From the first major confrontation between police and demonstrators on Sunday night, August 25, 1968, self-serving assertions of what happened in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention have roiled over people’s memories like the tear gas rolling over Lincoln Park and the Loop.
The conventional wisdom is that the violence was a “police riot”–that police officers provoked by the demonstrators’ thrown bottles and nasty language individually and collectively lost control of themselves. But this was certainly not the city’s view, as expressed in Mayor Daley’s white-paper report “Strategy of Confrontation” a couple of weeks after the convention. Nor was it the view of the demonstrators immediately afterward. The first and clearest impression of all concerned was that the police were acting under orders and with the encouragement of department and city superiors. Throughout convention week, any time you asked the police in the streets and parks why they were doing what they were doing, they would answer, sometimes through clenched teeth, “I’ve got my orders, buddy!” And white-shirted policemen–meaning lieutenants and captains and higher ranks–were always visible near the triggering conflicts.
The widely accepted myth of a police riot was established chiefly with the rushed publication of Rights in Conflict, otherwise known as the Walker Report, in December 1968. Daniel Walker and his right-hand man Victor deGrazia headed the Chicago Study Team of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. Their police riot concept–which shifted culpability away from Mayor Daley, the city of Chicago, the Democratic party, and upper-echelon police commanders to the cops and demonstrators in the streets–was very useful to Democrats in Illinois and across the nation.
Because of convention-week events, liberal Democrats, important for the leverage they wielded in Chicago and national politics, were severely disaffected from the Democratic party as represented by Richard J. Daley, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and others identified with the party’s center. Dan Walker, a moderately liberal Democrat who wanted to run for governor, did not need a weatherman to tell him that his chances for election were bleak if the polarization persisted. He needed at least the acquiescence of Mayor Daley and the work and votes of the liberals; and he needed the mayor and the liberals to tolerate each other sufficiently for the task at hand. Walker and deGrazia (who later served as Walker’s campaign manager) approached the evidence of convention week as lawyers who needed to develop a plausible case. Their police riot concept got Mayor Daley off the hook, brought most of the liberals confusedly back into the party, and helped Walker win the governorship of Illinois in 1972.
Christopher Chandler, then a Chicago Sun-Times reporter directly familiar with the events of convention week, characterized the Walker Report in the Chicago Journalism Review as “the most amazing example of dodging the major issues that has been produced in the long history of middle-of-the-road committee studies.” Since then, authors involved in the radical movements of the 60s have occasionally asserted, albeit without mounting any decisive argument, that the police acted under Mayor Daley’s command. Hans Koning comments nicely in his book Nineteen Sixty-Eight: “I’d seen ‘police riots’ before, but they don’t repeat in the same way day after day.” But 20 years later, the police riot explanation and the early stances taken by the police and by the city’s “Strategy of Confrontation” are echoed again and again in retrospectives of the 60s; in some cases, the police riot theory is even presented as the radical view. It has now been perpetuated by author David Farber, in his recently issued Chicago ’68 (University of Chicago Press).
I reported on the convention for Evergreen Review, following closely the street, park, and many convention actions in the International Amphitheatre for ten days and nights starting the week before the convention. “Past fright, past exhilaration, past terror, past awe, past exhaustion, everything that happened that week in Chicago had a rightness about it. It came and went so fast that we who shared and witnessed may lose that sense of it.” Those were the first lines of my book No One Was Killed. You could feel the crazy destiny in the air when you crossed Clark Street into Lincoln Park or Michigan Avenue into Grant Park. I don’t want to lose touch with that sense of dramatic inevitability. Here I propose to look at the events of that fateful week, and especially at the sequence of action in each of several violent incidents–as Hemingway advised a writer to do when seeking the truth of things in action. My aim is to show that when the police went away, the “problem” went away; when the police moved to thwart the demonstrators’ attempts to protest the war or sleep in the park, the “problem” developed acutely. What happened in Chicago during the last week of August 1968 was not a police riot. The result was chaos, but the cause was a premeditated disposition to subdue protest by whatever means necessary–a planned offensive.
In April 1968, after the black west-side riot triggered by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Mayor Daley made public his famous shoot-to-kill-arsonists-and-shoot-to-maim-looters order. Because of its timing, many people wondered if the order actually was issued in anticipation of antiwar demonstrations during Daley’s most sought-after prize, the Democratic Convention in August. After the west-side riot, a curtain came down between the public and the city’s decision-making processes, and the city adopted a seemingly cavalier, intransigent pattern of denying demonstration permits and taking hostile actions against antiwar groups. For a peace march held on April 27, about three weeks after King’s death, the city allowed marchers to proceed only on sidewalks, pausing at intersections for stoplights, before doing a turn around the Civic Center; there they were attacked by the police, clubbed and maced. Police later said that the marchers broke through a ribbon, marking off an area of the Civic Center Plaza. I was on that march and it was obedient to the restrictions. Years later, a former policeman told Abe Peck that each officer there had orders to arrest peace marchers that day, arbitrarily.
That August, Peck, then editor of the Chicago-based underground newspaper the Seed, published a statement warning of a convention-week bloodbath in Chicago. Other underground and left newspapers (and Eugene McCarthy headquarters, too) warned away what might have been tens of thousands of protesters, many of whom may have been more moderate than the ones who came. The National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam (the “Mobe”) attempted to get an injunction forcing the city to allow permits for marches, assemblies, and sleeping in the parks, but was denied on August 21 by U.S. district judge William Lynch, Mayor Daley’s former law partner.
The Walker Report states that after this point, “there was no longer any ‘permit controversy,’ and there was no permit,” in a strongly placed single sentence at the end of a chapter on permit negotiations. In fact, because the city had a reputation for stalling on permits, the demonstrators held out hope until the last minute that the city would permit their marches and assemblies. (For example, the permit of the one legally permitted rally of the week–Wednesday afternoon, August 28, in Grant Park–was issued only the day before, something that is acknowledged but buried in the Walker Report.)
The city’s obstructionism continued up to Sunday, August 25. On Saturday the 24th, Abbie Hoffman, the media-anointed leader of the Yippies, and Tom Hayden of the Mobe (these were the two major groups behind the demonstrations) were quoted as saying: “My God, there’s no one here!”
Thus the stage was turned over at the beginning of convention week to perhaps no more than 2,000 protesters in and around Lincoln Park on Sunday night, August 25. They confronted a hostile police force that possessed not only obvious firearms and other weapons, but the great advantage of hidden guidelines for what they would do with those weapons–plus a remarkably numerous penetration of the demonstrators by undercover and plainclothes agents. (According to a report by CBS, Army Intelligence sources claimed that one demonstrator in six that week was an agent.) The crowds were smallest on Sunday night, when the police began their concerted effort in Lincoln Park to wipe the stage clean of dissent, and larger every night and day after that, as the police tried harder to carry out their impossible orders.
