After four nights of non-stop blather about how wonderful are we and how bloody bad is Bill Clinton, the Republicans finally-- and mercifully-- did what they came to San Diego to do, ratify the nomination of the candidate who won a clear majority of the delegates in the primaries. Shortly, the Democrats will meet to show they, too, have the trite stuff-- all the choreographed excitement and ritual chest beating needed to embellish the presidents's certain renomination. No one who has ever watched one of these made-for-television bashes needs to be told that the political convention has gone the way of the garter belt--it once performed a useful, uplifting function, but is now only a vestigal decoration.
My concern is that a whole new generation of Americans is about to reach voting age unaware that not long ago the rubber- stamping sideshow that is the modern American political convention actually changed the course of history. As such things are measured, it was only yesterday...
"You elected Nixon. You elected Nixon".
The scolding, sing-song chant from fifteen or twenty grungy kids claiming sanctuary on the red carpeted stairway in the grand foyer of Chicago's Hilton Hotel was directed at two passing police officers. The staircase refugees were among the thousands of dissidents who had converged during the week of Chicago's 1968 Democratic Convention to demonstrate against the war in Viet Nam and to demand that the official delegates abandon their commitments to Hubert Humphrey and politics as usual and nominate instead quixotic Minnesota senator, Eugene McCarthy, the peoples' peace candidate.
Earlier that year party officials had lived through the tragic assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy and had seen dozens of American cities in flames. Unbelievably, they had watched master politician Lyndon Johnson bow to the anti-war movement's righteous power by declining to seek re-election. Anticipating serious problems, party leaders gratefully accepted the promise of Chicago's longtime boss, Mayor Richard Daley (the first) that he would never permit the "peaceniks" and their revolutionary "Yippie" pals to disrupt a convention in Chicago's International Amphitheatre, known more familiarly as "the stock yards".
But the spotlight shifted quickly from the foregone conclusions on the convention floor, to the streets, where clashes with the symbols of authority--in the form of the Chicago police-- lurked around every corner and where political dialog consisted of screaming slogans for the media. Over and over they shouted their message in unison: "Hell no, we won't go" -- "F... the draft" -- "Dump the Hump" -- "What do we want?" "Peace". "When do we want it?" "Now!" "Join us," they repeatedly invited, "Join us."
Of course, on Wednesday evening, the inevitable happened. Ignited by some unseen spark, Daley's police charged into an unruly crowd outside the Hilton with riot batons flailing. Soon the dissidents made up new rallying cries: "The whole world is watching," they chanted for the networks' street cameras, while inside the Hilton, the few casualties and caregivers who made it to the stairs taunted official Chicago for bestowing the presidency on the Democrats' worst enemy, Tricky Dick Nixon.
Standing nearby, I saw right away that the shouts were directed at two impeccably attired "white shirts" --supervisory level police officers-- who were walking past the stairway toward the hotel lounge. The derisive tone of the chant instantly caught the officers' attention. They stopped and turned toward the group on the steps, grimfaced, as if calculating just how much force they would need to summon to disperse this ragged chorus. But, after quietly exchanging a few words, their mood seemed to mellow. As if on cue, both men shrugged, gave the angry group an indulgent smile and a perky wave and resumed walking to the lounge.
I sighed with relief, thankful that my stressed out senses would not have to witness and try to describe for my federal bosses yet another confrontation between the Chicago police and the dissidents at the 1968 Democratic Convention. As one of the Justice Department civil rights attorneys sent to observe the street action in Chicago, I happened on this prophetic mini-drama in the Hilton's foyer on my way back to the street after calling in a report on the Washington hot line in Deputy Attorney General Warren Christopher's suite in the Hilton.
It had been hard to capture the flavor of what I had just witnessed out in the street that Wednesday evening of convention week. I tried to relate to Atorney General Clark how, for no clear reason, a phalanx of Chicago police had pushed from their static line on Balbo Street directly into the large, boistrous crowd of protesters sardined into the intersection with Michigan Avenue in front of the Hilton. Contained on all sides by police lines, the recoil from the charge on one side of the crowd forced people into the police line on Michigan Avenue on the other. Unaware of the reason for the abrupt surge into their line, the police on Michigan Avenue reasoned that they were under attack and immediately countered with their own charge. Suddenly, in full view of TV cameras, the police on all sides were shoving, clubbing and arresting everyone within reach-- demonstrators, media, sightseers and even official observers.
