mind flipped back to a very different set of television pictures, which were broadcast live from just a few blocks away.

It was August 1968. I was only 13 years old but already paying close attention to the news. That year’s Democratic National Convention was taking place in my home town of Chicago, and activists protesting the Vietnam War were determined to make their voices heard. The city’s iron-fisted mayor, Richard Daley, was equally determined to keep things orderly.

His aggressive stance resulted in what a later commission called ‘a police riot.’ Bands of officers clubbed the demonstrators and sprayed mace on anyone in the vicinity. The three television networks — our only source for broadcast news in those days —showed it all live, with anchors such as CBS’s Walter Cronkite expressing their shock and disapproval.

Last night in Grant Park, less than a mile from that location, a peaceful revolution unfolded. This time, the anchors were expressing something approaching awe, as they grasped the symbolic significance of the scene. The images were a visual representation of the emergence of a new America — more diverse, more tolerant, more willing to think in terms of the greater good.

Much has been written about the excesses of the 1960s radicals, and the backlash of conservative rule that lasted from Ronald Reagan through George W. Bush. But last night’s images are a reminder that the most important ideas they fought for —opposition to an ill-conceived war, equality for women and minorities, economic opportunity and political justice for all — have now been embraced by a majority of Americans.

The descendents of those angry white cops, who correctly sensed that their grip on power was being challenged, made up the hateful fringe element at the McCain/Palin rallies. But they comprise a dwindling percentage of the population, and they are no longer in charge.