A Conventional Riot
© Copyright 2020 by Doug Sherr
A riot exists for itself. It doesn't grow and sustain because of the original outrage; that cause was extinguished in the first hours of the riot. Sometimes the cause changes, but usually there no longer is a cause at all. Here is my memory of one of America's famous riots.
My friend Sharon knelt by the couch going over the inventory of items we might need: Gauze dressings, cloths for cold packs, band-aids, elastic bandages. I was cutting adhesive tape into butterfly closures; they make good emergency stitches. It was late Sunday afternoon, August 25th, 1968. The Democratic Convention to pick a candidate to run against Richard M. Nixon started the next day. Sharon’s ground floor apartment on Clark Street was across from Lincoln Park where earlier in the day children chased around laughing and screaming and kites fluttered in the breeze.
Families spread out picnics on the grass as young people who were going to protest the Viet Nam war practiced shade-tree karate as others worked on the dragon-line technique for breaking police lines perfected by left-wing students in Japan. I’m sure that in the martial hands of Japanese students it was an effective tool, but the kids in Lincoln Park looked more like high-school students doing the “Bunny Hop” than warriors ready to intimidate Chicago’s Finest. Quite a lot of dope was smoked. Several dummies waved Viet Cong flags, but two young men just home from the war took the flags away and convinced the protestors to leave quickly.
Spectators lined the park, many of them in from the suburbs, to watch the action. Except for an incident when a few cops charged into a crowd of hippies and thumped some heads, the day was just another pleasant Sunday in the park. There was a chance that the Democratic National Convention would be peaceful, but no one really believed that. Sharon and I decided that the best contribution we could make to the political process was to set up a first aid station.
Mayor Richard J. Daley, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was about to realize his long time dream of hosting the convention. He wanted to showcase the city he loved and he wasn’t about to tolerate any disruptions, particularly from outsiders. Mayor Daley was not a man who accepted anything less than obedience to his wishes. A number of anti-war groups including the National Mobilization To End The War In Viet Nam, The Chicago Alliance for Peace and the Committee For An Open Convention were all planning demonstrations to protest the war and urge the convention to choose an anti-war candidate.
That spring, the Chicago Alliance had a taste of street protest. They held an anti-war march in April, which became a riot. The march started as an orderly and well organized demonstration. Since the Chicago police had no violence to react to, they picked up a kid who was carrying an antiwar sign and threw him into a fountain. Then they beat and arrested him for swimming without a permit. In a complex display of bigotry and frustration, they also beat some young white woman, standing with black men, who were spectators to the demonstration. This attack upon the marchers so outraged the press that the Mayor had to form a committee to analyze the incident. Dr. Edward Sparling, of Roosevelt University, headed a committee of sixty-two conservative community leaders that found that the riot was an unprovoked violent response by the Police Department against an orderly demonstration. Daley’s response, “Not true!” The Mayor was used to getting his way in the city he controlled absolutely and he wasn’t pleased. It was in this light that Chicago anticipated the August convention and the announced protests. Many of us hoped that a lesson was learned and the police would be professional in handling security for the convention.
Some of Mayor Daley’s advisors told him that a commie-inspired plot was set to attack his town. He had the City stall the issuing of parade permits and then finally refuse to issue any permits at all. The City Council quickly passed an ordinance that closed all city parks at 11:00 p.m. in response to the plans of out-of-town protesters to sleep in the parks during the convention. The Mayor wouldn’t listen to anyone who said that these protests were a legitimate part of the political process. In retrospect, there never was a chance that the convention would be peaceful as the forces of political order slammed into the forces of political dissent.
The energy began to build the week before the convention. The war had given the press a heady freedom to expose military blunders and suggest that the public was being lied to. They were in full cry even before the first confrontation and helped to create the mayhem that they solemnly covered a week later. I think the mood on the streets was like those moments of awful innocence just before the Civil War when the two sides looked forward to the confrontation and people planned to picnic while they watched the Battle of Bull Run.
