Mar 112012

This is a chapter from my memoir, called Remember Me, written about the relationship I had with my best friend. 

There’s a Riot Going On

Returning from London in June 1968, I discovered Chicago was the place to be, the polar star of protesters and politicians, delegates and demonstrators, journalists and novelists – all intent on placing their mark on or chronicling the spectacle-to-be.  Chicago was the host city for the Democratic Party Convention, and the International Amphitheater, on the city’s southwest side, appropriately adjacent to the stockyards, was where the party was slated (since Lyndon Johnson was not running for re-election) to nominate LBJ’s vice president and war stalwart Hubert H. Humphrey for president.

“Dump the Hump!” opposition had been mounting for months.  It came in two strains: the mainstream left wing of the Party, which felt Humphrey was too closely tied to the troubled war effort to win; and the more radical fringe elements, intent on mounting a parallel party outside the Party the purpose of which was to raise hell and disrupt the proceedings in order to sway sentiment against and bring pressure to bear on the war effort.  Their secondary objectives were to make history, if possible, and have a good time, not necessarily in that order.

Chief orchestrator of the fringe elements was Abbie Hoffman, the master provocateur and guiding genius behind the Youth International Party (Yippies), who had the year before staged a melee at the New York Stock Exchange by dropping dollar bills from the exchange balcony.  The daily press was avidly reporting news of incipient violence and massive civil disobedience, like the rumored dumping of LSD into Lake Michigan that Jay and I had found so amusing.  Like the thrum of electric current through overhead wires, the city was rippling with tension and excitement.

Hoffman and his more serious, more politically minded colleague Jerry Rubin announced that tens of thousand of hippies and Yippies would flood the city to protest the war.  Where would they stay?  Simple:  they’d camp out in Lincoln Park.  Mayor Daley insisted the park’s evening curfew would be strictly enforced.

Of course, Jay and I took a close interest in these proceedings.  Lincoln Park was at our front door, so we’d have a front row seat for whatever commotions were sure to result.  Like a crocus that gamely pops its head through the snow to herald the arrival of spring, a few weeks before the convention a new sign went up across the street from 2400 that read “PARK CLOSES AT 11 P.M.”  This was too tempting for us to ignore.  Peering about late one night to make sure there were no police around, I got up on his shoulders and pried the sign loose from the pole.  It was an early souvenir of the coming battle.

I had started driving a taxi in July, but within a few weeks the cab union went out on strike for a bigger portion of the fares.  Then the public transit workers struck. The city seemed to be shutting down in preparation for the great event.

With nothing to do during the day, I volunteered to drive a limo for the Democratic National Committee (DNC). A card was issued from the Chicago Host Committee, which read: “This is to certify that Lester Jacobson  is an authorized driver.” The ID picture shows a swarthy, dark-haired, full-bearded unsmiling young man in a dark suit and narrow tie.  (It’s easy to see why I was often mistaken for someone of eastern descent.  Hindus would pass me in the street and nod a familiar greeting.)

Once I was duly certified to drive for the DNC, I received my assignment.  I was to chauffeur Averill Harriman.  This was an amazing piece of luck.  Harriman was a legend: special envoy of FDR, Ambassador to the Soviet Union and later the Court of St. James, Secretary of Commerce under Truman and governor of New York from 1954 to 1958.  A presidential aspirant in 1952, he served in JFK’s cabinet and was Johnson’s ambassador at large.

But along with many other prominent Democratic poobahs, Harriman sensed trouble brewing and declined to attend the convention.  This was a blow.  Squiring the Grand Panjandrum would have been memorable, and possibly fruitful.  Who knows, do a good job, get a job in Washington.  Nevertheless I consoled myself that in his absence I had more time to take in the spectacle.

There was so much to absorb.  Thousands of people were pouring into the city and in the week before the convention.  Clusters of them were gathering in the streets and parks, singing folk songs and mounting street-theater demonstrations.  The famed poet Allen Ginsberg was leading sunrise Buddhist prayer sessions along the lakefront, chanting om and chiming his Tibetan bells.  The Yippies held a “counter convention” at the Civic Center downtown and nominated a pig for president.  TV cameras captured the event as police arrested seven Yippies and the pig, named Pigasus.

A steady stream of celebrities arrived.  Norman Mailer and Hunter Thomson were in town to cover the convention and gather material for later books.  Terry Southern and William Burroughs gave fiery speeches at protest meetings.  Phil Ochs, Mary Travers, Peter Yarrow, the MC-5 and other musicians performed at park concerts.  When he had free time from his job at Second City comedy club, the actor Peter Boyle participated in demonstrations, later calling on his experience to star in two movies about the convention.

I even had my own celebrity moment.  One afternoon, a few days before the convention started, I was walking north on Michigan Avenue when I spotted, approaching me, an exotic figure familiar from his picture in my 20th century drama textbook.  Heavyset and bald, wearing black leather pants and a floral-patterned shirt, it was  – holy shit! – the legendary Jean Genet.  The French novelist-poet-playwright was conversing with a well-dressed couple who appeared to be accompanying him.  I walked up and said, in the only French I knew, “Monsier Genet, oui, oui?” “Alors, oui, oui,” he replied. The male companion, apparently his host and translator, greeted me amicably.  Monsieur Genet was in town, he said, to cover the convention for Esquire magazine.

