Chicago 1968/Did The City Of Big Shoulders Lose Its Head?

Chicago 1968/Did The City Of Big Shoulders Lose Its Head?

Back in 1917 a man named Wallace Rice won the design contest for the Chicago flag. Almost anywhere one goes in Chicago it can be seen proudly waving alongside the American flag and on various municipal buildings and on the uniforms of Chicago's Firefighters and Police.  The three sections of white represent the north, west, and south sides of the city. The top blue stripe represents Lake Michigan and the bottom blue stripe represents the south branch of the Chicago River. In the middle white stripe there are four 6 pointed red stars. They represent Fort Dearborn, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 and the Century of Progress of 1933-34.

My thoughts this week have turned to another significant event in our city's history and possibly the best known, the 1968 Democratic National Convention held in Chicago and watched the world over by millions of viewers on television, and read the world over in newspapers.  For 4 days beginning on August 26th until the 29th,  the world watched in awe as cops and thousands of  demonstrators clashed day and night.  Never in my experience has the First Amendment ever been tested more.

 

Indeed the world was watching. Chicago was the vocal point of anti-war demonstrators who were determined to be heard. They descended by the thousands into the city, its streets and parks, demanding to have  a say on a war they considered unjust  Militant groups such as SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) Yippies  ( Youth International Party) and scores more were lead by anti-war activists Tom Hayden (future husband of Jane Fonda), Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and many more from around the country.  The actual convention itself was being held at the International Amphitheater at 4200 South Halsted.

The majority of the delegates to the Convention were staying at the  Conrad Hilton Hotel in Chicago's South Loop on Michigan Avenue. To the east was Grant Park and further east was Lake Michigan. On the first night it became apparent to the demonstrators that access to the Convention itself was next to impossible due to the heavy police presence and the difficulty in being heard. My first assignment had been on a corner 3 blocks from the convention, the second day of 12 hour shifts. Yea! some dope boss decided we needed practice standing on an empty street corner before the actual convention started.

Soon the leaders of the demonstrators decided to shift their strategy to the Hilton Hotel where the delegates were  staying in force. Thousands of demonstrators occupied Grant Park and Lincoln Park to the north.  Sleeping bags, make shift crash pads, and thousands of bodies were hanging out and chanting at the delegates as they drifted back to their hotels. Then came in my opinion one of the biggest blunders ever made by those in power. Mayor Daley announced that, "the good citizens of Chicago cannot stay in der own parks after curfew (11pm) and da hippies and da yippies will not eder."  The police command gave the order to clear the parks.

My reasonably peaceful assignment at 39th and Halsted suddenly changed to a skirmish line east of Grant Park on Columbus Drive to push the demonstrators out of the park.  My first reaction seeing the amount of demonstrators led me to think it must have been what Custer thought when seeing the advancing Indians for the first time at the Little Big Horn. As we pushed our way through the park, to say we met resistance was to soften the scene. Thousands with nowhere to go pushed back and the first of the battles had begun.  This push and resistance lasted for several hours and our 12 hour days extended to 15-16 hours, until finally after clearing the park and the demonstrators running around and back in, some beleaguered police boss dismissed us so we could get home get a few hours sleep and be back in the fray by noon, to fight another day.

The next day brought more of the same and I noticed more of an intensity, not only by the cops but also the demonstrators.  Individual skirmishes were becoming more  prevalent with cops breaking ranks to chase down aggressive and noncompliant demonstrators. We started to take on showers of dirt, balloons and rubbers filled with  urine, colored water and some excrement. The haunting thought was, in my personal opinion, what the hell is 11pm curfew going to bring? What it brought  was more of the same as the night before but the resistance escalated and the demonstrators as well as the police clashed at a greater intensity. More and more arrests were made and the same dance as the previous night continued. We cleared the parks and they ran around and back in. Our 12 hour day extended to almost 17-18 hours for most of us.

The third day of this constant back and forth between the police and the demonstrators became know as "The Battle Of Michigan Avenue." Remember both sides were lacking in sleep. Speaking for the cops,  we had very little sleep.  In todays world you probably could not walk 10 feet and not see a water bottle, or even a fast food restaurant.Not so in 1968.  There also were no portable toilets. Use your imagination where thousands relieved themselves.  It was a subject nobody even thought about.  Napoleon, (at least the General side of him), famously stated that an army marches on his stomach.  I remember the only water for hours were the few faucets in the parks, ironically shared by both the cops and the demonstrators.  It was not unusual to see 40 to 50 combatants waiting a turn for water.  Our food came in a small white box containing two pieces of white bread with a piece of Bologna with either and apple or banana. Written across the box was "COMPLIMENTS OF THE  ELEVENTH  WARD DEMOCRATIC ORGANIZATION".

The Battle of Michigan Avenue started around 3:30 the afternoon of August 28th.   A young male protester lowered an American Flag that was in the park. A contingent of cops ordered by a supervisor began beating the young man while the demonstrators pelted us with food, rocks and chunks of concrete and several other items at their disposal.  The chants were deafening of,  "hell no we won't go" and "the pigs are whores." The battle raged for at least another 30 minutes captured by a stunned nation. The cops fought back with tear gas so strong it reached the Democratic nominee for president,  Hubert Humphrey,  while he was showering inside the Hilton Hotel. Individual cops used mace to spray the demonstrators and the demonstrators fought back.  There were no innocent bystanders to many of the cops, and on the other hand to some of the protestors it was open season on the cops.

Violence certainly was not new to me, being a former Marine. I was also with Dr King during his open housing marches in Marquette Park and various other locations where we had to endure angry mobs and various bricks and other debris that injured several cops and demonstrators, including Dr King who was a few feet away from me and my partner when he was hit in the side of the face with a barrage of bricks. My partner was hospitalized and Dr King got right back up.  Just 4 months previous to the convention,  I was covering the city during the riots after Dr King's assassination, which saw many deaths and the burning of the west side of the city that still has not recovered.

However that 30 minutes in front of the Hilton and on Michigan Avenue taught me many great lessons over the  next 31 years of my career.  One was to be sure to realize the cops under you are human, and humans as Napoleon  so eloquently stated, perform better when not preoccupied with thirst, fatigue and hunger.  Also remember nowhere in the history of America have we found a dead protester who climbed a statue or removed a flag from atop a pole. What goes up must come down.  It's what I call my cat theory.  Ask yourself how many dead cats have been removed from trees? Also every cop, supervisor, and politician, should have a thorough understanding of the meaning of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

My motivation for this, and bringing up the Chicago flag is that in my opinion, another red star should be added to the Chicago flag commemorating the 68 Convention. After all  the Great Chicago Fire was not pleasant either, but it stands as a powerful reminder. It's as old as dirt but that old expression "history has a way of repeating itself by those who do not know it or forget it."

 

 

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