That Sunday, as the sun lowered, the pitch of excitement rose. Some people drifted away, but both the spectators and the protesters were getting ready for the show. The number of police, both uniformed and plain-clothes increased. As the park’s closing time approached, a number of big, plain-clothes cops moved in and approached everyone within the borders of the park. Two large, older cops walked up to me and said, “Hey, look, da park’s closed. We doan wan no trouble; you doan wan no trouble, so jus walk outta here to da sidewalk an we can all go home and get some sleep.” You couldn’t argue with that logic.
I saw no more than twenty cops peacefully clear the park. It looked as if common sense had won the battle. The commie-pinko protesters left peacefully, throwing their signs into trash barrels; they couldn’t even be busted for littering. I felt really good. Maybe there was hope that the body politic was growing up.
At the southwest corner of the park a cop and a hippie were directing traffic on opposite sides of the wide intersection at West LaSalle Drive and Clark Street. The cop was a silver haired old sergeant. While he never looked at the hippie, he worked in consort with him and traffic flowed smoothly. As I walked away from the park I ran into my old buddy Sky. Sky was a huge retired biker with a gentle soul, but advanced skills in street combat. As we congratulated each other on the peaceful outcome of the day, two guys near us started yelling obscenities, particularly, “F**k the pigs!” at the cops and throwing rocks that they pulled from their jacket pockets.
They had slicked back hair that matched the 3/4 length leather jackets and pointy-toed shoes right from the Italian street gangs of the South Side. These guys were very unlikely protesters. It would have been comical, but as in so many volatile environments any dumb little act could create an explosion. Sky and I walked over to them and Sky said that they should cool it and go home. They looked at us, told us to f**k off and flashed Chicago Police Department badges. These cops were playing some weird game and trying to create a problem where there was none. Sky and I moved in and these two realized that we were very angry and we weren’t kidding about stopping their little charade. They said some unkind things as they walked away. Sky and I cooled down and tried to figure out what these cops were up to.
They certainly hadn’t come up with that action on their own. Their clothes showed how far removed they were from any reality of the protest movement; mistaking the street style of Southside punks with the tie-dye and bell-bottoms of the protest movement. Sky decided to check out the action in Old Town and I went back to Sharon’s apartment. She was happy that our little triage was not necessary. We had a glass of wine and let the stress of the last few days start to fade away. After about a half hour of rest I heard some noises from the street, so I went outside to check.
The crowd of spectators milling about had thinned, but there were several hundred still walking down the sidewalk on the east side of Clark Street. The protesters had gone on to create a street party on Wells Street three blocks away. The old sergeant and the hippie were still directing traffic. What was different were the two large, cargo style vans that had pulled into the park. The vans were painted dark blue and carried no markings. The back doors swung open and about thirty men jumped out wearing the uniform blues of Chicago police and full riot gear, but they had no badges or insignia of rank, no personal I.D. numbers on their helmets and nothing that actually identified them as police. They formed a line on the grass just next to the east Clark Street sidewalk standing with their legs spread apart and holding their long riot batons just below waist level with both hands. They were intimidating.
The crowd of people on the sidewalk had the look of suburban comfort and I didn’t see one person who could be identified as a protester. While this group had no reason to mistrust the police, the fearsome aspect of that line-up of silent men in riot gear clearly made them uncomfortable. They started walking faster. You could sense that they wished they were already in their cars heading for home. Standing a few yards away and slightly behind the police line I was wearing a black turtleneck and black pants which may have served as camouflage because no one told me to leave. While there were no badges of rank on these men, there was one who stood out and was clearly in charge; I’ll call him the “Lieutenant.” The old sergeant left his post and walked up to the Lieutenant and asked, “Who are you guys?” The Lieutenant told him to return to his post and that the situation was in hand. The sergeant looked at him for a moment and then he went back to his intersection. He had been given a direct order and he obeyed it. He couldn’t have been too far from retirement.