With all other egress blocked, the police charge propelled some people through the plate glass windows into the Hilton's bar. Others were trampled as the crowd fled in all directions. National TV focused on some frustrated cops who had just lost it and were indiscriminately clubbing people with riot batons. The signature shot of the TV coverage, played over and over that night, showed the gratuitous clubbing of subdued persons who were being dragged or carried to the paddy wagons that had rushed to the scene. (In reviewing the abundant television footage of the chaotic scene Justice investigators found one crew had caught me carefully copying into a note pad the name tag of an officer engaged in one such episode; unfortunately, we could never identify the victim and the cop, whose name I'll have take to judgment day, denied it all)
Transported by the emotion of the moment, for the first time ever, I addressed an Attorney General on a first-name basis and invoked the most vivid civil rights imagery I knew, the infamous 1965 police beating of peaceful demonstrators trying to march to Montgomery: "Ramsey," I began my report, "it was worse than Selma."
All these events are called to mind by today's smug view that nothing really happens at political conventions anymore and because the Democrats are actually risking a return to Chicago for the first time since that ill-fated year of 1968--a year of assassinations and urban riots at home and an unpopular and unwinnable war abroad. With twenty-twenty hindsight, it even seems possible that in their anger and outrage, the kids on the stairs that night had it right: Richard M. Nixon was elected president at 7:57 p.m. (CST), August 28, 1968, when, on national television, the Democratic Party imploded at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Balbo Street.
There, our political history made a hard right turn as the first Mayor Daley's cops--the Democrats in blue helmets-- battered Eugene McCarthy's peaceful dreamers-- the Democrats in flowing robes and cut-offs-- leaving a hapless Hubert Humphrey heading a party too splintered to elect a dogcatcher. What a fairy tale to pass on to your children--or in my case grandchildren. Once upon a time, through a series of blunders and miscalculations, the legendary political boss whose late- reporting precincts had insured the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, unwittingly became the instrument for electing his opponent eight years later. "Honest, Grandpa was there and saw it with his own eyes."
But my discipline is law--not historical fantasy--and, in that field, I can testify that none of the convention violence of 1968 was redressed by the justice system. In fact, the system flopped miserably, from the bottom where Daley's semi-pro street cops lost control and flailed away at taunting hippies and yippies, to the top where the Justice Department's elaborate, balanced and "principled" federal prosecutions churned away and achieved nothing.
Although it received comparatively little coverage, twenty five years before Rodney King, the Civil Rights Division and the United States Attorney's office promptly obtained civil rights indictments of eight cops caught on film or by other undeniable proof, beating the innocent. We culled out and obtained grand jury indictments in a wide-ranging sampler of compelling cases of police use of excessive force. But Carl Sandburg's "broad- shouldered" Chicago just shrugged it off.
Taking little time to deliberate, Chicago juries aquitted every cop in every case. In one case, a newsman was battered with a club for failing to clear the sidewalk quickly enough. In another, a local reporter's head and cameras were bashed as he was observing police hassling some students in a sport car. Jurors were unmoved by the gushing prose of the City's media brochure: "Welcome, Newsmen! Welcome to Chicago, the City of 'The Front Page,'... [where a] tradition has been the excellent rapport between the Chicago police and newsmen."
Surely, something had changed. The superintendent's order read at all Thursday roll calls said: "It is in the best interest of the department and the City of Chicago that there be a harmonious relationshp between department personnel and the news media representatives who will report the Democratic National Convention to the world." Under a three word headline-- "BEAT THE PRESS" --Newsweek's convention edition reported angrily that "...for the second night in a row our reporters and photographers were subject to unprovoked attacks by Chicago policemen."
If there was neither sympathy nor justice for those who had carried the message of Chicago's shame, its own citizens' constitutional rights fared no better. One of our cases centered on a student hitchhiking to his suburban home about 2:00 A.M. Miles away from the Hilton, he had the misfortune to catch a ride with an off-duty police officer returning home from his normal shift --one which had not involved any contact with demonstrators. Upon learning that his young passenger was a McCarthy supporter who had been demonstrating in Grant Park near the Hilton, the officer went ballistic, called him a "Hippie", hit him in the head and broke his glasses. Although he was never under arrest, when the young man tried to flee, the officer chased him down, and, with pistol drawn, forced him back into his private car. He then drove him to his suburban home and aroused the family with loud banging. "Here's your Hippie kid", he ranted, shoving the sobbing victim towards his mother, "He's been down at Grant Park all day". The jury acquitted in record time.
