Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Chicago 'Police Riot'

Protests outside this year's GOP convention have drawn little media coverage and one might say they have "fizzled."  And no wonder: police and city officials for conventions for decades have learned to force protesters into "security zones" far from the convention halls and provided overwhelmingly numbers of security forces nearby.  I guess we can blame it all on...1968, and the infamous bloodbath on the streets of Chicago.  I happened to be there at the age of twenty.     Here's a piece I wrote not long along ago about how I witnessed that at close hand.
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Forty-eight years ago my trip to Chicago for the Democratic National Convention would culminate in the crushing of Sen. Eugene McCarthy's anti-Vietnam crusade inside the convention hall and the cracking of peacenik skulls by Mayor Richard Daley's police in the streets. Together, this doomed Hubert Humphrey to defeat in November at the hands of Richard Nixon.

I'd been a political-campaign junkie all my life. At the age of 8, I paraded in front of my boyhood home in Niagara Falls, N.Y., waving an "I Like Ike" sign. In 1968 I got to cover my first presidential campaign when one of Sen. McCarthy's nephews came to town, before the state primary, and I interviewed him for the Niagara Falls Gazette, where I worked as a summer reporter during college. I had been chair of the McCarthy campaign at my college. So much for non-biased reporting!

My mentor at the Gazette was a young, irreverent City Hall reporter named John Hanchette. He went on to an illustrious career at other papers, and as a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent for Gannett News Service. Hanchette was in Chicago that week to cover party politics as a Gazette reporter and contributor to the Gannett News Service (GNS). I was to hang out with the young McCarthyites and the anti-war protesters. To get to Chicago I took my first ride on a jetliner.

To make a long story short: On the climactic night of Aug. 28, 1968, Hanchette and I ended up just floors apart in the same building: the Conrad Hilton Hotel in downtown Chicago. I was in McCarthy headquarters and Hanchette was in one of Gannett's makeshift newsrooms.  Just after the peace plank to the DNC platform was defeated,  TV coverage switched to shocking scenes of young folks getting beaten with nightsticks on the streets of Chicago, but we didn't know where.  Then we smelled tear gas and someone  the curtains along a wall of windows and we looked out  to see police savagely attacking protesters with nightsticks at the intersection directly below.

Soon I headed for the streets. By that time, the peak violence had passed, but cops were still pushing reporters and other innocent bystanders through plate glass windows at the front of the hotel, so the danger was still real. I held back in the lobby, where someone had set off a stink bomb. Some Democrats started returning from the convention hall -- after giving Humphrey the nomination even though McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy won most of the primaries -- as protesters inside the Hilton chanted, "You killed the party! You killed the party!"  And: "You killed the country." And, of course, "Dump the Hump!"

Finally, I screwed up my courage and crossed to Grant Park where the angry protest crowd gathered, with troops in jeeps with machine guns pointed at us. And there I stayed all night, as the crowd and chants of "pig" directed at the cops increased. Many in the crowd wore bandages of had fresh blood on their faces. Phil Ochs (later a friend)  arrived and sang, along with other notables, including some of the peacenik delegates and a famous writer or two.  This was Zuccotti Park but with heavily armed soldiers ready to swoop in, not simply NYC cops. Somehow we survived the night. 

When I returned to Niagara Falls that Friday, I wrote a column for that Sunday's paper. I described the eerie feeling of sitting in Grant Park, and thousands around me yelling at the soldiers and the media, "The whole world is watching!" -- and knowing that, for once, it was true.

More than 35 years later, after I had written two books on other infamous political campaigns, I returned to Chicago for a staged performance of a musical based on one of them. As I got out of a cab to make my way to the theater, I had an eerie feeling and, sure enough, looking up the street I noticed Grant Park a block away -- and the very intersection in front of the Hilton where skulls were cracked that night in 1968.

P.S. Norman Mailer's terrific book, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, is still in print.

3 comments:

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Anonymous said...

Another great read is Mailer's Armies of the Night, which earned him a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. Mailer describes a 1967 march in DC, and a plan by demonstrators to encircle the Pentagon, join hands, then sing and chant until they levitated the building off the ground and turned it orange to drive out the evil spirits and end the war in Vietnam.

Anonymous said...

Beat me to it Anonymous. Armies was a great read, and thanks Greg for guiding us to Miami.

Your mention of "jeeps with machines guns pointed at us" makes me think of Ferguson, and should remind us olds that the police state is nothing new.

The state of the one-party-with-2-names corptocracy we still live in is also revealed. This time instead of a choice between Nixon and Hump, we'll get a choice between warmonger Hillary and a pick from the nutter fringe.

The progressives will be coaxed to back the lesser of two evils, told that lady parts make this election important, and to consider future supreme court appointments.

But it seems to me Greg, looking at where we are with the disappointing Obama, and looking back at where we've come from, one thing is clear. If we continue to vote for the lesser of two evils we will always elect evil. What's the point?