After a few minutes of this strange street scene, the Lieutenant motioned to his men and they raised their batons to chest height and moved across the sidewalk herding the pedestrians out into the street. This was very strange. The people were now getting nervous and I heard a few questions and complaints all on the order of “Why are you doing this?” The police line remained silent. The eyes of the pedestrians were growing wide and they were walking much faster. They looked just like the Angus cattle my Grandpa used to load into trucks to take to the slaughterhouse.
At this point, a CBS News camera crew came up. The cameraman was a short, balding guy and his assistant was a taller, younger man carrying a quartz light powered by a battery pack. The cameraman looked at the scene before him, turned to the Lieutenant and said, “There’s nothing here, I got crap to take back!” He glowered at the Lieutenant. The Lieutenant pulled four men from the line and told them to line up abreast in the street facing the pedestrians, who were now scared. The cameraman nodded at his assistant and the quartz light went on; he nodded at the Lieutenant who, in turn, nodded at the men in the street and they charged toward the crowd of spectators, pounding their riot sticks on the street as they ran. The crowd panicked and started running; some tried to get around the four charging men and others turned and ran into the people still moving forward. A few people screamed. That noise must have been the trigger, because the four policemen began to hit people with their sticks. They hit shoulders, arms and a few heads. Now everyone was screaming. The cameraman was in the middle swinging his camera to catch the action as if it too were a club.
The lieutenant signaled to the line of police at the edge of the street and they divided into two groups and charged into the crowd swinging their clubs at anyone in front of them. Instead of forming the standard “Flying Wedge” that divides a crowd, they formed into two crescents, collecting a number of people and beating them all the way across the street, trapping them against the buildings on the west side of Clark Street. When they had the trapped people cowering on the sidewalk they smashed their clubs into them a few more times and then turned and broke their line. They seemed to each choose a target and ran after people beating them as they went. They still ignored me. I grabbed the two people who were bleeding the most and dragged them to Sharon’s place. Sharon had a strange look on her face when I brought the bleeders in. If it is possible to mix fear, courage and resignation in a single look, then she accomplished it. We did a quick patch job on them and Sharon got them out the back door and into the alley where all was quiet. I went back out on the street and grabbed a few more of the injured.
Word of the violence reached the partygoers on Wells Street and a good-sized crowd of protesters were running back to join the fun. I was helping the battered so I can’t give details of this time, but I did see that the “riot police” were gone and the few Chicago police left were just trying to stay out of trouble. The protesters were confused and angry, but there were no clear targets to attack. When we had sent the last victim home and got the apartment back to some sort of order, Sharon and I crawled into bed with our clothes still on. We held each other close and eventually fell asleep.
Monday came and the madness didn’t go away. The press had what they wanted. The stories in papers and on TV had little to do with the actual events of Sunday night, but the line had been crossed and the violence would play out as the event evolved beyond the control of anyone. There were a number of bruised and sore regular citizens, I am sure, who were mightily confused by what had happened to them. The key players on the protest side were embarrassed that the park had been cleared so easily. Had the police not attacked the crowd on Sunday evening the convention week might have been peaceful.
I can’t give an historians record of the next few days, but I have memories that remain powerful. The confrontations moved across the city, like schools of fish darting to a rhythm beyond understanding, from Lincoln Park to Grant Park to Michigan Avenue, in the middle of the “Miracle Mile.” One moment that made the evening news happened in Grant Park in the afternoon. David Brinkley presented the film clip and he seemed close to tears as he said, “I can’t say anything, just watch this.” A station wagon driven by a woman who looked as though she was going to a society luncheon was heading down South Columbus Drive, by the fringes of the riot, when a teenage boy ran into the street, chased by a couple of National Guard soldiers. This kid was terrified. The woman saw this and slammed on the brakes, opening the passenger’s door so the kid could jump in. It was such a clear vignette: she was a mother and here was a child in trouble.