The jurors permissiveness toward police was not limited to interactions with demonstrators or "Hippies". In the Old Town area on Monday night, two days before the downtown violence, the police decided to sweep the people from Lincoln Park and adjacent streets. One indictment was based on a startling series of photographs of a young black man alone in the center of an Old Town street. He had just come out of a neighborhood bar and had no connection with any demonstrators. Either he had been slow to follow the order to clear the street (the police version) or, in the course of complying, had run back to retrieve a dropped hat (his version corroborated by civilian witnesses). But there is no question about what happened next. The pictures show him surrounded by three white officers, hit in the head with a baton and kneed in the groin as he took refuge behind a telephone pole. Even though the victim was neither charged nor arrested, the jury apparently concluded that there was no excessive force here; he was just smacked around a little.
The jury pool was not so forgiving when it came to the Criminal Division's conspiracy indictments, which received a flood of detailed daily media coverage. The same federal grand jury that returned eight civil rights indictments also indicted eight leaders of the protests for various interstate conspiracies. Coached by flamboyant counsel, the Chicago Eight soon became seven when the only black defendant, Bobby Seale, was severed after Judge Hoffman (dubbed Julius the Just) unsuccessfully tried binding and gagging him to maintain order. After the seven were all found guilty, the judge not only sentenced them harshly, but sent a message to defense counsel everywhere, by levying serious fines and jail terms on defense counsel for contempt of court.
The appeals drug on throughout much of the Nixon administration and ultimately were overturned, primarily because of Judge Hoffman's excesses in dealing with defense counsels' excesses. By then, the war was over, the country had become enmeshed in Watergate, tempers had cooled and there seemed to be no stomach for retrying the cases.
The bottom line was that the judicial system was simply unable to cope with the undemocratic morass that was convention week in Chicago. Millions of dollars and light-years of prosecutive, defense and judicial energy had been wasted tring to enforce the letter of federal law. The jurors nullified the civil rights prosecutions and the appellate courts nullified the overzealous conspiracy prosecutions. There is not even much of a moral to the tale, unless it is that the interacting forces of an imperfect world occasionally produce a stalemate that immobilizes the legal process. Almost everyone knows the less formal rendering of this concept: "sometimes, there ain't no justice."
Neither the violence nor the absence of justice ended with the fracas at the Hilton on Wednesday. Dissident diehards wanted to capitalize on the condemnation of official Chicago that was sweeping the country. The next day they announced that a march would be held that night right to the stockyards where the convention was nominating Hubert Humphrey. In direct defiance of police orders, the march would proceed south on Michigan Avenue and turn west at 35th Street to the Amphitheatre. It was a win/win strategy: if the protesters could reach their objective, they would at last command the attention of the delegates and the nation. If, more likely, the police interceded, they could expect more embarrassing "proof" of Chicago tyrants crushing free speech.
The authorities were adamant that the "demonstrators" would never reach the convention. The national guard was deployed, brandishing the latest in tear gas dispensers and their "Daley- dozers"-- jeeps with barbed wire mounted on the front for use in crowd control. But after the publicity bath the city had taken at the Hilton the night before, authorities were cautious and trying their best to reassure the public that force would be used only as a last resort.
Dick Gregory, Chicago's own comedian and civil rights activist, was in the front rank of an estimated 3,000 marchers that headed south on Michigan Avenue Thursday evening. When stopped at 18th Street by police and guardsmen in battle dress, Gregory casually explained to the commanding officer that this was not a march, it was a barbeque. In a simple exercise of First Amendment rights, Gregory explained, he had invited a few friends, including some convention delegates and visitors, to a cookout at his south side residence--due south on Michigan Avenue, a little past the 35th street turn off to the Convention. With knitted brows, some of the most powerful men in official Chicago--National Guard generals, ranking police leaders and high ranking members of the Mayor's staff--solemnly consulted their lawyers--the corporation counsel, the United States Attorney and others--in the middle of a Michigan Avenue intersection where they discussed for a quarter of an hour all the legal implications and ramifications. If Gregory was serious (was he ever?) how could they lawfully forbid him access to his own home? They finally concluded that the extraordinary number of cookout "guests" meant that Gregory was putting them on.