The issues over the permits were played out every night from August 25 to August 30. The city’s position was that the parks were to be closed every night at 11 PM, according to an ordinance that was so rarely enforced that Lincoln Parkers were taken aback when signs announcing the curfew began appearing the week before the convention. Throughout the day and evening up to the curfew on Sunday, August 25, the Chicago police acted violently, riding three-wheelers back and forth to terrify the audience at an afternoon music festival and clubbing demonstrators in occasional forays. Most of the demonstrators’ initiatives to confront the police came not from outsiders, already persuaded of the city’s violent hostility to antiwar demonstrations, but from Chicagoans with little experience in demonstrations. “Police riot” and established authorities’ accounts of these very first scenes differ pointedly from the testimony of eyewitnesses.
In dealing with a clash before the 11 PM curfew, David Farber in Chicago ’68, carefully supporting the police riot concept, says “a police squad that had decided to form a skirmish line around the park bathrooms became surrounded by angry, taunting young people. . . . For a few minutes, the policemen just stood there and took it. Then suddenly they charged out, smashing everybody they could reach.” But consider 18th Police District Commander Clarence Braasch’s startling testimony at the subsequent conspiracy trial (U.S. v. David Dellinger and Others), based on Braasch’s earlier testimony to Walker Report investigators. (This testimony, incidentally, did not appear in the published Walker Report.) Braasch said that on Sunday night he came up to a group of police encircled by demonstrators near the Lincoln Park field house and asked the sergeant in charge, “What’s the problem?” The sergeant gestured at the encircling demonstrators and said, “Well, this is it.” Braasch said, “Then there is no problem. You can march your men out of here.” And he said the same to another group of police. And the police marched away and the “problem” went away. Throughout convention week, whenever I saw the police disengage and go away, the “problem” went away.
Though Farber in Chicago ’68, and with him various newspaper retrospectives and TV specials, make the scene in Lincoln Park on Sunday night seem duly chaotic, they give only skipping attention to the extraordinary ad hoc process through which the conventional media-appointed Mobe and Yippie “leaders” (such as Tom Hayden, John Froines, Rennie Davis, Wolfe Lowenthal, Stewart Albert, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Paul Krassner, and their representatives, the parade marshals of the Mobe) were “overthrown” by native Chicagoans. There was dread in the excitement, and in the beat of the drums, among the scattered groups of protesters in the darkness under the trees in Lincoln Park. Dean Johnson, a Native American hippie who had evidently come to Chicago for the convention, had been shot and killed by police in Old Town on Thursday, August 22; whether or not the incident had anything directly to do with convention-week proceedings, it fed the fears of those gathered in the park on Sunday night. Allen Ginsberg was oming with one small group of protesters. In other caucusing groups, the parade marshals, the Yippies, and people new these past few days to demonstrations were debating heatedly about whether protesters should stay in the park after 11 PM and confront the police. The marshals were urging them to leave the park at the curfew and go to the streets, arguing that they should wait until Wednesday night, nomination night at the convention, for principled confrontation. Younger and older people, all from Chicago–Lincoln Park locals and “greasers” from Uptown and Belmont-Cicero–shouted and heckled against the marshals and began to play upon the fears and courage of the crowd. The city, its police poised along Cannon Drive a couple of hundred yards from the demonstrators, apparently sought confrontation on Sunday in order to undercut the Mobe’s plans for big demonstrations on Wednesday night.
A tall, slim Chicago actor and a taunting boy with a Vietcong flag–he was 14 years old, “big for my age” he told me–found each other in a film camera’s floodlights. The actor had been taunting the Yippies in various parts of the park for being cowards, and the boy had been in the main caucusing group yelling “Fuck the marshals! Up the marshals!” Now the marshals were trying to pull him down from someone’s shoulders, yelling “This is suicide!” The self-styled 14-year-old turned the marshals’ cautionary cry of “Back to the streets” into the more militant “Onto the streets.” The crowd, ambivalent in the darkness of the park, took up the cry and drifted toward the lighted streets on Clark, LaSalle, and North Avenue. One group of a few hundred headed through the Gold Coast to meet the police at the Michigan Avenue bridge, but the main part of the crowd piled up at the Clark-LaSalle border of Lincoln Park. The boy and the actor, joined by others, goaded the demonstrators until, coming to a pitch of enthusiasm, they spilled back into the park.
How many undercover agents were among these few hundred?
Now came the crucial confrontation of that night: a skirmish line of police came to meet the demonstrators along the sidewalk that runs at the foot of the east embankment of Stockton.
What was so striking about the meeting of police and the demonstrators was the formality, the pause before the mayhem–as if everyone were awaiting a signal. The Walker Report asserts that before the police moved forward, news photographers’ “strobe lights blinded police officers, who simultaneously were pelted with several rocks and bottles.” I was no more than 20 feet away from this breakthrough point, and neighborhood friends of mine and newsmen were up and down the line. I did not see any objects thrown and neither did they. The demonstrators were insisting by their presence on their right to stay and sleep in the park after 11 PM (a few had lain down and wrapped themselves futilely in blankets). The police, ordered to clear the park, moved forward in a rush, first shoving, then clubbing in several directions.
David Farber writes in Chicago ’68, “Then, suddenly, the police moved forward, some screaming, ‘Get the fuck out of here.’ A police captain tried to restrain his men” and “raised his own club to one of his men who was threatening a photographer. But he had lost control.” Earlier Farber has quoted a police lieutenant as saying that the park would be cleared by “whatever means are necessary. . . . This isn’t New York, this is Chicago.” Yet at the crucial moment, the police captain “lost control,” and the suggestion is that control had been lost for the entire week to come. The notion that the police somehow went out of control and rioted, ritually, after each 11 PM curfew in Lincoln Park, when the moon was at a certain point above the trees, and then in Grant Park and around the Hilton, tries one’s patience as well as one’s credulity and rather cavalierly dismisses the loyalty, training, and intelligence of the cops in the street, the context within which their rage erupted.
I saw policemen violently club anyone within reach. When news photographers got pictures, the police smashed the cameras with their clubs. “He got my lens!” When other newsmen and I tried to get the name of a policeman who did a particularly awful beating, we saw he had no name tag or star, and more policemen without name tags crowded around their colleague and hustled him away. Police in white shirts, lieutenants or captains, were nearby. Throughout convention week, white-shirted commanders occasionally tried to pull away cops who were wildly beating demonstrators; in a well-known incident that occurred on Wednesday in front of the Hilton, Deputy Superintendent James Rochford did so, and was heard yelling to officers, “Stop it! For Christ’s sake, stop it!” But such actions did not suggest to me that the police force as a whole was rioting out of control; rather I was put in mind of officers in combat pulling enraged soldiers off an already subdued army. (In Rochford’s case, it may also be significant that TV cameras were nearby and he knew it.)