The National Guardsmen blocked her exit and one soldier approached the driver’s window aiming an M-79 grenade launcher directly at the woman. He screamed at her to let them have the kid. She shook her head, “No”. The soldier stuck his weapon into the window right at her face. She was staring into a barrel an inch and a half in diameter, but she didn’t give in. She said, “You are not taking this child!” I was about 5-feet away, standing next to a cameraman. I yelled, “No!” If this idiot soldier had fired his weapon everyone within 10-to-15 feet would have died. A sergeant came running up and ordered the soldier back. He had to yell several times to get through to him. Finally, the soldier moved back and the sergeant told the woman to move on. Medals have been given to people far less courageous than this woman.
I saw the film clip that night on the news. Over the next couple of days I heard protesters say that they were going home to watch themselves on the evening television news shows. The media emerged as a prime mover instead of a recorder of events.
As the 1968 Democratic Convention street confrontation evolved, it became a battle about our fundamental civil liberties. The pre-convention political agendas evaporated into a battle for the ownership of the city. The official rhetoric of the City wasn’t fooling many people at this point. There were no more spectators to this riot; there were protesters and there was the government. The Chicago Police Department decided that they owned the streets and the citizens were to be beaten until they understood that and submitted. The police turned lawful dissent into a riot.
A riot is a surreal experience. The boundaries that define our daily activities shatter into jagged lines. We glimpse our true selves and we see into others with a frightening clarity. The bad behavior of some people allows us to know the strength of others.
During the day the police were using CS gas on us. At the same time, the US Army was using it on the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Regulars. That was a nice symmetry. CS gas has a white/grey color and makes you cry as it’s supposed to. Water helps ameliorate it effects. At night, the gas of choice was OC, oleoresin capsicum or pepper spray, and while it won’t kill you, it makes tear gas seem like bug spray. It slams into you and shuts off your breath; like being trapped underwater with broken SCUBA gear. Just when you think that you’ll never get another breath, you vomit: A good, old-fashioned seasickness eruption that puts you on your knees. Then you hope to get another breath before the next wave of gas hits you. The gas also burns your eyes terribly. It is oil based so water only spreads it across your body. CS gas has an orange cast to it.
Tuesday night the festivities returned to Lincoln Park. At night, in darkness, evil can flourish and fear is harder to confront. Lincoln Park was a dark forest with roiling clouds of orange gas lit by banks of huge lights brought in by the police. It was a scene where you expected dangerous aliens to emerge as they took over the world. They did. They came in clusters. They had no badges or nametags. They had come to hurt people.
The protesters were now erecting barricades of garbage containers, park benches and scrap wood. The television coverage was inspiring people to join the protests who, the day before, might not have become involved. A group of ministers raised a large wooden cross. When the police finally attacked, the clergy held their ground. I saw clean-cut high school kids coming into the park; one was a big guy wearing a letter sweater with a large, “L”. He looked like an offensive lineman. He was walking hand-in-hand with a cute blond who was probably a cheerleader. They had that unmistakable suburban look. They also had a determined expression and stride as they came into the madness. The word that came to mind about these new players was indignant.
Well before the normal hour of curfew, the police mobilized for the assault. As they jumped out of their vans some of them were whistling or singing the tune, “Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go.” The crowd behind the barricade chanted and screamed and threw sticks and wadded paper. I saw several bottles fly into the line of cops, but after my experience with the undercover boys I didn’t trust anyone. Actually, during the course of the riot I never saw a protester injure a policeman or National Guard soldier.
I was still playing Nurse Betty dragging the wounded out of the action and carrying some rags and a gallon of water mixed with detergent that was supposed to help against OC gas. There were a number of people carrying water and helping the wounded. The police took no notice of the differing population of protestors. They charged and whacked and gassed. A line of cops turned my way and rushed in swinging. I turned and ran. A middle-aged couple was walking towards me. He was wearing a blazer with a fancy crest on the left breast pocket and she had on a mink stole and a simple strand of pearls. I grabbed them, turned them around and pushed them back towards the street. I asked, ”What the hell are you doing here?”
