A Visit to Chicago: Blood, Sweat, & Tears
September 5, 1968
CHICAGO — At half past midnight last Tuesday, the occupants of Lincoln Park were stormed by the Chicago police. It was not the first day, nor was it to be the last, that the Old City — the Lincoln Park area — had come under attack. During the previous two nights the Mayor’s ordinance to clear the park by 11 p.m. had been vigorously enforced with nightsticks and tear gas.
Around midnight on Tuesday, some 400 clergy, concerned local citizens, and other respectable gentry joined the Yippies, members of Students for a Democratic Society, and the National Mobilization Committee to fight for the privilege of remaining in the park. Sporting armbands decorated with a black cross and chanting pacifist hymns, the men of God exhorted their radical congregation to lay down their bricks and join in a non-violent vigil.
Having foreseen that they could only wage a symbolic war with “little caesar Daley,” several enterprising clergymen brought with them an enormous wooden cross, which they erected in the midst of the demonstrators under a street lamp. Three of them assumed heroic poses around the cross, more reminiscent of the Marines raising the flag over Iwo Jima than any Christ-like tableau they may have had in mind.
During the half-hour interlude between the arrival of the clergy and the police attack, a fascinating debate over the relative merits of strict non-violence versus armed self-defense raged between the clergy and the militants. While the clergy was reminded that their members were “over 30, the opiate of the people, and totally irrelevant,” the younger generation was warned that “by calling the police ‘pigs’ and fighting with them you become as bad as they are.” Although the conflict was never resolved, everyone more or less decided to do his own thing. By then the demonstrators, some 800 strong, began to feel the phalanx of police which encircled the park moving in, even the most militant forgot his quibbles with “the liberal-religious sell-out” and began to huddle together around the cross.
When the police announced that the demonstrators had five minutes to move out before the park was cleared, everyone went into his individual kind of panic. One boy sitting near me unwrapped a cheese sandwich and began to stuff it into his face without bothering to chew. A girl standing at the periphery of the circle who had been alone all evening walked up to a helmeted boy with a mustache and ground herself into him. People all over the park were shyly introducing themselves to each other as if they didn’t want to die alone: “My name is Mike Stevenson from Detroit; what got you into this?” I heard someone asking behind me. Others became increasingly involved in the details of survival: rubbing Vaseline on their face to keep the Mace from burning their skin, buttoning their jackets, wetting their handkerchief and tying it over their nose and mouth. “If it’s gas, remember, breathe through your mouth, don’t run, don’t pant, and for Christsake don’t rub your eyes,” someone thoughtfully announced over the speaker. A boy in the center of the circle got up, stepped over his seated friends, and made his way toward the woods. “Don’t leave now,” several voices called in a panic. The boy explained in embarrassed tone that he was just going to take a leak.
Sitting in a cluster near the main circle, Allen Ginsberg, Jean Genet, William Burroughs, and Terry Southern were taking in the scene. Ginsberg was in his element. As during all moments of tension during the week, he was chanting OM in a hoarse whisper, occasionally punctuating the ritual with a tinkle from his finger cymbals. Burroughs, wearing a felt hat, stared vacantly at the cross, his thin lips twitching in a half smile. Genet, small, stocky, bald-headed, with the mug of a saintly convict, rubbed his nose on the sleeve of his leather jacket. I asked him if he was afraid. “No. I know what this is,” he replied. But doesn’t knowing make you more afraid, I asked. He shook his head and started to speak when the sky fell on us.
It happened all in an instant. The night which had been filled with darkness and whispers exploded in a fiery scream. Huge tear gas canisters came crashing through the branches, snapping them and bursting in the center of the gathering. From where I lay, groveling in the grass, I could see ministers retreating with the cross, carrying it like a fallen comrade. Another volley shook me to my feet. Gas was everywhere. People were running, screaming, tearing, through the trees. Something hit the tree next to me, I was on the ground again, someone was pulling me to my feet, two boys were lifting a big branch off a girl who lay squirming hysterically. I couldn’t see. Someone grabbed onto me and asked me to lead them out of the park. We walked along, hands outstretched, bumping into people and trees, tears streaming from our eyes and mucus smeared across our face. I flashed First World War doughboys caught in no man’s land during a mustard gas attack. I couldn’t breathe. I felt sure I was going to die. I heard others choking around me. And then everything cleared.