The demonstrators fled across Stockton Drive and the parking lot between Stockton and Clark Street, the pitch of violence dying, the police slowing. Then several of the demonstrators waved each other back toward the police, and the cops rushed clubbing after them.
At Clark Street, the demonstrators chanted “Red rover, red rover, send Daley right over!” After a few minutes, the police crossed through the melee of traffic, the din of horns, and lined up on the west side of Clark Street, outside curfew territory. They were moving at the behest of those orders they kept talking about. For a moment, these 40 or 50 cops stood with their legs spread, their batons held with both hands across their thighs. They faced an excited but generally peaceable crowd that included many Lincoln Park citizens and other bystanders. Then they rushed, shoving, clubbing in every direction. No status or manner of appearance or attitude made one less likely to be clubbed. News cameras were smashed here and there up and down the street. The first missiles were thrown by the demonstrators–beer cans, in high arcs, at the police. Farber credits the police with trying to keep traffic flowing, but the police attacks actually made the traffic jams many times worse. If ensuring the flow of traffic was their actual goal, the police had plenty of opportunity to see that their methods were massively counterproductive.
The demonstrators threw rocks, more rocks, a bottle or two, more bottles. Young people rolled cars into the side streets to block patrol cars. The traffic jam reached wildly north and south, and young demonstrators worked out in the traffic to get shocked drivers to honk in sympathy.
At Clark and Wisconsin, a few of the demonstration “leaders,” among them Tom Hayden and John Froines, stood on a doorstep balefully looking on the scene as if watching an electrical storm. “Beautiful, beautiful,” one muttered, but though they had helped to develop this politics of confrontation, they had also tried to stop what was now occurring, calling it “suicide.” A radio man stuck a mike up the steps for Hayden’s comment, but Hayden asked him to turn it off and said, “Man, what’s going on down there?” The “leaders”? The leaders were everywhere, the leaders were at your elbow, responding to the police and keeping the police responding.
The next night, August 26, another key incident occurred. A police car came up behind a barricade hastily improvised by demonstrators in Lincoln Park; it attempted to push through the arrangement of picnic tables and trash cans, and was stoned.
I was standing on a slight slope about 50 feet away. This gave me a view of the arc-shaped stage set, with its trash fires, chanting demonstrators, and rolling black flag, red flag, and Vietcong flag, illuminated by portable camera lights. The police were massed on Cannon Drive across a distance of 75 yards or so, and Fire Department light trucks behind them cast a white glare. The demonstrators’ chants of “Hell, no, we won’t go!” were aimed at the Vietnam war and the 11 PM curfew (it was now after midnight). About 120 yards to my right, by the Lincoln Park field house, I saw a small light like the dome light of a car go on and off, and a police car stopped there in the dark. The asphalt sidewalk sloped gently down from the field house through the center of the barricade toward Cannon Drive. There was no way that the two officers in the car could not have seen the bizarre, blazingly lit scene before them.
Lights out, the police car glided down the sidewalk toward the barricade. Easing through the jam of people, it pushed a young woman up against a trash can. To push through the barricade, it had to push through her, and there she was, about 18 years old, right on the car’s right front fender. She was screaming. Enraged demonstrators were stoning the car from bumper to bumper, and I saw that one young man, in his fury, had the driver of the car by the neck and was making a good attempt to pull him out of the car. I marveled that the cops in the car did not start shooting.
Somehow the driver backed the car up and lurched around the west side of the barricade, and somehow the two cops inside were not hurt. Police commanders and sergeants restrained their men from going to the aid of the trapped car. The police obeyed orders as a group at this point, though David Farber credits the police with saying that they were trained to act as individuals, not as a military group.
In Mayor Daley’s white paper “Strategy of Confrontation,” there is no mention of the police-car incident. The Walker Report, true to its police riot concept, attempted to establish a rationale for the incident, misplacing the demonstrators’ barricade by 60 yards to a position astride a sidewalk leading to the Garibaldi statue, where the action would not have been possible. Giving a deferential amount of space to police testimony at crucial points, it says: “At about 12:20 AM, a single squad car approached the people behind the barricade. The two officers in the car had encountered a traffic jam at the Eugenie Triangle en route to a call at Wisconsin and Lincoln avenues. They detoured through the park to reach their destination and proceeded north along a sidewalk leading up to the Garibaldi statue. The deputy chief leading the police in the park knew nothing about the car until he saw it approaching the barricade. The vehicle’s lights were turned off and it was traveling between 10 and 20 miles per hour.” The Walker Report also says: “There are accounts of an 18- or 19-year-old girl screaming hysterically as she was momentarily trapped between the right side of the car and the barricade.”
(The deputy chief of police is credited, by his own words, with “knowing” nothing of the squad car coming from behind the barricade, but there are merely “accounts” of the girl trapped against the barricade by the car.)
David Farber deals with the incident in one sentence: “At 12:20, after a police car had blundered into the barricade and had its windows shattered by barrages of rocks, the police attacked.”
If the squad car were merely taking a roundabout route to get to Wisconsin and Lincoln, why were its lights turned out? (Throughout convention week, lights were frequently turned out at night on squad cars and buses bearing police to an attack.) Why didn’t the two officers take any one of a number of other, better routes? If we are to believe the police and the Walker Report, they chose the absolutely worst way to get to Lincoln and Wisconsin–to drive over a curb at Stockton Drive, to this asphalt path leading them down to Cannon Drive, behind the zoo, where Cannon Drive is one-way going south.
The squad car incident contributed to the high pitch of street violence that night in the Lincoln Park area, probably the highest pitch of the week, with some cops shooting, supposedly into the air. At one point the police trapped a large number of bottle- and firecracker-throwing demonstrators among the cars and nearby gangways in a parking lot that led from LaSalle Street to Wells. I saw a portly police chief ease himself out of a chauffeured car on LaSalle, right on top of the action, come to watch or take command. The police drove newsmen away from the area. “Move!” I had just been rapped on the back of the head for declaring that I was a reporter. At a command, the cops moved into the parking lot with shotguns at ready. Were the police “rioting” or acting on orders? A loud report. Shotgun? Firecracker? Demonstrators, hastened by the butts of the shotguns, were brought dancing out from between the cars, one weeping in terror, “I’m coming, sir, I’m coming!” The police began sealing off streets in the four-block area, trapping demonstrators in it, lobbing tear-gas canisters into the area, then wading into it clubbing and beating anyone in front of them, using immediate punishment rather than arrest.