Really?  I had an inspired thought.  What if, I proposed, I were to squire Genet around town in the limousine formally assigned to Governor Harriman?  Surely, Genet and Esquire readers would appreciate the delicious irony in secretly diverting the vehicle (a Chrysler Ambassador, no less) reserved for the American statesman to put at the disposal of the homosexual rebel and famous anti-American journalist?  Alas, his spokesman  replied, but he already had transportation, merci.  They were impressed, however.  Apparently I was the first person in town to recognize Monsieur Genet.

Every day brought fresh reports of impending violence and mayhem.  Both sides expected it and were gearing up for it.  Six thousand police and National Guard troops practiced riot control drills.  The National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam, which the previous October had drawn 100,000 protesters to the Pentagon, held training sessions in Lincoln Park to demonstrate snake dancing and other crowd protection techniques.

The first skirmishes took place a week before the convention at a “Festival of Life” concert in Lincoln Park.  Police refused to allow a portable stage brought into the park and when protesters began yelling at the cops, the concert broke up in fighting and arrests.  More ominously, a few days before the convention a teenager from South Dakota was shot dead by police on Wells Street, near Lincoln Park.  Police said he had pulled a gun.  No one knew if he was in town for the convention, but the next day demonstrators held a memorial service for him.

Though cab drivers were on strike, I still had my other job, taking classified ads at the Chicago Sun-Times, and was at work Sunday (August 25), the night before the convention opened.  In Lincoln Park crowds gathered all afternoon and into the evening, in anticipation of a clash over the 11 p.m. curfew.  Among the thousands were Jay and his South Shore High School buddy David Raffeld.

David was working that summer as a lifeguard at the 2400 Lakeview pool.  That evening, after his shift had ended, they decided to venture out to the park to see what was going on.  They walked south past the zoo, where a group of protesters had pulled park benches into a large circle and taken refuge inside, as if daring the police to attack their barricade.  Amid loud cheers someone tied a Viet Cong flag to a pole.  For the police, who were “200 thick,” observed David, that was sufficient provocation.  The cops waded in wielding heavy wooden clubs and spraying tear gas.  “We ran for our lives, it was pandemonium,” David said later.

They escaped from the melee and headed south on Lincoln Park West, a street at the western edge of the park, careful to avoid the club-wielding cops.  However at Clark and LaSalle, they stumbled on more people being set upon – protesters and bystanders, along with any photographers or reporters recording the scene, all being clubbed indiscriminately.  They took refuge at a gas station on the corner, and watched in horror as cops billyclubbed a young black kid so severely he was lifted into the air, his feet never touching the ground, like some kind of paddle toy.

Huddling nearby, surrounded by a protective cordon of friends, was the poet Allen Ginsberg.

When the cops moved off Jay and David stole away, heading north on State Street.  When they got to the Playboy Mansion, a number of guests out front complained about the tear gas, which evidently was disrupting their revels.

“We escaped by a hair’s breadth,” David said.  Afterward they went back to Jay’s house, and told Annette what they had seen.  She was appalled.

Some hours later, early Monday morning, a thousand protesters marched on police headquarters at 11th and State.  Police cordoned the area and forced the marchers away, so they took refuge a mile east, in Grant Park across from the Conrad Hilton, the Party’s convention headquarters.  The group congregated around the hill topped by the statue of the Civil War general John Logan, mounted on horseback.  Police swept the area and forced protesters to disperse.  Nonetheless, from this point on the small hillside around the statue directly across from the hotel became the protesters’ rallying point, giving delegates and journalists who were staying at the hotel an amazing view of proceedings over the next few nights.

The convention formally opened Monday and tension ratcheted up still higher.  Responding to criticism, Mayor Daley said angrily: “The police aren’t here to create disorder. They’re here to preserve disorder,” and he was right.  By this time it was obvious the police had been ordered to use whatever force was necessary to clear the park, block peaceful marches and quash demonstrations.  David Raffeld and some other observers felt cops were targeting blacks in particular, a show of force against an increasingly fractious anti-Daley minority.

Monday night protesters again defied the curfew and built barricades in Lincoln Park.  Shortly after the curfew police cars broke through the barricade.  They were greeted by a hail of rocks, and, according to the mayor, bags of human excrement.  Police cleared the area with tear gas, followed by fighting in the park and neighboring streets.

Chicago resembled a war zone.  Even newspaper and TV reporters were starting to decry the police violence.  Parallel to the protests outside the Amphitheater, anti- and pro-war delegates were scuffling inside the hall too.  Walter Cronkite watched security personnel rough up CBS reporter Dan Rather, and commented on air to the nation, “I think we’ve got a bunch of thugs here, Dan.”