Standing on the sidewalk at the edge of the park I looked back at a dozen little fires which lit up the woods, still fogged with gas. The police were advancing in a picket line, swatting at the stragglers and crumpled figures; huge trucks, usually used for cleaning the streets, swept toward us spraying more gas. Kids began ripping up the pavement and hurling snowball-size chunks at the truck windows. Then they flooded out into the streets, blocking traffic, fighting with plainclothesmen who awaited our exodus from the park, and bombarding hapless patrol cars which sped through the crowds.
The ragged army split up into a series of mobs which roamed through the streets breaking windows, setting trash cans on fire, and demolishing at least a dozen patrol cars which happened to cruise down the wrong street at the wrong time. Smoke billowed from a house several blocks from me and the fire engines began arriving. A policeman ran from an angry brick-throwing mob, lost his cap, hesitated, and ran away without it. At the intersection of Clark and Division, four cop cars arrived simultaneously and policemen leapt out shooting in the air. From all four sides the demonstrators let them have it; most of the missiles were overthrown and hit their comrades or store windows on the other side of the street. Diving down into the subway, I found a large group of refugees who had escaped the same way. The tunnel looked like a busy bomb shelter; upstairs the shooting continued.
Everyone knew that Wednesday was going to be the big one. Rumors circulated among the police that a cop had been killed in Tuesday’s “white-riot.” The demonstrators had their own beef: not only had they been gassed and beaten, not only had one of their leaders, Tom Hayden, been arrested twice on tramped-up charges of inciting to riot, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and letting the air out of the tires of a police vehicle, but the police had also broken into their community centers up near Lincoln Park.
Finally, the demonstrators were also set on marching to the Amphitheatre where what they called the Convention of Death was going through the motions of nominating Hubert. Crossing the bridge from the park in front of the Hilton to the bandshell in the middle of Grant Park, demonstrators filed into their seats listening to the prophetic words of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing.” The police had already surrounded the park, the National Guard held all the bridges leading across the railroad tracks to Chicago’s downtown Loop area, and helicopters filled the skies like hungry mosquitoes.
The Mayor had been good enough to circulate the announcement telling the demonstrators that they were welcome to stay at the bandshell all day and enjoy themselves, but that no march on the convention would be tolerated. His instructions, however, were apparently too subtle for his henchmen who saw the demonstrators as the enemy and couldn’t wrestle the idea of a truce into their image. Accordingly, when a demonstrator replaced the American flag with revolutionary red, the police became incensed at the unpatriotic slur and moved in to restore decency and the American way of life. (Jerry Rubin, accused of “soliciting to mob action” and out of jail on $25,000, says that one of the demonstrators who claims to have taken part in the lowering of the American flag was his personal bodyguard, assigned to him by the Mobilization. The same young man later turned out to be an under cover agent who had been keeping Rubin under surveillance.)
In the police charge which was ostensibly aimed at lowering the red banner, the police went considerably out of their way to crack the skull of Rennie Davis, spokesman and leader of the Mobe, along with four or five others who had been sitting on their benches in the open air auditorium listening to anti-war speeches by Vietnam veterans and the ever present Phil Ochs. Medics scrambled over broken benches (later used as ammunition against the police) in a display of greater enthusiasm than efficiency. Within minutes the program continued as if nothing extraordinary had occurred.
“The merchants of death are trying to make themselves present in the delivery room of our movement,” Carl Oglesby, once chairman of SDS, screamed over the microphones as the police withdrew to the periphery of the crowd. Hayden, furious at the indifference with which people learned that Davis was “stretched out,” exhorted the People’s Army to break up into small groups and invade the streets of the Loop, “to do what they have to do.” Some of the hard heads followed him, but the vast majority of the demonstrators stayed with Ginsberg who was organizing a non-violent march to the Amphitheatre.