Downtown, meanwhile, there was relative order in Grant Park, in front of the Hilton, showing that when the police didn’t seek violence, there wasn’t any, despite the almost magnetic attraction to confrontation between police and some of the young demonstrators. On Monday night, the demonstrators dared the police to clear Grant Park at 11 PM the way they were clearing Lincoln Park. They threw a few rocks as the police moved in, and there was shoving, pushing, clubbing. The demonstrators made it quite clear that if the cops wanted to enforce the curfew, they would have to do under the windows of Eugene McCarthy’s and Hubert Humphrey’s suites and in view of thousands of convention delegates and reporters–what they’d done in Lincoln Park. The cops backed off, and this bit of Grant Park became known as the “liberated area,” where the antiwar protesters used their powerful portable speaker all night long to bombard the Hilton with political messages. And each night of the week here, a number of demonstrators did sleep in a Chicago park until dawn.
The Walker Report, Chicago ’68, and anniversary retrospectives do not mention the “liberated area.” Thus the “police riot” advocates avoid showing how well the police obeyed two very different sets of orders, one for Grant Park, one for Lincoln Park.
Farber notes that on Tuesday night, the Grant Park crowd numbered about 4,000 demonstrators and was relatively peaceful. This he associates with the presence of “clean-cut” McCarthy workers, McCarthy and Kennedy delegates to the convention, and older demonstrators arriving for the legal rally the next day. Actually, the McCarthy workers did not join the demonstrators in significant numbers until Wednesday night, when their candidate was formally defeated for the Democratic nomination. Farber does not recognize the dynamic interplay between the demonstrators in Lincoln Park and Grant Park. In fact, demonstrators funneling down the streets from Lincoln Park, after the police attacks started there, began swelling the numbers in Grant Park after 12:30. In the streets of Lincoln Park, demonstrators on small motorcycles passed the message: “The Hilton, the Hilton.” In other words, many of the relatively peaceful demonstrators downtown were the same people who had incited police to “riot” in Lincoln Park. Did they somehow decide to change their behavior on their way south? Or did the police in Grant Park have different orders from those in Lincoln Park?
On Tuesday night the city again permitted the crowd to sleep in Grant Park in front of the Hilton. Richard Elrod, then an assistant corporation counsel, told Jeff Lyon in a Chicago Tribune interview this summer, “It was my suggestion, and the mayor was contacted and he said ‘OK, let ’em stay.’ So we did change our philosophy in midstream.” Against occasional verbal provocation, against their own contemptuous rage, the police in Grant Park obeyed orders and did not attack the demonstrators, though tension was so taut you could strum it.
Finally, Tuesday night passed without violence in Grant Park because of the different attitude of Brigadier General Richard T. Dunn of the National Guard. The Guard marched into place with M-1s, fixed bayonets, and barbed-wire-protected jeeps and took over from the police at 3 AM. Farber tells us that the demonstrators, with their powerful sound system, drowned out Dunn’s attempts to announce reasonable proposals. Actually, when Dunn was unable to make himself heard with his bullhorn, the demonstrators jokingly asked him if he wanted to use their powerful system. He said, “All right, I’ll use your speaker” and came over to the demonstrators to do so, immediately putting forth an image of established authority that contrasted with that of the police and the city of Chicago.
However, many of the people in Grant Park were reluctant to see the energy and courage they’d won from direct confrontations in Lincoln Park wiled away so easily; Dunn was again drowned out. Finally he used the speaker on a police car to make his message heard, essentially that he agreed with the demonstrators that there should not be violence. There was none all night long.
On Wednesday afternoon the police and the National Guard faced a crowd of about 10,000 at the one legally permitted protest assembly of the week, in the band shell area at the south end of Grant Park. After this rally the demonstrators wanted to march to the Amphitheatre, where the convention was in session, but the city had denied permits for that. The police and Guard were ordered to contain and disperse the crowd northward, away from the Hilton, and to prevent any attempt to march south toward the Amphitheatre. The Secret Service had established Roosevelt Road as the absolute limit.
Lines of police and National Guardsmen contained the rally on three sides, along Columbus Drive, the Outer Drive, and the Field Museum, with at least a hundred yards between them and the crowd of demonstrators. The north end of the band shell area was left open. The rally began peacefully, with everyone–cop and demonstrator alike–in his place. But then, ominously, about 100 police came forward among trees on the western edge of the rally, near the flagpole. The demonstrators reacted with a marked gasp of fear and anger, their attention drawn to every movement of the police. A remarkable number of plainclothes cops, some of whom I recognized from Lincoln Park, many wearing dark glasses, moved provocatively through the crowd, bumping people and generally acting discourteously.
The demonstrators listened erratically to speech after speech from the band shell, they listened more closely to their radios, for news from the convention floor. Finally, at the Amphitheatre, a peace plank to the Democratic party platform, forced to discussion and a vote that afternoon by the McCarthy, McGovern, and Kennedy liberals, was rejected by the delegates, 1567 1/4 votes to 1041 3/4. At the rally there were cries of weeping anger, cries to lower the flag, lower it to half-mast, take it down, burn it, tear it up, leave it up–a confusion of cries.
Understanding the confusion, David Dellinger, pacifist leader of the Mobilization, called from the bandstand for the flag to be lowered to half-mast. A young long-haired fellow started lowering the flag, but before he could reveal which of the many cries he would follow, the police waded into the crowd, clubbing people and beating him unmercifully. In response, the demonstrators threw many things. I saw one fellow, in a rage, pick up an open newspaper and throw it. It came apart in midair. But the objects thrown never amounted to the rain of missiles reported by the Walker Report and recapitulated by virtually every TV special and newspaper retrospective and by David Farber in Chicago ’68.
After the initial police assault, a group of men, huskier than most Yippies or students, stepped out of the crowd almost like a weird color guard, rapidly lowering the flag and raising another object, a pair of slightly stuffed red leotards, or perhaps a long-sleeved T-shirt. Most of the people in the crowd felt shame and anger; lowering the flag to half-mast would have been enough. Never during convention week was there a stronger feeling of having witnessed the actions of undercover police. (Now we know that at least one undercover agent, Jerry Rubin’s bodyguard, one of the prosecution’s major witnesses in the conspiracy trial, was in this group.)