The woman said. “We have watched this from our apartment window for two days. We can no longer remain spectators while children are being beaten.“
At that moment, we got a direct blast of OC. I knew I wasn’t going to die, but it sure felt like I would. I was on my knees retching up several good meals. The fine woman in the mink was next to me. At that point paté and truffles smells just like spaghetti and meatballs. We recovered and the upper-class couple and I walked back into the park. We returned to that wooden cross, with orange gas swirling around and the ministers holding hands and praying. It was so futile a gesture that it had tremendous power. I think that’s what we all felt: The power of the righteousness in what we were doing. Somehow, the decision to act gave us the feeling that we were winning. Of course, the police again cleared the park.
Bloody Wednesday was like a surreal painting hanging in the Art Institute. Dali brushed bold strokes on grass and concrete: Red splashed on green and gray, rolling clouds of white, a face thrusts out of the cloud twisted like a macabré mime. A surreal painting with sound: Sirens scream, people scream, gas grenades make dull popping sounds, megaphones order people to do this and then not to do it and occasionally, the sound of ripe watermelons being smashed with bats.
I painted red crosses on the doors of my white station wagon and ferried the wounded to care. The police stationed men at every emergency room in the heart of the city to arrest anyone seeking aid for head or upper-body injuries. A number of traffic and non-riot related accident victims were taken into custody. Presbyterian St. Luke’s Hospital was the only facility that did not allow this to happen. Their own security force prevented the CPD from interfering with emergency room procedures.
I was making a run to the Conrad Hilton Hotel, on Michigan Avenue, where the battle was providing a steady supply of victims. Most of the police guarding the intersections into the immediate area let me pass. Coming up to a corner about three blocks from the Hilton a huge fat guy waving a riot baton yelled at me to turn back. He wasn’t wearing a uniform. I yelled that I was just carrying wounded kids. He charged at me and swung his club. I ducked and it swished by my head, denting the window post in about half an inch. The blow would have killed me. The guy’s face was distorted beyond humanity. I jammed down on the accelerator, the tires squealed and as the tail end of the wagon came around there was a “thunk” from the rear end. In the rear-view mirror, I could see that the guy was sitting spraddled in the middle of the street and he seemed calmer.
Around the next corner and up a block was an enormous black police sergeant. He was standing in the middle of the intersection and was not about to yield. I pulled up and pleaded with him, “I’m just taking hurt people to the hospital.” He looked around as though he were looking for help. He started waving his arms. He started to cry. Big tears rolled down his cheeks, “I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t understand this. I just don’t know, I just don’t know.” I drove around him into the riot and picked up another load of wounded. It was all like that: two blocks, two humans, two realities, two reactions. It went on forever.
As night came, there was a brief period of quiet. I was too tired to feel tired. I was too confused to think. I parked the car, walked to the Hilton, went up on a knoll next to the Art Institute and fell down on the grass to rest. That evening, the opposing forces met on Michigan Boulevard in front of the Conrad Hilton Hotel. For the first time, the crowd had the potential to be dangerous. I believe that a full-scale rebellion was an incident away. The police sensed it and formed blocks of hundreds of men ready to strike. Behind the police were ranks of the National Guard. Later, I heard that there were 10,000 police and troops at that site. The protests, the war, the convention no longer mattered.
The raw energy of anger pulsed like lightning up and down the street. The lines were drawn up and slowly inched together. The police were yelling at the crowd. The crowd was yelling back and giving no ground. I didn’t see a trigger that set it off, but the police charged into the crowd with an insane ferocity. A cop on a three-wheel motorcycle jumped the curb and tried to ram a nurse, in uniform, tending a wounded man. By luck, she had moved just as the motorcycle struck the wall where she had been standing. When she realized what had happened she bent over and puked her guts out. It was so wild that I saw several policemen hold back their fellow officers who were beating helpless people on the ground. What a struggle of conscience it must have been for the rational elements of the police force.
