You can file American Revolution 2 in the Past-Is-Another-Country-Department... and this documentary will show you that they really do things differently there.
The Riot Act
- Liner notes with timeline
The time is the summer of 1968 and the place is Chicago, site of the Democratic National Convention. Thousands of people had come to the city to protest the Vietnam War which by that time had claimed the lives of over 20,000 American soldiers ... about half of the total before the U.S. would leave Vietnam.
Confronting the demonstrators was Mayor Richard Daley who was determined to keep them away from the convention. On August 28th there was what was later called a “police riot” as the cops swept Grant Park clear of the protesters. Filmmaker Mike Gray took his crew there and caught the end of the riot and ensuing confusion and political turmoil on film. He later brought Howard Alk in to edit the footage.
Today it’s hard to understand the novelty of that riot or the impact on the public. Civil disobedience by whites on that scale had not been seen in the U.S. since the Bonus Army marched on Washington in 1932 or in 1937 when (tellingly) Chicago police fired on the Republic Steel strikers. (Since December 7th, 1941, the military had been immune to criticism of any kind. Indeed there had been a military draft since 1940 that had continued for 28 years after World War II had ended.) The fact that it was caught on film and seen on TV made it all the more amazing. Seeing cops beat up white people was then a shocking thing, and both sides of the argument knew that some kind of line had been crossed and that we were all now in new territory.
Panthers and Patriots
I had expected to see more footage shot at the riot. The footage includes scenes of confusion, people yelling and cops pushing and beating them. It’s a pretty messy affair — like a riot or battle really is — and not the orderly retelling of the story like you might find in a history book.
Suddenly the riot is over but the film pushes on to what amounts to a second story about leftist political activity in Chicago. Here we see the Chicago branch of the Black Panthers and a like minded group of poor southern whites calling themselves The Young Patriots. I had never heard of them before. The closest thing that I could relate them to would be the Students for a Democratic Society except those guys were, by comparison, rich northern college kids. It’s interesting that the Black Panthers made such a big splash and the Young Patriots sank without leaving a ripple. Is it possible that the Panthers represented no serious threat to the established order of things and perhaps served a useful purpose in blunting the gains of the Civil Rights movement while the Young Patriots actually might have made some trouble if more poor white kids had heard about them? Who knows?
Director Alk’s style is so bare bones that it’s one step away from uncut raw footage... and I wonder about that. Seen today, it seems not quite complete... a work in progress. But at the time, just seeing the pictures was enough to capture the audience’s attention. It was as if mere words were insufficient. It had to be seen to be believed. The audience then would have known who was who and what was going on. Yet for many in today’s audience the “68 Chicago riot is probably as obscure as Antietam.
I think this reissue of American Revolution 2 could benefit from a facelift... maybe title cards explaining time and location of the scenes. And yet had Alk at that time added some kind of narrative it would no doubt have become embarrassingly dated by now. As it is, it’s a clean resource for historians but not much of a historical documentary.
American Revolution 2 is also the first of a pair of documentaries by Alk set in Chicago in the late 1960s. The other is The Murder of Fred Hampton. If you see this one, you should see the other as well.
Yes, the past is another country and yes, they do things differently there. But it’s also true that those who do not know the past are doomed to repeat it. Unpopular wars and ham-handed official response to protest are still current. American Revolution 2 is a definite historical artifact that deserves a newer and wider audience. It is a fascinating look into the past but you’ll have to bring your own interpretations with you when you come here.
Picture and Sound
This DVD is pretty rough on both counts, which at the time signified “genuine’. It is what it is. Nevertheless, the DVD seems to have been made from a very clean print.
How to Use this DVD
You will have to brush up on your American History to make any sense of this documentary. Included in this DVD is a very useful print booklet with a timeline broken down in some cases to minutes and hours. Unless you were there, you probably can’t tell the players without your program. Be sure to also watch the extra feature The Organizer. ‘68 Chicago may be history for some folks but not Bobby Lee.