In evident response to this “incident,” uniformed police advanced on the rally in a small group, then a larger group, then made a concerted clubbing attack into the crowd. During a momentary withdrawal, a policeman hit by a piece of concrete limped away from his formation and cheers went up from the crowd. The police lobbed a smoke bomb or gas canister into the crowd, and a fellow with an oven glove on his hand threw it back at the police–more cheers. Then the nonviolent Mobe parade marshals formed an arms-locked line between the police and the demonstrators. About 30 police came in a wedge, clubbing through the people, and “objects”–which meant anything at hand, from paper flowers to pieces of brick–were thrown at the police. The cops spied Rennie Davis (Mobilization coordinator) attempting to hold the marshals together, and beat him so that he needed 13 stitches in his head. None of this violence would have happened if the police had stayed back in their containing lines.
The Walker Report says that the police wedge came toward the marshals “first in a relatively straight line. Then as the line of marshals broke in the face of the police advance, the officers waded into the crowd individually.” Who is served by this word “individually”? Why not leave it at exactly what happened: that “the officers waded into the crowd”? The Walker Report also captions the photos of this event with the word “individual” to describe the actions of the police, supporting the notion that the police were “rioting.” If the police moved into the crowd individually, all, or nearly all of them, moved into it individually, in a rough wedge formation, obeying the orders of a sergeant. It was no different from the way the police had acted concertedly and “individually” in Lincoln Park for three nights.
David Farber in Chicago ’68 does not mention the move of 100 police to a position close to the western edge of the crowd near the flagpole, or some of the previous provocative moves made by this group of police, but says of this new action: “A number of police reacted to the marshal formation by charging it. Under the direction of a sergeant, a group of approximately thirty enthusiastic police, clubs in hand, attacked in ‘a punitive assault.'” Thus this action is removed from its dynamic and trivialized, made to seem somewhat impromptu. Farber cites as his source on this incident U.S. v. David Dellinger and Others, which is to say police accounts. A historian should be very cautious in relying upon the adversarially pressured testimony of the conspiracy trial in regard to the facts bearing upon convention week.
When the rally was over, demonstrators formed up to march out of Grant Park and, they hoped, on to the Amphitheatre. There had been some disagreement over this tactic. David Dellinger had announced strongly that the march was to be nonviolent, but Tom Hayden and other leaders feared that a nonviolent march could easily be trapped; they advised demonstrators to take to the streets in a less organized fashion. In the end, however, the march went on. I saw the Mobe parade marshals move up and down the crowd forming eight abreast along Columbus Drive, checking the lines, rigorously excluding people carrying rocks or any other potentially dangerous objects. With the speed of cold glue and the fear of personal death, the march inched forward to meet the line of police across Columbus Drive in Grant Park.
The police either did not fear this obviously nonviolent march or wished to seize upon it as a way of wearing out and dispersing more of the crowd. It was announced over the sound system that the sergeant in charge had said he saw no reason why such a nonviolent march should not be allowed to continue, but he had to check with his commander. However, the answer from the police commander was no. In a small park building negotiations began between the Mobilization, represented by Sidney Peck and David Dellinger, and the police. The negotiations took a long time, long enough for answers to come from Mayor Daley at the Amphitheatre, where Daley’s frequent use of a telephone was noted by observers.
The march was stalled, and stalled, and stalled again. The answer, then, again, was no. The march broke up in frustration, fear, and anger.
From Roosevelt Road to Congress, National Guardsmen and police blocked the bridges over the IC tracks that led from Grant Park to Michigan Avenue and the Hilton Hotel, and used generally hostile urging, tear gas, clubbings, shovings, and beatings to drive the demonstrators northward. Twice on Wednesday afternoon I joined other reporters and Chicago citizens in raging at the police and the National Guard for what they were doing to people. You could not help it. The demonstrators, coughing and convulsed with CS gas (which has a vomiting agent mixed with tear gas), finally spilled over the Jackson Street bridge, left unguarded, down onto Michigan Avenue, where they happened to encounter the three mule-drawn wagons of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Poor People’s Campaign. Because the mule-train wagons had a permit, police on three-wheeler motorcycles were leading it. The first few demonstrators ran down the Jackson Street bridge to the wagons and jumped up and down with glee as they conferred with the drivers.
The blacks stood up on the three wagons and shouted for the mostly white antiwar demonstrators to join them. The police and the Walker Report say the mule train had a permit only to march around the Hilton and the Loop, but the impression given at the time was that this was a march with a permit to go to the Amphitheatre. The “Join us! Join us!” message was passed quickly back into Grant Park, and the demonstrators streamed joyfully across the Jackson Street bridge. In a few minutes the mule-drawn wagons were at the head of thousands of people moving down Michigan toward the Hilton, chanting with incredible energy, “We want peace!” And because this was a permitted march, police on foot and on three-wheeler motorcycles were leading it!
Here occurred one of the strangest, most wonderful, and most revealing events of convention week. The police were obeying a different set of orders now and the irony was perceived by everyone. Many of the police were laughing, and there was an unbelievable camaraderie and joking between demonstrators, cops on motorcycles and on foot, and the SCLC blacks. But other police, stepping backward about a hundred feet in front of the mule-train wagons, were grim.
The camaraderie between police and demonstrators is not reported by the Walker Report or David Farber or any of the newspaper or TV anniversary retrospectives (nor do they report the bantering and political discussion between a few police and demonstrators on Monday and Tuesday afternoons in Lincoln Park, which sometimes took an evil turn–“See you after 11, kid!”). The jubilance of the demonstrators was huge as they came to the fateful point of Michigan and Balbo, where police blocked their route, setting the stage for the infamous confrontation of that infamous week. We are left to marvel at the reasoning of the Secret Service and the police commanders, who so feared a march south that they blocked it at Michigan and Balbo–right there at the Hilton, on whose entrance canopies were mounted the only fixed TV cameras outside the Amphitheatre.
After much discussion, the mule-train wagons were separated from the mass of demonstrators by lines of police. The Walker Report and consequently David Farber tell us that the Reverend Ralph Abernathy feared for the safety of his group and asked the police to get his people and wagons out of there. Abernathy came to the conspiracy trial to testify for the defense in rebuttal of the police testimony–reportedly to the effect that it was the police that he was scared of–but he was not permitted by Judge Julius J. Hoffman to take the stand.
The Walker Report says that the mood of the crowd was “increasingly ugly” at this point. The mood of the crowd up to the point when it was pushed back from the mule train was joyful. Even the cops, telling us all to get up on the sidewalks, were courteous for the first time in several days and were largely obeyed, though the crowd was much too vast to be contained on the sidewalks. If we are to believe the Army Intelligence brag, there must have been nearly a thousand undercover agents present, helping to obstruct traffic. Other reporters say that there was a lot of “joking” between police and demonstrators at this corner.