While Genet, Burroughs, and Southern chose to stay with the marchers, Norman Mailer provided brief comic relief when he made his excuses, saying that he would not march because he was writing a long piece about the convention and demonstration, and that he couldn’t write it from jail. “But you’ll all know what I’m full of if I don’t show up on the next one,” Mailer said with his characteristic hurumph for emphasis after the last word in the key sentence. Mailer ended by comparing the Chicago demonstrators favorably with those he had written about at the Pentagon march last October.
Once outside the bandshell and onto the sidewalk of a highway which runs through the park, the marchers were immediately halted by a line of Guardsmen who blocked the route. Seeing a confrontation emerging, hundreds of newsmen rushed to the front of the line to be in on the action. Instead they formed a protective barrier between the troops and the demonstrators, a pattern which was to be repeated frequently during the next two days. After hours of frustrating negotiations which led nowhere, the demonstrators moved in a block toward one of the bridges which lead back to the Hilton. It too was barricaded with troops as were the next four bridges, where tear gas was used to keep the demonstrators from trying to break through.
Most of us got across the fifth bridge and joined the mule-drawn covered wagons of the Poor People’s Campaign which were headed for the Hilton. Michigan Avenue, for the first time in anyone’s memory, clearly belonged to the people. There was a sense of victory and momentum as the mob of some 8,000 to 10,000 people converged on the Hilton. Everyone was still sneezing and spitting from the gas, but they felt high at having out-foxed the police who had clearly meant to isolate them in the park or split them up before they got to the Hilton.
A police line across Michigan Avenue on the doorstep of the hotel finally halted the march and people began to mill around, undecided on the best strategy.
Finally the police solved the problem by taking the initiative. To put it neatly, they decided to clear the street. In the process of allowing for the circulation of vehicular traffic they sent some 300 demonstrators to the hospital with split skulls and broken banes. When the charge came there was a stampede toward the sidelines. People piled into each other, humped over each other’s bodies like coupling dogs. To fall down in the crush was just as terrifying as facing the police. Suddenly I realized my feet weren’t touching the ground as the crowd pushed up onto the sidewalk. I was grabbing at the army jacket of the boy in front of me; the girl behind had a strangle-hold on my neck and was screaming incoherently in my ear.
Across the street, the other half of the crowd was being squashed against the walls of the Hilton. The pressure was so great that a plate glass window shattered. Terrified demonstrators were pulled through the window by a Life correspondent and a sympathetic waitress who gave them instructions as to where they could hide. Within minutes police piled into the hotel to protect the clientele by beating the protesters senseless in the plush conidors of the Hilton.
Outside, demonstrators were being peeled off the wall one at a time, sprayed with mace, beaten, and occasionally arrested. More forays by the police into the park across from the hotel sent people headlong into trees. During one of these maneuvers I watched a medic throw himself over the bloody head of a demonstrator — like a GI clutching a live grenade to his gut. When I saw him emerge from the fracas, the medic’s head was in a worse state than the patient’s.
By 10 p.m. the National Guard had pinned one group in the park in front of the Hilton and pushed the other two groups north and south down Michigan Avenue. A paddy wagon was caught in one of the mobs and demonstrators started rocking it back and forth in an attempt to overturn it. A busload of police got to them before they succeeded.
Down the side streets groups of 50 to 100 demonstrators broke off from the main action to disrupt the town. They moved quickly, leaving a trail of overturned garbage and shattered glass in their wake. Chased by police, they would split up and reform with other groups. One contingent, calling itself the Flower Cong, was particularly well organized and effective. I was following them up State Street when I caught sight of a blonde girl, a member of the Resistance, whom I’d talked to earlier in the day. I caught up with her just as the street filled up with cops. We turned to run in opposite directions and I lost sight of her until it was all over. Having seen that the police had blocked both ends of the street, I took refuge in a drugstore with several others. When I came out she was trying to sit up in the street, blood soaking through her hair, running down her chin and neck, and collecting in her collar. A car stopped and offered to take her to the hospital, so I carried her over and laid her out in the back seat. The car owner wanted to put newspaper under her head so she wouldn’t stain the seats.