While this was going on, a number of convention delegates were sitting in a street-level restaurant eating expensive meals and toasting each other with glasses of wine as they looked out of the large windows watching children being mauled. In a wonderful moment of irony, some police pushed a small crowd of people who were Gene McCarthy activists, a few newsmen and some women into these windows breaking out several glass panels. Then police jumped into the restaurant, chasing and indiscriminately beating people through the broken glass and upturned tables of the Hilton’s Haymarket Lounge. In 1886, the Chicago police attacked a group of union workers protesting the harsh treatment and low wages of the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company. There is considerable disagreement on the number of people killed. That event is known as the Haymarket Riot.
I was wondering when the first protester would pull a gun, shoot a cop and start the real bloodbath. Hundreds of lives and, perhaps, the very legitimacy of the American government danced at the edge of destiny’s precipice. The crowd felt this too. There was a lull in the violence for a moment and some genius started to chant, ”The whole world is watching, the whole world is watching.” The crowd picked it up, “The whole world is watching.” He was right. We were right. By God, we were right. The police were confused for a moment. A few cops charged the crowd, but the ferocity dwindled as thousands of voices kept chanting the simple truth of that moment. The unrestrained violence of a government unconcerned with the rights of free assembly and speech that defines the most fundamental rights of our country was countered by a disorganized band of citizens simply exercising those rights.
I worked my way into the center of the chanting crowd. Many were holding hands and swaying in the tribal way of the civil-rights movement. I found some people I knew and we exchanged rumors. Apparently, death threats had been made against some key delegates who had run for cover, abandoning their idealistic young staff members to the attack of the police. I hope that’s it’s not true. I left the street and worked my way north to my house.
I called Sharon and she was terrified. She had heard that police were breaking into all the places that had been used as first-aid stations and beating anyone there. I went to her and brought her back to stay with me. As we were walking up the front steps of my house, two squad cars roared up and seven or eight cops jumped out and pulled their weapons. One of them pushed a 12-gauge shotgun into my face and cocked it. That clean slide-click is one of the loudest sounds I’ve heard. I was carrying a nightstick that I kept in the car. One cop asked what I was going to do with the stick. I said I was trying to protect myself from all those crazy protesters.
One of the cops yelled, ”Drop it!”
I said, “F**k you!”
My senses had left me and I was calmly figuring out how to dodge the shotgun and take as many of them out as I could. They knew it. Sharon was behind me. She was pretty, tiny, and terrified. A short Italian cop pushed to the front and asked, ”Where are you going?”
I said, “Into my house to get drunk and pass out.”
He said, ”Go inside, Good Night and God Bless you.“
We went in and spent the night clinging to each other like children in a thunderstorm.
Thursday, the demonstrations continued, but I stayed home. I drank whiskey, played loud classical music and stared at an empty fireplace. I tried to conjure up some useful hate, but I was numb as far into me as I could get. Images and sounds of the last few days swirled in my mind. The question I couldn’t shake off was who were those mysterious men who seemed to be Chicago police but were obviously schooled to start a riot instead of prevent one. Were they really police following some strange agenda of official policy or were they people from the outside intent on destroying the orderly political process? Why was the Lieutenant willing to create a cinematic moment for the cameraman? I haven’t heard anyone else describe that scene.
I still feel the outrage that I felt fifty years ago. I saw those sworn to protect and serve become criminals. I saw my country flirt with totalitarianism yet I saw the protected upper class put their lives on the line for some understanding of justice. I felt betrayed by my government and exhilarated at the actions of citizens who understood that our rights of speech and assembly are the foundation of our country.
wonder why more people are not infuriated that the powerful few still
overwhelm the powerless many. What I fear is, as a nation, we have
not learned a damn thing. Sometimes I’ll watch one of those TV
documentaries about the Second World War. I can hear the lie in the
narrator’s smug voice condemning the Nazi horror. It isn’t
Germans; it wasn’t then. We are a heartbeat away from that
possible horror of the Nazi within us.