The police say–the Walker Report gives several pages of space to police testimony at this point–that they were now pelted by missiles. If so, none of it happened within my sight. I was standing on the curb on the northwest corner of Michigan and Balbo, sometimes up on my toes, to get a view over the heads of the crowd. Anne Schultz, a McCarthy campaign worker who watched from the McCarthy suite on the 15th floor of the Hilton, with a wide view of the intersection, saw no missiles thrown. The Walker Report itself says finally: “The films fail to show any barrage of missiles at this time, although some may have been thrown.” Then, after devoting nearly six pages to mostly police testimony, the Walker Report declares, in one of its brief understatements, “The many films and video tapes of this time period present a picture which does not correspond completely with the police view.”
David Farber in Chicago ’68 does not cite the Walker Report’s caveats about the films not corresponding completely with the police view. TV specials and newspaper retrospectives treat the Michigan-Balbo “massacre” as a confusion of assaults between demonstrators and police, with objects thrown by demonstrators as starters. If you were not familiar with the escalating viciousness of park-and-street-fighting in Lincoln Park, the breakout of police violence against the demonstrators at Michigan-Balbo would probably seem like sudden mass police hysteria–without the shooting in the air that was occurring in Lincoln Park.
I left the crowd at this point, because its feeling was excited and joyful, to go into the newsroom in the basement of the Hilton to watch the convention on television. When I came up 20 minutes or so later, everything had changed. People were moving fast in the lobby of the Hilton. A media man bearing a canister of film ran right into me yelling, “I am going to get this on national TV!” Seventeen minutes of footage did get on TV-17 minutes of the most brutal, shocking news footage the nation would ever witness. Now, for certain, the whole world was watching.
What did the nation watch that evening? Was it a “police riot,” or an out-and-out effort to clear the streets, disperse the demonstrators, and prevent any march south of Roosevelt Road? There was footage of a young man flailing back at the police with his bare fists; there were accounts of a demonstrator, being “arrested,” trying to bite the ankle of the policeman, and of peace activist Sidney Peck falling upon police deputy superintendent James Rochford and yelling, “You’re the cause of this!” What sort of frustrated rage makes people take these risks against uniformed men with pistols on their hips, clubs and Mace in their hands, the orders of institutionalized power and the National Guard and CS gas behind them, the paraphernalia of brutal arrest nearby, and fury in their every move?
The police riot version asks us on the one hand to believe in a great many police losing control in patterns that repeat themselves throughout the week, and on the other hand to accept rather generally the police testimony for what they did, why they did it, and the provocations visited upon them by the demonstrators. Yet the police themselves, while acknowledging that a few officers may have been overly zealous, do not believe they were “out of control.”
For advocates of the police riot concept, the portrayal of Michigan-Balbo is regarded as crucial. If the Walker Report is read carefully at this point, it gives telling vignettes of police brutality, to be construed as examples of individual out-of-control police using unreasonable force. In his account of Michigan and Balbo, David Farber sounds his leitmotiv of “loss of control” yet once more: “At the very first, for a period of twenty or thirty seconds, all went smoothly. . . . Some policemen then proceeded with great discipline. Endlessly, they requested protesters to move onto the sidewalks. . . . But almost from the start, other policemen lost all control.” The reader is left to reconcile the connotations of such phrasings as “twenty or thirty seconds,” “endlessly,” “almost from the start,” and “lost all control.” Through Michigan-Balbo, Farber gives sentence-by-sentence justification of the police actions and the concept of “police riot.” Both Farber and the Walker Report ignore completely the testimony of Norman Mailer, who looked down from the 19th floor of the Hilton and reported (in Miami and the Siege of Chicago): “They [the cops] cut through the intersection . . . like a razor cutting a channel through a head of hair . . .” Anne Schultz, four floors below Mailer, saw lines of police, one, two, then three lines, moving east on Balbo at walking speed, then walking faster, and then simply charging into the crowd clubbing crazily, line after line of them. They were new to the scene and attacked the crowd in a way that trapped it, presumably to drive it into Grant Park and away from the major streets that led south of Roosevelt Road. Were they “provoked” by the demonstrators from a block away?
The Walker Report quotes an observer from the Los Angeles Police Department who, while crediting the police with having acted during the week with “restraint beyond reason,” said about the Michigan-Balbo affair: “There is no question but that many officers acted without restraint and exerted force beyond that necessary under the circumstances. The leadership at the point of conflict did little to prevent such conduct and the direct control of officers by first-line supervisors was virtually nonexistent.” He should have observed firsthand the even more violent, concerted police actions in Lincoln Park for three nights.
Suddenly demonstrators came dancing out of Grant Park into Michigan and formed into a march facing south, with a portable speaker in front of them. The demonstrators–there were many SDS here–joyfully threatened to march to the Amphitheatre, but their actual purpose was to make sure that the cops kept contact. At the beginning, they were singing “America, the Beautiful,” and the song swelled for a minute or so. With a brilliant use of distance and provocation–rocks, bottles, and firecrackers thrown toward police lines–they backed up north on Michigan, gaining the support of traffic stopped on the street and people crammed on the sidewalks.
Here, photographer Bill Hood encountered a young policeman who had gone to college with him. Hood told me, “He was very concerned for my safety. He hustled me behind the police lines, saying ‘I’ve been instructed to break cameras.'”
When the monitors of this northward march, displaying their ignorance of Chicago, turned the march from Michigan onto the blank dark chill of Jackson Street, the cops swiftly attacked, and the battles surged in scattered actions through the Loop. So it went for much of the night. Was it police rioting, as the Walker Report said? An effort to keep the streets clear for interstate commerce, as the prosecution argued in the conspiracy trial? Or was it a “show of strength,” as Richard Elrod later called it?
After the epochal confrontation at Michigan and Balbo, other incidents occurred that belie the conventional police riot theory, and betray subsequent attempts to establish it as the official history of events:
After midnight Wednesday, up in Lincoln Park, police made attacks along Clark Street and LaSalle that are remembered by neither TV specials nor newspaper articles nor the Walker Report nor Chicago ’68 nor the city’s “Strategy of Confrontation” report. I stood at Clark and Wells with several newsmen and watched as lines of National Guardsmen, black against the glare of Fire Department light trucks behind them, swept a park made empty by rumors that a policeman had been killed downtown. Then I was driving south on Clark Street back to the Hilton, following a CTA bus packed with police and driving with its lights out. A rock banged on the side of the bus, and the cry of “Pig!” came from the sidewalk.