My hotel was nearby so I decided to go up and get rid of my shirt which was covered with her blood. At the main entrance I was stopped by a security guard who wouldn’t let me in. I showed him my key but he still refused. After two similar rebuttals I was finally allowed to sneak in the back entrance and up the service elevator. “We don’t want you walking around the lobby like that,” one of the hotel policemen advised me. Up in my room I turned on the tube just as Daley was being asked by an interviewer if there was any evidence of brutality. Outside my window I could hear screams. I opened the shades and leaned out as the police pinned a bunch of demonstrators against the wall of the hotel. From the window above me someone heaved a roll of toilet paper and screamed “Pigs.” When the street cleared, four bodies were lying in the gutter. Daley’s voice droned on about how he had received no indication of police brutality.
Later that evening the McCarthy delegates, having lost the football game, as one Flower Cong put it, joined the demonstrators in a dramatic candle-light procession. It was irrational but I hated them. I hated them for having come to the blood fest late. I hated them as I hated every necktie in the Hilton. I hated them not because they had tried to win the football game, but because their very presence among the real demonstrators coopted and made respectable the blood and snot that speckled the streets of Chicago. The earlier crowd, the scruffy-hippie-commie-beatnick-agitators, were the ones who had exposed the military backbone of the liberal system. It took blood to prove to the prime time viewers that Civil Rights, the right to dissent, the right to assemble, the right to pass freely in the streets, the right to be tried before being clubbed, were all okay as long as you didn’t actually try to use them.
The delegates were received with mixed feelings. Outwardly almost everyone welcomed them, even those who earlier had shouted “McCarthy is not enough.” They represented a kind of vindication of the demonstration. In addition they lent respectability and a certain amount of protection to protestors who had been kicked around for five long days. But in spite of this there was a feeling among most of those who had been initiated by violence that the support of the delegates would only be tolerated as long as the movement in the streets remained the property of those who had grown and suffered with it.
Wednesday was the bloody catharsis, Thursday was farce. There is a certain credible nature about a policeman’s nightstick which inspires a kind of defiant respect. But a tank is hard to take seriously. I know a lot of people who cracked up when they saw the tank sitting in the middle of the street pawing at the pavement like a lost rhinoceros who has wandered out of the jungle into the city by mistake. Mortars, flame throwers, machine guns, and bazookas, who are they kidding?
Standing in line, waiting to be arrested in Thursday’s march to Dick Gregory’s house, I happened to end up next to a very stoned young couple groping at each other and taunting the troops with their sexual freedom. “Fuck don’t fight,” the young man pleaded with the troops as he fondled his woman. A black army medic finally responded with a smile, “Is it true that all you people run around without any clothes on up in Lincoln Park?” Then the jokes were over and they turned on the gas. Four times in all until they had pushed us back to the Hilton. Then another three times in front of the Hilton just in case the TV crews had missed any thing.
The absurdity of the police and military over-reaction to the demonstrators had been driven home to me earlier in the day when I was stopped by five policemen under the tramway on Wabash Avenue. One of them grabbed me and looked at my press credentials, making some wise-assed remark about the hippie underground press from New York. His buddies laughed and I thought I was going to be let go. ”Let’s see your underarms, kid,” my interrogator said. Earlier in the week I had heard some Yips complaining about a similar request, but I never had figured out why anyone wanted to check their pits. Taking my jacket off I held my hands over my head thinking that maybe this was the new slang for “reach for the sky.” But that wasn’t it. They wanted me to take off my shirt, and when I refused they ripped it under both arms and by God they checked my armpits. Satisfied, I guess, that I wasn’t carrying either concealed weapons or drugs, they chased me away with a warning. After that nothing sounded too absurd.
Walking past a group of Guardsmen who were resting up for their next stint of duty, Abbie Hoffman, a Yip leader, was being razzed about his appearance. Finally, without a blink, Hoffman walked up to one of them and said, “Hey listen, I’ll lay a nickel bag that you guys could whip the cops any day of the week.” A pensive look came across the trooper’s face.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 1, 2020