On Tuesday night Black Panther leader Bobby Seale spoke at a Lincoln Park rally and exhorted the crowd to defend themselves if attacked “by any means necessary.”  Protesters chanted “Dump the Hump!  Dump the Hump!” for TV cameras.  Later several hundred church leaders, toting a giant cross, joined protesters rallying against the curfew.  Once again police used tear gas and clubs to subdue protesters and clear the area.  Many headed three miles south to join protesters at the General Logan statue in Grant Park, where a large group was congregating.

Wednesday was the climax.  Thousands of people attended an evening rally in Grant Park.  Midway through the speeches news swept through the crowd that Democrats at the convention had rejected a peace plank calling for all troops to be withdrawn from Vietnam.  Someone tried to lower an American flag.  Police moved in to arrest him and new fighting erupted.  The crowd dispersed and attempted to march to the Amphitheater, three miles away, but was turned back.  Police were ordered to clear the streets and again they moved in, swinging clubs and spraying tear gas and Mace on the crowd.  Even Party officials and journalists at the hotel were roughed up.  The protesters shouted, “The whole world is watching, the whole world is watching.”

The chant was picked up on the news along with footage of police clubbing and dragging demonstrators to squad cars.  When I got home from work I joined my parents who were watching the whole thing on TV, along with the rest of the country.  It was incredible to us that this melee, which resembled newsreel footage of storm troopers and brown shirts in Nazi Germany, was taking place just a few miles away.

Next night at the convention, Senator Abraham Ribicoff interrupted his nominating speech for George McGovern to denounce the mayor’s “Gestapo tactics.”  While Daley bristled with rage on the floor of the Amphitheater, just a few feet below the rostrum, and shook his fist at Ribicoff, the senator looked down at him and retorted, “The truth hurts, Mayor Daley.  The truth hurts…”

But I didn’t see the newscast.  I had decided I needed to be on the street, with the demonstrators, to show my solidarity and witness history close up.

So after finishing my shift at work Thursday I wandered the few blocks south to Grant Park and joined a somewhat restive crowd of young people across the street from the Hilton, milling around the statue of General Logan.  In the midst of the crowd were Hoffman and Rubin, conferring with various youth and city officials and giving orders.  I walked up to Hoffman, a short, swarthy fellow with a swirl of long hair, and asked him what was going on. “I don’t know man,” he said gravely. “They promised we could march to the Amphitheater but now the pigs are reneging.  Fuck the pigs, man, we’re gonna march anyway.”  Not exactly heartening.

Just then, I heard a voice from some distance away.  “Hey, Les!”  It was one of the National Guard troopers, decked out in a uniform with a helmeted visor pulled up to reveal a smiling face.  “It’s Al…Al Rothbart,” he said, approaching.  “You know, from downstate.”  Even though I had only been at school in Champaign for 18 months, I had made some good friends.  Al had been a year ahead of me, and he told me he had graduated, was working full time and like everyone he knew, avoiding active military duty by serving in a National Guard unit.  I told him about dropping out of school and spending a year in Europe.

“Can you believe the shit that’s going down this week?” I asked him.

“Unbelievable,” he agreed.

We chatted for another minute.  Then, just as suddenly as he appeared, as if he had just gotten a signal from outer space, he said abruptly, “Gotta go.  See ya,” flipped down his visor and headed off.

Abbie Hoffman took to the crest of the hill to make an announcement.  “Listen up, people.  The police have agreed to let us march to the Amphitheater!”  The crowd shouted its approval.  Hoffman said the route would be a simple L, like a chess knight’s move: south on Michigan Avenue a mile to Roosevelt Road, west another mile to Halsted Street, and south on Halsted to the Amphitheater.  There we’d be permitted to rally peacefully against the war.

But instead of leaving, there was more milling around.  At intervals Hoffman would announce further negotiations.  Finally, around 10:30 p.m. we shoved off.  Someone next to me pointed out this was ominous timing, coming right after the evening news broadcast.  If there was going to be violence, this would be the time.  Nevertheless spirits were buoyant as we slowly started to head south along Michigan Ave.  It was a fine night and the crowd seemed to be in a festive mood.  I was more elated than scared: at last we were under way.

A few blocks south, however, at 9th Street, forward motion accordioned to a halt.  A few hundred feet ahead, arrayed like alien monsters in a sci-fi flick, were armored National Guard Jeeps seven or eight across and equipped with heavy metal frames strung tight with barbed wire.  Slowly the Jeeps began to move in on us.  Turning around, I saw half a dozen similarly equipped Jeeps close in from the north.  It was a trap, a classic pincer movement.  Someone shouted “Tear gas!” and people stampeded in panic.  I took off down an alley, escaping safely west to the next block.  From there I walked back downtown, toward Grant Park.  Others were streaming back too, but no one seemed hurt. After that, most people began to drift off, and so did I.

If I have any predominant memory of the evening, it was just this: God, what fun!

  3 Responses to “1968 Democratic Convention: There’s a Riot Going On”

  1. Did the fact that Sly and the Family Stone not showing up at the concert at Grant Park the reason for the riots?

    • Despite my use of Sly’s song title, there was no connection. The Family Stone concert was scheduled for July 1970, two years after the Democratic convention.

  2. Interesting. I’m watching CNN The Sixties right now

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