A couple of blocks south, at the corner of LaSalle and Eugenie, the bus stopped near a mass of young people, tourists, and Lincoln Park bystanders, some of them taunting the Guardsmen and the police. The police came out of that bus as if shot from a gun and swung their clubs haymaker-style. To be young was to be a target. They chased and beat a group of white-coated medics, and a blond girl whom I heard screaming, “I’m leaving, sir, I’m leaving!” All up and down Clark and LaSalle streets police were bursting out of buses and squad cars to attack any young person on the streets, telling them to get out of town, even though many of them were suburbanites come to gawk at the action, their cars bearing Illinois license plates. The police were apparently punishing the young people for the 17 minutes of Michigan-Balbo TV time that had begun showing to the nation at about 9:30 that night. The National Guardsmen stood along the east side of Clark Street and the west edge of Lincoln Park and watched. Was this a “police riot” or a concerted assault? Were these busloads of police acting without orders?
On Thursday night, comedian-activist Dick Gregory led a march that was subjected to a massive gas attack from the National Guard. Chicago ’68 deals only summarily with it, thus avoiding some sticky matters of testimony concerning justification for the use of CS gas on so many thousands of white liberals (McCarthy, McGovern, Kennedy people) who just a few days before had regarded themselves as legitimate members of the Democratic party. Here the Walker Report again behaves oddly and characteristically; it speaks of “a group of 100” coming from the west on 18th Street and “pushing the Guards,” of objects “being thrown from the rooftops and windows of buildings,” and bottles and firecrackers being thrown. Then, “the Guardsmen put on gas masks and CS was hurled into the crowd.”
When I first read the Walker Report, I was pretty sure that the group of 100 coming from the west on 18th Street was a displacement in space and sequence, and an exaggeration of, a brief shower of rocks, bottles, pieces of board, and firecrackers that came from the narrow lot just north of 18th Street. I was standing there near the young men who threw those missiles, and I noted that their actions came in response to the gassing, not in advance of it; the Guardsmen on the east side of the street already had their gas masks on and were spraying gas. Here I saw a demonstrator lay a friendly hand on the arm of a would-be bottle thrower to restrain him, as often happened during convention week.
Early Friday, police attacked the McCarthy suite in the Hilton. David Farber splices one out-of-sequence sentence into his account of Wednesday’s Michigan-Balbo incident to deal with this attack, and the Walker Report carefully develops a reason for it: that objects–smoked fish among them–were dropped from a 15th-floor McCarthy room onto police on the sidewalks below. However, the police did not assault only the room singled out by binoculars as the source of the objects, but burst into rooms throughout the Hilton’s 15th floor and clubbed and manhandled the young McCarthy workers, telling them to get out of town. This suggests that the attack was political vengeance for the embarrassment inflicted by the liberals inside the Amphitheatre and by demonstrators on the streets of Chicago upon Mayor Daley and his city. One McCarthy worker I talked to was jerked out of bed and shoved onto the floor; he said he understood immediately and mumbled, “All right, all right, I’m going, I’m going, just let me get my bag.” On his way out, he saw a policeman in the lobby actually break his club over the head of another worker.
Testimony that the police were not merely overreacting to events, but were acting under the orders and encouragement of their superiors, became available in April 1969. The Walker Report had already been published, but this evidence has been available to all later writers and continues to be overlooked by advocates of the police riot concept. The documentation comes from the Confederation of Patrolmen, whose newsletter, in protesting the indictments brought against eight policemen in the spring of 1969 (they were all acquitted), stated: “Traditionally, we don’t pass the heat up in the ranks. However, the men WERE given DIRECT ORDERS in regard to the name tags and stars . . . they were GUARANTEED that NO MAN would be SUSPENDED for any action taken at the time of the riots . . . These suspensions are damn poor pay, for services rendered. We are greatly disappointed that NONE of the men who gave the orders . . . stepped forward to defend the patrolmen . . .” In addition, the COP newsletter advised patrolmen “to keep accurate notes of ‘controversial’ orders, such as date, time and content. Just in case you are suspended or indicted, you will be able to refresh your memory.”
So let’s assume that Mayor Daley did give orders to clear the parks and streets by whatever means necessary. Why would he do such a thing? It is probable that the orders that were passed down from his office to the police never existed in any written form. The portion of the mayor’s white paper, “Strategy of Confrontation,” that was scorned as the most absurd at the time, veritably sweaty with Daley’s desperate need for justification, was a passage that reiterated assertions Daley had made in a TV interview he demanded from Walter Cronkite on Thursday of convention week. This passage set forth “the police intelligence of schemes to assassinate Sen. Eugene McCarthy, Vice President Humphrey, Mayor Daley” and the “plan to murder a young female supporter of Sen. McCarthy and blame it on the police.” The report explained that the police had not wanted to “publicize these plots and rumors of plots for fear of planting the idea in still other minds.”
Now, with the ongoing revelations of the Freedom of Information Act, it appears that Mayor Daley did have such reports on his desk and in his mind. Where did they come from? Under the Freedom of Information Act, Jerry Rubin received several boxes of FBI records concerning himself, his activities, and the ’68 convention. Stewart Albert (unindicted coconspirator in the conspiracy trial and coeditor with Judith Albert of The Sixties Papers) has examined this host of FBI memoranda and has found reports of assassination “schemes.” (In the week before the convention, leaders of the Blackstone Rangers testified before a federal grand jury about assassination plots allegedly originating in their organization. The Rangers denied any knowledge of such plots but were asked to leave town anyway during the convention. They did, but came back Monday, August 26, when it became obvious no violence would erupt in the black areas.)
Yet FBI reports of these schemes never surfaced in the conspiracy trial of seven demonstration leaders–a “show trial” that J. Edgar Hoover actively sought. The three major undercover agents who testified at the trial, Robert Pierson, William Frapolly, and Irwin Bock, as primed as they were, made no reference to having heard of assassination “schemes,” nor did any other official who testified, FBI or otherwise. So where did these reports come from?
The FBI’s COINTELPRO (counterintelligence project) against the New Left–exposed in the mid-70s–was established in the spring of 1968 and used procedures previously tested against various other political groups, including the black civil rights movement in the south. COINTELPRO used illegal means to “disrupt and otherwise neutralize” suspect groups and persons; these means included anonymous letters, dissemination of derogatory information, break-ins, and the massive infiltration of targeted groups by COINTELPRO operators. “Be alert for opportunities to confuse and disrupt New Left activities by misinformation,” J. Edgar Hoover urged in a memo to subordinates.
Hoover wanted agents assigned to COINTELPRO who were familiar with the New Left. The program, he wrote, must be approached “with imagination and enthusiasm if it is to be successful.” (The quotes, from FBI memoranda, come from Spying on Americans by Athan Theoharis. As Theoharis observes, if Hoover had not required the written proposal and approval and the close monitoring of COINTELPRO programs, we would not know as much as we now know about them.)
