Chicago's NPR News Source

Lessons From 1968 Convention Live on for One-Time Student Protester

Lessons From 1968 Convention Live on for One-Time Student Protester

Lee Schreiner (WBEZ/Tony Arnold)

Today, we continue our series on Chicago's 1968 Democratic national convention, from a variety of vantage points. Yesterday, we heard from a retired Chicago police officer who did battle with protesters in Grant Park. Now, we hear from one of those young protesters, whose life was changed by what he experienced on the streets of Chicago.

The way Lee Schreiner tells it, he went from college student

SCHREINER: Yip, yip, yippie!

To teacher and entrepreneur

SCHREINER: We have the largest independent fair trade store I think in the Midwest.

By way of the streets outside the Democratic Convention in 1968. He says that's where he decided not just to talk about ideas like peace and fairness, but to try to live by them.

SCHREINER: It's really the way all trade should be, is that people are given a decent wage, that we're not violating the environment. It's a win-win for everybody.

Schreiner opened this fair trade store three years ago in Rockford, where he lives. He shows it off like it's his pride and joy.

SCHREINER: Antiques and collectibles!
The store connects to a small art gallery, which serves as a gathering place. Groups like the Green Party and Holistic Moms meet here. Schreiner says everything about the store is intentional. From its products to its all-volunteer staff to its location in this north central Illinois city. Just Goods, as its called, sits in a rough part of Rockford that's known more for its crime than its thriving business district.

SCHREINER: We call it consumerism with a conscience.

Schreiner says he had to fight city hall and lots of skeptics to open the store in this location.

SCHREINER: They said no one will come and of course they have.

Lee Schreiner says he thinks a lot of his sense of determination stemmed from his experiences as a college student at the '68 convention.

SCHREINER: We got into Chicago and we wanted to make our views on the war and we thought that we could make a difference.

Schreiner had wrapped up his freshman year at Northern Illinois University, when the August convention hit town. He had a summer job in northwest suburban Des Plaines and would commute into the city in the evenings to join other protesters.

SCHREINER: I think we came pretty idealistic.

And they were pretty young. He says that came through in how the students acted.

SCHREINER: We were protesting the war but we were also going to have fun and they brought in a pig and nominated him for president. That's president of the made-up Youth International Party, or, YIP, for short.

SCHREINER: Yip, yip, yippie!

But Schreiner says it wasn't long before he got a reality check.

SCHREINER: When I saw a machine gun, a full .50 caliber machine gun set up on a street corner and young people my age in the National Guard...

Schreiner approached them.

SCHREINER: I said, 'Crowd control with a machine gun. Is that the America that you're here to support? Is that what we're here about?'

Schreiner says he was able to avoid most of the violence that eventually erupted, but sometimes, it found him. He recalls waiting for a bus near Lincoln Park, just outside of the Chicago History Museum. He says he had short hair at the time, but the guy standing next to him didn't. And that drew the eye of the Chicago police.

SCHREINER: As I remember, I was sort of stunned. He just, he was knocked unconscious; head split open, knocked unconscious. I think I just took off running. Schreiner says all the protests and riots and violence: it got to him.

SCHREINER: Things really changed dramatically after Chicago because I think it convinced a lot of people that just voting wasn't going to be enough, that just waiting for the political process, we were going to have to do more to push that process along.

In the short term, Schreiner says, that meant he grew his hair long, wore clothes he describes as counter-culture, and organized protests at his college, sometimes blocking critical streets in town. In the long term, Schreiner says he's still an activist. Forty years later, his hair is short again and he teaches high school physics for a career. And he spends his free time trying to raise money to build a wind turbine on the top of his fair trade store.

Music Button: Bob Dylan, “It's Alright Ma…I'm Only Bleeding”, from the CD Bringing It All Back Home, (Columbia records)

More From This Show