Gregory pretended outrage that the city questioned his word and steered the discussion to the number of people that could be accommodated in the back yard of his modest home. He was asked about the yard's dimensions, the facilities for cooking and the number of bathrooms. The officials offerred to allow 25, maybe even 50 to pass through police lines for the barbeque, but Gregory and company insisted that the yard's capacity was not limited by its size, that people would come and go, etc. etc. Just as Jesus fed multitudes, they passionately argued that everyone present would be welcomed. The street theater ended when Gregory and a few others finally agreed to undergo arrest after a sort of ceremonial violation --pushing past a literal line in the street which marked the southernmost point they could proceed. They were arrested and transported from the scene in paddy wagons.
Soon thereafter, it unfolded as everyone knew it would at the begining. Angry demonstrators pushed against restraining police lines; bullhorns repeatedly broadcast warnings to clear the streets; the troops advanced; the tear gas blew; and, the Daley-dozers rumbled north. There was neither a march nor a publicity bonanza, just a few bruises and a lot of red eyes from the noxious gas. While the media reported allegations of abuse by police and guard and various attacks on police by protesters, there were few pictures and little confirmation. Unlike the well lighted "stage" in front of the Hilton, whatever happened in the streets and alleys on Thursday night happened in the dark outside the view of the cameras and the law.
My favorite vignette of the week, is an example of how quick thinking might save your life or at least keep you whole in a volatile situation. The morning after the police action at the Hilton, while the replays were still running over and over on the tube, outraged protesters began to fill the streets with spontaneous "marches", some to specific destinations, others just free-form roaming. The dissidents were in a militant mood. They were extremely angry, partly with a convention and a world that would not listen to their wisdom, but most intensly with the Chicago police whose blunt force had ruined their party. I monitored one group of hotheads waving a VietCong flag. They were very rowdy and boisterous --running into the downtown streets, pounding on cars, shouting about what they wanted to do to the police, as expressed in the popular yell, "Off the Pigs." Their antics soon made hash of the morning rush hour traffic in the Loop. Cars and buses were at a standstill as they screamed "Honk for peace" and other less printable slogans.
Suddenly, I saw him. In the middle of the next block, directly in the path of the agitators, an off-duty but uniformed Chicago police officer sat alone in a private car pinioned in the bumper to bumper traffic. >From the look on his face when he saw them coming, he knew he was in it deep. No other police were in sight and there was absolutely no way to predict what this angry bunch would do when they realized they had trapped an isolated Chicago cop in their midst. At first he kind of hunkered down in the seat hoping to be overlooked, but almost immediately, a loud, profane oath from one of the rampagers signaled he had been identified.
For a split second the cop paused and you could almost see the wheels spinning inside his head. A nervous but purposeful smile flickered as he watched the screaming crowd head towards his position. When he leapt from the car and turned to face the advancing crowd alone, I had no idea what to expect. But I was stunned; the menacing jeers suddenly transformed into cheers of approval. There, standing tall in the traffic jam, grinning from ear to ear, the quickest witted cop in all Chicago stood with raised hands beaming the universal peace sign to one and all.
The danger had been diffused and the marchers proceeded on up the road to torment more motorists and pedestrians leaving that solitary figure in the blue uniform cheering for peace in the middle of the street. As they were leaving, one wag among the marchers tossed out a newly minted cheer, not a serious program proposal, but a spontaneous expression of solidarity for the peace movement's latest recruit: "More pay for cops," they chanted cheerfully, "More pay for cops."
I have recently read that as the Democrats reassemble in Chicago 28 years after this scene, some of the police and their friends are sporting T-shirts with the message: "Chicago Police: We kicked your father's ass in 1968... Wait 'til you see what we do to you." I hold this to be a helpful sign, a slight measure of civilized progress, that political exchanges in Chicago are now conducted by T-shirt grafitti instead of swinging billy clubs and throwing rocks and insults. It seems to me there may be an opportunity for detente here. Perhaps we could encourage some of the senior hippies to produce and bring to Chicago a responsive T-shirt, a sort of "homecoming" shirt, that pictures my favorite cop, arms forever uplifted for peace, with the simple legend: Chicago '68: More pay for cops."
But, you probably had to be there.
© Copyright 1996 James P. Turner All rights reserved.
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