Richard Elrod told the Tribune’s Jeff Lyon: “Soon after that [the west-side King riots] intelligence started coming in about what was going to happen during the convention. Some of it could be discounted, like poisoning the water, but if you wrote it all off, you’d be remiss. . . . [The mayor] got a skewed impression of what was going to happen.” David Stahl, deputy mayor, told Lyon that he’d found particularly “unnerving” an alleged plot to have an 18-year-old female McCarthy supporter murdered and to have the murder blamed on the police. This plot has not been found by Stewart Albert in the FBI memoranda.
COINTELPRO could well have been the source of the intelligence that “skewed” the mayor’s perceptions. Given the hundreds of agents in Chicago from Army Intelligence, FBI, the Chicago Police Department’s “Red Squad,” and other agencies, two or more agents unbeknownst to each other were undoubtedly often present in the same antiwar meetings, which were notoriously open in any case. A COINTELPRO operator whose specific assignment was to disseminate “negative information” could be making violent proposals in a meeting that included an intelligence gatherer who would report the “negative” information as fact–the intelligence gatherers were often pressured by Hoover to come up with information that suited his aims. Or a COINTELPRO operator might have made wild statements on the sidewalk after meeting a broke up. The FBI disinformation was mixed with partially accurate information, such as the hyperbole published openly by the Yippies about dropping LSD into Chicago’s water supply. “There is no question,” says Stewart Albert, former Yippie, “that Yippie hyperbole was seized upon by disinformation operators.”
In The Sixties Papers, Judith Albert and Stewart Albert conjecture that because of false FBI reports, channeled from the Chicago office of the FBI through the Chicago Red Squad to the mayor’s office, “Mayor Daley remained adamant in his refusal to grant permits” for marches and assemblies and for the demonstrators to sleep in Lincoln or Grant Park. “His unyielding position may perhaps be explained by what appears to have been an FBI-directed counterintelligence disinformation project. FBI agents informed the mayor and his representatives of bizarre conspiracies in which Democratic candidates would be assassinated by leftists and the city’s water supply poisoned with hallucinogenic drugs.”
This scenario does not explain how or why the city expected concerted police attacks to prevent assassinations; it would seem, in fact, that the chaos produced by such attacks would make it easier for assassinations to be carried out, both on the streets of Chicago and in the Amphitheatre (which, incidentally, anybody could enter–literally–if he or she wore a “We Love Mayor Daley” sign). Indeed, the city claimed the demonstrators planned to create chaos in the streets for just such a purpose.
There is an anecdote that Morris Janowitz, University of Chicago sociologist, consultant to military and police, was called out of a party at 10:30 PM Sunday, August 25, and asked by Daley advisers his opinion on whether the demonstrators should be allowed to sleep in Lincoln Park. He said yes, let them do it. This tells us that debate within the Daley administration did indeed continue until the last minute. However, the mayor and his advisers were simply reinforced by the FBI disinformation in their contemptuous intransigence toward the demonstrators, whom they called “terrorists” and “revolutionaries.” J. Edgar Hoover called them “halfway citizens.”) The Daley of convention week was the Daley who’d said “shoot to kill” in April 1968, and the same Daley who’d presided over the police attack on the April 27 peace march. He thought the police attacks in Lincoln Park–consistently more vicious than the police behavior downtown–could be kept effectively distant from the major network media. He is even reputed to have manipulated the settlement of a summer electricians’ strike–allowing wiring to be done in the Amphitheatre and at the Hilton but not in Lincoln Park–in order to limit the presence of major networks in the streets of Chicago.
Of the many important questions unresolved about convention week, one of the most puzzling is how the most effective big-city politician in this country got himself ambushed, together with Hubert Humphrey and the Democratic party, at Michigan and Balbo on Wednesday evening on prime-time national TV. This is puzzling because Daley had followed Elrod’s and Janowitz’s advice on Tuesday night to let the demonstrators stay in Grant Park; apparently he wanted to avoid such mass violence in front of the Hilton, just as much as conversely he wanted the savage “law and order” intransigence of the police in Lincoln Park. Certainly he, Lyndon Johnson’s team member, recipient of federal funding favors, did not intend to cripple the Democratic party. So what happened? Did Daley, who prided himself on his overall control and attention to detail, simply make a colossal blunder? Was he ill-served by his representatives on the scene, who communicated with him on the convention floor by phone? Was he away from his phone at acrucial moment? Did he, intentionally or by accident, yield control to federal actors like the FBI and the Secret Service as demonstrators’ threatened to move toward the Amphitheatre?
In any case, the myth of a police riot, in place of the daily fact of a police offensive, deflected attention from the culpability of institutionalized political power and from the very serious political, human, and constitutional issues that invested the entire affair, in its powerful dramatic ambiguity and complexity, from beginning to end.
Why, 20 years later, is this concept of a generalized police riot, divorced from supervisory control, almost gratefully accepted, mouthed, and written about without a critical thought?
David Farber makes a telling statement, apparently without irony, when he says, “To challenge power is often to challenge reason, or, at the very least, reasonableness itself.” Despite urban cynicism about most politicians being thieves, it is hard to look at people we have elected to high political office and think of them as thugs. If police riot advocates were to develop the patterns that lead from Lincoln Park and Michigan-Balbo to the police commanders, to Mayor Daley, and to the national figures of the Democratic party, they would be questioning power, questioning reasonableness itself.
Nobody could know on any of those August nights, with their incredible pitch of tension and violence, that the city had established parameters that, reiterated in such a way as to be tougher than usual, forbade the police shooting to kill except in the clear case of a policeman defending his life, in order to avoid the murder of the corn-fed 18-year-old innocent from Iowa. In fact, the discipline of the police on its own terms was superb, as was the game played between the demonstrators and the police. No one was killed.
When asked if he would do over what he’d done in August 1968, Daley said: “You’re damn right I’d do the same thing, only with greater effort.” (Yet he grudgingly acknowledged the Walker Report, aware of its political usefulness.) The controversial parameters given to the police permitted nearly indiscriminate clubbing, arrests, harassment, gassing, and macing of just about anyone present in any particular scene of attack, far beyond the usual exercise of reasonable force. Reporters and photographers were targeted and the police allowed to lift their clubs above their shoulders in ax-chopping or haymaker fashion, hitting at heads and groins. Within these parameters, the police met those demonstrators who would not be pushed aside into the minor sidewalk role that the mayor wished to assign them, causing night after night of surreal intensity and one of the strangest events of that strange, historic year.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul Sequeira.